Railpolitik, by Paul Salveson (book review)

If I was the next Minister of Transport, Paul Salveson would be one of the first people I would have in to Whitehall for a tea and a chat. And I guess he might respond by inviting me instead to have that same tea in the cafe on Bolton station, followed probably by a trip on a creaking Pacer train to Blackburn along the single-track speed-restricted route. And he’d probably ask me to bring a carriage of transport civil servants up from London to boot.

The sub-title of this book is ‘bringing railways back to the community’, and from Community Rail Partnerships through to devolved regional development, this book sets out a well thought through path for future improvements. It is not a naive ‘bring back British Rail’ manifesto, he knows too much from the inside to think they were the golden days. Rather, the vision is of a balance of many existing and new local partnership branches attached to a national, inter-city trunk.

The book itself is a tour-de-force. It starts with a political history of rail in Britain, much needed because so many romantic but deluded myths still fill the air, and the airwaves. The Victorians made a right hash of it, basically. Then British Rail carried on, dysfunctional at its core with engineering unable to speak a civil word to operations and vice versa. All run from London on some grand plan. Then privatisation, another hash up.

And now, regrettably so often any political debate on the railways in Britain becomes boiled down to just one item— HS2.

Paul rightly points out that HS2 is designed to feed into the city centres such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, and he worries that the benefits will not flow fully into the surrounding valleys, suburbs and regions. For me, this is a reminder that if HS2 is delivered without a properly functioning total rail network then it would be papering over the cracks. To be fair, HS2 supporters are becoming clearer in speaking about the wider network benefits of increased capacity. But I agree that the integration with regional and local branches still needs a more thoughtful approach, and more practical working out.

For example, if a high-speed train could not run on through Manchester to Blackburn, what else is possible? And don’t just say ‘combined tickets’. That is nowhere near good enough. We seem to have lost the ability to think about networks, and all we have left is marketing.

More people would be won over to the HS2 cause if there was a firmer commitment to securing it within a functional rail system which served the passenger first. Bread and butter as well as jam. And it is this bread and butter that Paul Salveson knows well and he articulates a thoughtful path for its rescue and development. In any other industry you would say, this is a roadmap out of the mess we are in.

Railpolitik, Paul Salveson (2013) 249pp Lawrence & Wishart, London
ISBN 9781907103810

Full disclosure: I worked with Paul in the 1980s at Greater Manchester Council for Voluntary Service and assisted slightly on the production side of his rail book then.
British Rail: the radical alternative to privatisation, Paul Salveson (1989) 158pp
CLES, Manchester
ISBN 1870053184

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