Hello. This lump of waffle is by Brian Micklethwait. I know my name's at the end, but you need to know now that Patrick is still the pithy, fact wielding blogger you know and love.
Anyway, last Sunday I went to the ITV Centre just past the National Theatre to be a member of the studio audience for a programme being compered by Jonathan Dimbleby. At the front were Gwyneth Dunwoody (Parliamentary Transport Grumbler) and Steve Norris (not standing for Mayor of London but might have), political light-to-middle middleweights.
Why did I go? Frankly, being a contributor to this blog was what made the difference. I knew that I would get a posting for this out of the trip, maybe an amusing one, and I knew that I would learn about transport. Plus, frankly, I would never have been able to endure the entire programme in my own kitchen, where there are so many other so much more entertaining things to attend to. But when you're stuck in a live audience for one of these things, all you can do is pay attention or else let your mind wander. I mostly paid attention.
Part one, during which they discussed roads, was very encouraging. The government's new ten year road plan (a few more roads and a prayer for a bit less congestion) was held up to general derision. This plan reminds me of a good line I heard just after Black Wednesday when the pound got ejected from the EMU in the days when John Major ruled. Someone asked a city economist what the prospects for the British economy were. Well, said the economist, now that the government doesn't have a policy, the prospects are really quite good. That's the approximate state of British transport now.
The idea of road pricing was much discussed, approved of by Norris, and not attacked by anyone, not even by any of the Greens present. Stupid Greens quite like the sound of road pricing, because it sounds so anti-car. But because road pricing will actually usher in an age of sanely priced car driving and road use, it will actually be a huge step in the right direction for these activities, and make them then far harder to oppose. So Clever Greens don't know what to say. That's always fun to watch.
In part two they switched to trains. Dunwoody and Norris were joined at the front by someone called Lyons, who sounded from his title ("Railway Forum"?) like a retreaded "privatised" version of the General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen. The dialogue between Dimbleby and Lyons went approximately thus:
Dimbleby: The trains are now total crap. Are they going to get any better?
Lyons: Splingledookydook mumbojummery, but nevertheless dijerigabblegabble on a rational basis.
Dimbleby: You haven't answered the question. Same question again. ???
Lyons: Complexification counterproductionitis situation is doollallylallyo geblooksbumblebuggery. I think that's extremely important, as is the fact that I'm wearing a very smart suit.
Dimbleby: Yes but will the trains get any better? What's going to happen to that 90 billion pounds the government has already announced, for new ones? Is any of that left over from mending the old ones?
Lyons: Good questions. And you've got to remember also that vlimbergooglecrocket splatburger with salad on the side.
Dimbleby: But Mr Lyons, with respect, that doesn't really help us to move forward.
They then wheeled on a genuine Mad Professor, a Professor Smith of Imperial College, I think Dimbleby said. His plan is to spend 20 billion quid (his figure - so multiply that by ten to get a bit nearer to the final true cost) on a new High Speed Rail Network for Britain. Public money, it was being assumed. At which point Norris astonished me again by reminding everyone that the Japanese high speed system, which was being discussed with the kind of reverence one would usually expect only of Patrick Crozier, is almost completely privatised.
It was all pretty boring, and I clockwatched throughout, but it nevertheless made me happy. Basically, Britain's ruling suitocracy wants road pricing and is winding itself up to say so, despite what the focus groups are presumably telling it. (No!!!!!!!!) And the bearded, demonstrating, emailing, concerned, scruffily impotent class, of the sort who don't feel like idiots when gathered to watch a programme like this in the studio instead of not watching it at home like normal people, want lots and lots more trains, going as fast as jet planes and bugger the cost to the taxpayer. The taxpayer is at home, hoping for the best and assuming the worst.
I'm with the suits (even though I dress like the worst sort of Green), and I suspect that the taxpayer could be in for a surprise during the next twenty years or so. A nice one, I mean.