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Celebrating St Pancras Day

14 November 2007

12:11 PM

14 November 2007

12:11 PM

I like to think I was the first (indeed I may have been the only) journalist to have been invited to climb the scaffolding under the clock at St Pancras station. That was back at the beginning of May, when the refurbishment of what is, from today, London’s Eurostar terminus still had a little over six months to go. The whole place was a mighty confusion of construction activity, large-scale and small, high-tech and low: I remember watching a man pouring what looked like hot tar for the floor surface of the main entrance out of the corner of a battered old wheelbarrow. ‘Some things on building sites never change,’ said the project manager, Clive Livermore, who had just explained to me the electronic personal ID systems he was using to stop sub-contractors and work gangs signing in and claiming pay for fictitious extra workers called Mickey Mouse or Tony Blair. But Clive and his team were sublimely confident that they would finish on time and on budget, and they did just that.

Perhaps we should simply expect that kind of delivery to happen with every major piece of new infrastructure – as the Swiss and the Japanese do – rather than highlighting it for special celebration. But what’s most important about St Pancras is not its efficiency as a project or even its magnificence as a piece of monumental Victorian engineering given 21st century purpose.

Its real significance is that it allows the British to visualise for the first time (the French would say they have been doing so for years) a future of fast, civilized transportation that is less bad for the planet than the road or air alternatives. In a week when petrol pump prices stand at well over a pound a litre in most parts of the country, every driver must be wishing there was a comfortable train or bus available to get him to his destination without the possibility of hours in maddening traffic jams. As the end-of-year holiday season looms, every Heathrow and Gatwick air passenger heading for Europe must be beginning to wish they had looked into the Eurostar connections instead.
Will we ever get fast rail connections to the north and west of England and to Scotland, and an array of fast, sleek, reliable services into all the commuter termini of the metropolis? Not in this decade or the next perhaps – and not without many false starts and hesitations in the manner of Crossrail – but the sight of those Eurostar trains sliding gracefully into St Pancras has greatly increased the chances that we will one day have a second great railway age in Britain – with the same great building as its monumental centerpiece.

I have written in the magazine this week about the spike in the oil market which has driven petrol pump prices to such irritating highs, and – having considered a wide range of suspects – I have placed most of the blame on hedge funds and other financial players who have been placing huge ‘oil up’ bets in every oil-related instrument and fund available. But as the somewhat ineffectual leadership of Opec prepares for its meeting this weekend, it’s worth contemplating how it can be that oil at almost $100 a barrel does not actually seem to be driving the industrialized west into instant recession. Economists have long tracked the correlations between oil price movements and growth rates and the pattern was particularly plain to see in the mid 1970s and early 1980s – oil up, economy down, every time.

It was Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University who most eloquently predicted the risks of another oil spike. Back when the barrel price was $20 to $25 dollars, a scenario which included a lengthy period of $60 to $80 oil, followed by a speculative surge to $100, would have seemed absolutely terrifying. Yet the world isn’t too terrified today: we merely talk of a slipping back in anticipated growth rates.

The fact is that since the oil crises of the 70s and 80s the industrialized west has become significantly de-industrialised, and the factories we have left have become much more efficient in their use of fuel, as has the internal combustion engine. The one consolation of a period of excessively high fuel prices – which will persist if something big kicks off in the vicinity of Iran, but will otherwise ease as soon as the speculative herd moves to another pasture – is that it concentrates the minds of investors, scientists and engineers on the alternatives. Alternative energy sources, cleaner and more efficient fuels, energy-saving habits and practices and, yes, faster, better, cleaner trains all have a higher chance of moving forward during a phase when conventional fuel is painfully expensive. If that can all still happen without the expensive fuel driving us into recession, then St Pancras Day is doubly a day for optimism.

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