A brief glimpse of secretive Myanmar

Were trains to blame for the travel writing boom of the 1980s? When Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar was published in 1975, it sold 1.5 million copies and launched a publishing phenomenon. At first, long-distance train journeys conjured all the romance of the golden age of travel: leather luggage, first-class compartments and the billowing steam from an antique engine. But with each new imitator, the format became increasingly stale, and now train trips suggest the cushioned charm of Michael Portillo’s never-ending BBC series. Nevertheless, as Clare Hammond shows in On the Shadow Tracks, rail journeys can still take the traveller deep inside a country. The tracks are flooded, or

Letters: the Tory party has gone mad

Right is wrong Sir: Katy Balls’s article ‘Survival Plan’ (4 May) starts from a false premise. The problem is not Rishi Sunak, but the current Conservative party’s underlying ethos. With Brexit, the lunatics took over the asylum. The ‘Get Brexit Done’ single-issue election resulted in a Conservative party, cabinet and parliamentary majority sharing populist right-wing views and convinced that the country supported them in all their beliefs. Although Brexit has clearly failed and Boris Johnson has been disposed of, many of the underlying convictions associated with the Brexit philosophy remain. The obvious demonstration of this was the disastrous election of Liz Truss as leader despite the common sense warnings of

Live the high life… in a mid rise

How radically left-wing is Labour’s proposed ‘renationalisation’ of the railways? Though militant Mick Lynch of the RMT union ‘strongly welcomed these bold steps’, the real answer is: hardly at all. The revolutionary socialist group Counterfire agonised thus: ‘While it would be extremely obtuse to say that Labour’s policy is bad, it would be naive to say it was adequate, let alone particularly socialist.’ I’m struggling to disagree with that summary. The central idea of taking train operating franchises into public hands as they expire comes as no shock: LNER, Northern, Southeastern and the dreadful TransPennine Express have already met that fate, along with Scottish and Welsh trains, and those that

Douglas Murray

Do many women want to be train drivers?

Hold your wine glass steady: the BBC has news for you. This week it splashed the news that train drivers in the UK are ‘overwhelmingly middle-aged white men’. The story was accompanied by a picture of a black woman driving a train – under the supervision of a white man, it might be noted – as though to signal that this glass ceiling too can be smashed. Personally I would expect train drivers to be overwhelmingly middle-aged, white and indeed male. Most of the UK is white and half of the UK is male. And the male half of the species tends to be more train-oriented. You don’t see many

Why your summer holidays might be doomed

The first LNER train I booked on Sunday from Durham to London was cancelled due to ‘action short of a strike’. I hadn’t heard the phrase before, but I instantly admired it. It’s so impressively confusing. With a strike, you know whose side you’re on. You can look up the salary of a train driver, for instance, discover that it’s £70,000 after only a few years of training, and become icily indifferent to their plight. But action short of a strike? What is it? ‘Action short of a strike’ turns out to be an ingenious way of screwing your boss while still getting paid Action short of a strike, ASOS,

Martin Vander Weyer

Save our railway ticket offices!

‘Always be cheerful’ – a motto to which I’ll return in the final item – speaks to my natural demeanour. But when asked whether I see grounds for optimism in the UK business scene, I’ve struggled lately to find anything positive in the near-certain advent of a Labour government, the agonisingly slow retreat of inflation and the damage of still-rising interest rates. Nevertheless, let me take a step back. In an ONS survey this month, four times as many respondents (36 per cent) thought their business performance would improve over the next 12 months compared with those who thought it would decline (9 per cent). There were also upticks in

The case for ‘premium economy’ train carriages

A few years ago I wrote here about the unexpected symbiosis between economy passengers and business travellers on commercial flights. Largely unnoticed by people in either cabin, those buying each class of air ticket are unintentionally helping out their fellow travellers at the other end of the plane. Precisely because the two classes of passenger have wildly different priorities (the people at the front are sensitive to time, productivity and comfort; the people at the back are more sensitive to price), it benefits both groups to share the same aircraft. Why? Well, put simply, leisure passengers do not much care whether a flight to Miami operates daily, weekly or even

Abolish the railways!

