Howard Davies - chugging along after the French

Challenged to explain why he had not consulted the people on a particularly high-handed airport planning decision, Charles de Gaulle replied calmly: 'If you need to drain a swamp, you do not consult the frogs'.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you want one simple explanation of why the French have a functioning railway system, and lots of spanking new high-speed trains, of which our newspapers have been full this week, there you have it. All those exciting TGVs travel on brand new tracks, driven in aggressive straight lines across peaceful countryside. Our own horse-drawn equivalents have to tilt their way round corners, falling over from time to time.

Is there an answer to that problem, even supposing the money were available? I suspect not. Especially not at a time when the displacement of a single questing vole can hold up a bypass for years.

So we'd may as well forget grand gestures a la francaise, and concentrate on adding a few more passing places on the congested single line from Waterloo to Exeter, and other similarly unglamorous improvements. Unfortunately, these are the investments which fall off the bottom of the list when funds are tight. They neither hit the safety button, nor do they generate photo ops for the trainspotting tendency. Cumulatively they would, however, do more for our quality of life, and the climate, than Crossrail, or the Channel tunnel link, or the Olympics ever will.

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