Trains of Thought

invite to opening of railway

Well, this is how it used to be.

The above is a – admittedly fuzzy – photo of an invitation to the opening of the first electric railway in England, addressed to the Prince of Wales which I snapped at a recent trip to the excellent Transport Museum in London. So much is demonstrated in this little invitation, from the late 20th Century.

We used to celebrate public transport and its advances, and impacts. Something such as this was not merely a publicity exercise for the press to report on the following day. It was a moment for genuine, national pride. A moment to reflect on the glories of modern technology with a view to making the world better for as many people as possible (albeit within an acknowledged class system – both in English society and on trains). But they were noble, they were brave, they were genuine leaders. And this was before the Planning profession had really been ‘invented’ and a Royal Commission into the plight of the poor was imminent in London, due the stark living conditions of its population. Amidst all of this, they still invested in public transport.

Fast forward 125 years to modern day Melbourne, Australia. The current debate over the building of the East West Link (let’s just call it a huge freeway, because that’s what it is) steadily rages with no sign of abating. It is estimated that it will cost anywhere between 4 and 15 BILLION DOLLARS to build. It’s a tunnel that few want, with most believing that the money could be better spent elsewhere, namely on public transport. Needless to say, I agree.

But where did our pride go in building infrastructure for people rather than profit? Did it really disappear with Thatcher when Neoliberalism gripped Britain and then the world? And if so, why did Australia follow suit so swiftly? Were we really that self conscious that we just had to do anything that came from the UK? Did miners strikes, economic downturns and  a subsequent recession really seem that appealing to us, Down Under dwellers?

I can’t help but wonder about those men (and let’s face it, they were) who instigated the building of England’s first electric railway. They were brave men, proud men, nation building in every sense of the expression. What would they say if they knew that same railway service had been sliced, diced and left for dead by the Government that funded it and handed what was left of its near mortal remains to a private company?

We need that pride again. We need that vision. We need that collective idea of the world we want. We need to cut our ties of ways that have not proven to be a success. Build a road and see it filled in an average of 3 months. Build public transport infrastructure and you have, well, over a century of contented commuters. Is this train of thought really so hard?

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