As the country is held hostage once again by the rail unions, it’s time for the nation to ask itself: does it need trains at all? The last time anyone dared ask this question was 60 years ago when Dr Richard Beeching boldly closed more than 2,000 stations and 5,000 miles of track. The time has come to finish the job and shut down the rest of Britain’s viciously expensive, underperforming and fundamentally inefficient rail network. The economic reasons for doing so are irrefutable, no matter how the railroad anoraks might sputter. Originally private, then nationalised, then privatised again, then morphed into an odd hybrid in which tax subsidies are higher

I’ve written the perfect book

I met a Canadian couple for lunch in Edinburgh. They were from Vancouver – he a judge, she an opera singer – and had won me at a charity auction. I do this several times a year. It’s a painless way of helping good causes. Of course it’s a very one-sided blind date: they know more about me than I do about them, at least to start with. But the conversation always flows easily and I’ve met some fascinating characters. After the lunch, a drink at Inspector Rebus’s favourite watering hole, the Oxford Bar, was part of the deal. It too has character to spare. Speaking of which, I also

The pernicious creep of Big Nanny

Waiting at a coach station recently, in the space of seven minutes I was cautioned three times by the disembodied voice of Big Nanny. No smoking or vaping was allowed. Cycling was prohibited. Pedestrians were directed to use only the designated crossings. I almost wished I’d opted to travel by rail, but then I remembered that Big Nanny rides on trains too. In a quieter era of rail travel the only announcements, apart from service cancellations, used to be the one about refraining from urination when the train was in the station, and advice not to poke your head out of the window of a moving carriage. Which some dimwits

Women-only train carriages insult us all

Sooner or later, somewhere in the UK, we’ll have trains with women-only coaches. It’s an idea which keeps rolling around, and though the train people complain — it’s unworkable, unenforceable — it makes no odds. It’s too seductive an idea for a progressive politician. Jeremy Corbyn was tempted by it back in 2015, and now the Scottish transport secretary, one Jenny Gilruth, is considering it. She often feels unsafe on trains, she says, because they’re ‘full of drunk men’, especially the train to Fife, which is her constituency. ‘I just want our railways to be safe places for women to travel.’ I’ve nothing against ladies’ coaches in principle. In my

Boris’s rail betrayal is no surprise

A promise made is merely a promise waiting to be broken. If events complicate life for all governments it is nevertheless apparent some governments are more likely to abandon their promises than others. And by now no-one should be surprised that a government led by Boris Johnson finds it easier to jettison its pledges than to honour them. It is the nature of the creature. Today it happens to be High Speed Rail, but yesterday it was something else and tomorrow it will be another thing altogether. The Prime Minister’s inconstancy is his constancy. Even so, the watering down of previous plans to – at long last – invest seriously

Who cares who runs the railways? We just want them to run on time

The long-awaited review of the railways by former British Airways executive Keith Williams chugged past the platform of public debate without creating much stir. Politicos noted that it had become ‘the Williams-Shapps Plan’, indicating an urge on the part of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, in Tony Blair’s words, to be personally associated with eye-catching initiatives — in this case, especially those that have nothing to do with the issue of whether British holidaymakers will be allowed to fly abroad this summer. But the review’s core proposal — a new public body called Great British Railways that will control tracks, timetables and fares, and contract with private operators to run trains

How the Great British Bake Off inspired Great British Railways

‘Why didn’t they call it Very British Railways?’ asked my husband. Unwittingly (as in most of his remarks), he had put his finger on something odd about the new name for the nationalised rail structure, Great British Railways. It follows the model of Great British Bake Off. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary noticed the tendency in a quotation from a magazine published in 2006: ‘The Great British queuer is a bit of a myth.’ In that construction a reference to Great Britain is ‘used punningly, as though great rather than Great British were the modifier’. In the 19th century, the same joke was deployed in the phrase Great British

Hitting the buffers: The Passenger, by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, reviewed

‘They’ll slowly undress us first and then kill us, so our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged.’ These words, spoken by Otto Silbermann in Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger, are startling. Not because they so perfectly articulate the obscene ethos of Auschwitz but because they were written several years before the fact. Composed in 1938, after its author had escaped the more murderous developments of Hitler’s regime, The Passenger is a tense, nightmarish account of one Jewish man’s attempt to survive in a country that is systematically stripping him of his right to exist. Initially blind to the dangers around him, Silbermann, a respectable businessman, suddenly

Perhaps it is time to nationalise our failing railways

We mustn’t abandon the railways to market forces, many on the left asserted when British Rail was broken up and privatised in the 1990s. They needn’t have worried. A quarter of a century on and we have yet to see a market force take to the tracks. Wasn’t the whole purpose of privatisation supposed to be to transfer financial risk from the taxpayer to private finance?  Instead, as soon as the Covid crisis struck, while other industries were offered loans, furlough payments and business rate relief but were otherwise left to fend for themselves, the rail industry was propped up as if nothing was wrong. The government simply suspended the

Meet the woman who designed Britain’s revolutionary road signs

‘Design. Humanity’s best friend,’ proclaims a row of posters outside the Design Museum. ‘It’s the alarm that woke you up… The card you tapped on the bus… And the words you’re reading right now. So embedded in our lives we almost forget it’s there.’ It is one of the ironies of good design that the better it is, the less we notice it. This is especially true when we really need it: when lost in an airport five minutes before the gate closes or battling helplessly down the wrong road. In these instances, the woman we invariably have to thank for helping us to find our bearings is currently the