Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man | 19 June 2010

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

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I am, it’s true, optimistic about the role of technology in making life more pleasant and interesting, but in some areas I am sceptical, even fogeyish. Ask me to design a perfect world and it will have electronics (and medicine) from the present day but engineering and architecture from the 1930s. My answer to any volcanic ash cloud would be to reintroduce a transatlantic Zeppelin service. As for Heathrow’s third runway, let Short Brothers’ Empire flying boats land on the Thames.

It is all too easy to fantasise about a golden age of travel while forgetting that it was golden only for the few who could afford it. But something has been lost. I recently met someone from a Hollywood studio who observed that the film industry now describes itself as being in the transportation business — a travel agent for the mind. It made me wonder whether the travel industry would be better if it learned a lesson from showbusiness — that journeys are to be enjoyed not endured.

I suspect Hollywood could find better uses for the £15 billion which the government still plans to spend on a high-speed rail service north from London. Their assumption, that the best way to improve a train journey is to make it faster, shows the parties involved have completely failed to grasp why people like to travel by train — the fact that it isn’t all that fast.

A train journey gives you something quite rare in the modern world: the chance to sit uninterrupted among friends, or to read, write, watch a film or simply look out of the window. It is this unruffled, unpunctuated time which makes a three-hour train ride more pleasant than a one-hour flight. Anyone who believes faster travel times benefit people in business clearly hasn’t worked in business. All that happens with a high-speed rail line is that your clients in Newcastle now start the meeting two hours earlier, so you still have to get up at 6 a.m.

The bizarre cultural obsession with speed and efficiency at any price should be one of the casualties of the recession, and I have no idea why the incoming government, with its love of psychological solutions and ‘nudging’, has not sought to question it, especially since the environmental case for high-speed rail is so feeble in a country as small as this. Instead of a £15 billion high-speed rail network, why not spend perhaps £1 billion creating a high-quality rail network? How would you do this?

Well, take any train journey and make a list of all the things that are really irritating. The uncertainty of parking, the fact that you need to haul your luggage down two flights of stairs and then find a 20p and a 10p to go to the lavatory; the infantilising ticket barriers; the ridiculous removal of tables from trains, the overcrowding… If £1 billion were spent solving these more banal problems, people would realise that the least annoying thing about a train journey is its duration.

Or, if you want a really civilised way to travel long distances by train, resurrect the Nightstar. This was supposed to be the sleeper version of the Eurostar, serving destinations such as Frankfurt or Madrid. Cancelled owing to lack of funds, the rolling-stock was later sold to Via Rail in Canada, where the lavatories all froze.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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