No matter how desperate the banana republic, the international airport is always a shimmering palace of perfume and croissants. It is only when you get out onto the dirt roads that you realise where you are.
The government seems determined to take the same approach to our own transport system: all the money gets sucked into vanity projects while transport used by the rest of us remains creaking. Yesterday transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced a sharp contraction of a programme which last year the government described as ‘the largest modernisation of the railways since Victorian times’. Election safely over, projects to be dropped from the promised £38.5 billion upgrade include electrification of the Midland mainline and of the TransPennine line from York to Manchester. So much for the Northern Powerhouse.
Yet there was a remarkable omission from the transport secretary’s list: HS2. That project, it seems, will carry on as planned – even if it swallows £50 billion of public money the Public Accounts Committee is scathing of the claimed benefits. In other words we will end up with an even more exaggerated version of the rail system we have now: where you can speed from London to Manchester in a new, 125 mph train with dining car – only to be decanted onto a smoking, juddering Pacer train, the rail version of a 1970s Leyland bus. In future your train to the North will travel at 225 mph, but you can bet the Pacer train will still be there to take you to the secondary places.
What happened to all the tram systems which were going to transform commuting in regional cities? Most were dropped. The pattern of rail investment is a product of the Westminster bubble, reflecting how ministers like to travel. If you are based in London and want to speed northwards to me be met with a chauffeur-driven car to take you to your appointment, before being brought back in time for dinner in Westminster, our post HS2 rail system will be wonderful. For everyone else it will be creaking, overcrowded trains as usual.