This article was first published in the November/December 2019 UK edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

Back in 1990 I bought my parents a tea towel while on a press trip. They lived in Northumberland then and were very cheered by the gift. The press event had been to mark the engineering breakthrough when both sections of the Channel Tunnel met in the middle and the dream of having a rail link between England and France came closer to being a reality.

It is now 30 years since that great day, but the reality and the dream have never quite tallied. The reason my parents were enthusiastic at the idea can be found on the tea towel. ‘Eurotunnel’, it said. ‘Look at it this way’. And sure enough it showed something like a London Underground map of the routes to come. ‘In 1993,’ it said, ‘you will be able to hop on a train from Birmingham to Brussels. Or catch the 8.23 from Newcastle to Nice (change at Paris).’ It was this that sparked enthusiasm in the Bruce house. Who would not fancy popping on the train to Nice from your local train station? ‘The Eurotunnel won’t simply be making history,’ it continued, ‘it will also create the single biggest unified rail network in the world’. It was, the slogan said, ‘A breakthrough for Britain’.

Across continental Europe this sort of thing is a reality. You can hop on a train in Paris mid-morning and be in Zurich just after lunch. It’s just that here in the UK we don’t do that sort of thing. Infrastructure is something we prefer to rail against, not actually do. Crossrail in London, despite some extraordinary engineering, finally foundered on politics and has yet to open and make it easy to zip through the city. In Paris they started work on their version, the RER, in 1961 and the initial line has been in efficient existence since 1977, with more routes added since. And we all try not to mention the tangled saga of Heathrow. The last time anyone built a new runway for London was before I was born, and that was not yesterday.

Global wannabe

It is an astonishing record for a country with aspirations, or dreams, of being a major player in world trade. It would have baffled our forefathers in the railway boom of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The reason London has such an array of major stations is because the dynamic business people of the North of England were determined to bring their trade and opportunities south. They built the stations and the railways. And their business followed. The huge vaults beneath St Pancras station were built to house vast numbers of barrels of beer from Burton. The North was going to ensure it had all the trade routes it needed into the south of England. To an extent, it still does. Certainly the political impetus is there.

The same types of powerful politician and business people urge change. Andy Burnham, one-time Labour minister, is now mayor of Greater Manchester. Andy Street, one-time managing director of retail giant John Lewis, is now mayor of the West Midlands and chair of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Both are influential business-based politicians with a clear understanding, like their Victorian and Edwardian predecessors, of how important the developing and linking of transport infrastructure is in enabling business and cultural growth.

Maybe the reason we have been so poor at it in recent years is something else, something Anglo-Saxon. On the continent of Europe, or in China or Japan, transport infrastructure is not a problem. It powers onward. Yet in the US, for example, infrastructure is allowed to fall into decay. Rail transport there is seen as a demeaning form of transport. Maybe there are other cultural issues at work that block or stymie progress in the UK.

Another of the souvenirs from the Eurotunnel back in 1990 was a small nugget of chalk marl, packaged in a clear plastic box. It had, it said, been excavated ‘near the breakthrough point’. And that just about sums up the last 50 years of hopes for the benefits from infrastructure projects. We are always tantalizingly close to the breakthrough point, and then politicians step back, apprehensive about the possibility, or consequences, of success.