The Big Bang

A review of new books by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Kagan on the state of America

Welcome back to the age of the train

Published in the Evening Standard

We all know the problem. Even if you're lucky enough not to have travelled through Heathrow recently, you'll have read the tales of woe in the pages of the Standard and elsewhere. If it isn't queues at check-in that take an age, it's the long, shuffling march through security. If it isn't bags that go missing, it's the Soviet-style inefficiency and sheer human congestion of an airport used by 67m people a year - 50% above capacity. Adding insult to injury are those gleaming "retail opportunities" airside: visual confirmation that the priorities of BAA lie not in the essential task of running an airport, but in the lucrative business of persuading passengers to part with their cash, if only to alleviate their misery.

You'll know too that this is more than just a royal pain for those who have to endure it, ensuring that every holiday gets off not to a flying start but a grim one. It is also bad for the British economy and for London. Kitty Ussher, the minister responsible for the City, fears the "Heathrow hassle" is deterring international firms; Ken Livingstone says the airport "shames" the capital.

There's no shortage of possible solutions, starting with the obvious: break BAA's virtual monopoly on air travel in the UK, starting with its triple grip on Heathrow, Stanstead and Gatwick. The whole point of privatisation was meant to be competition, yet BAA represents the worst of both worlds: a state-like monopoly coupled with corporate greed.

There are more radical options, too. Some suggest splitting Heathrow in two, with Terminal 5 coming under new, non-BAA management. Or what about shutting the entire place down and building a new mega-hub in the Thames Estuary?

Such plans will take years and cost billions. What are we supposed to do in the meantime? Tomorrow I will deliver my own, personal answer to that question as I take the family off on our summer holiday. Chastened by the washout months and in need of a reliable dose of sun, we're breaking our recent habit of holidaying in Britain. We're going to the south of France - but we're going by train.

For the first time in years, I'm looking forward not only to arriving at our destination, but to the journey itself. No wading into the heaving mass at Heathrow, suffering an ordeal that slices several days off your break just to get over it. Better still, no actual flight. I'm sure most parents of young children will share my aversion to air travel: the constant getting up and down, the screaming, the attempt to keep wriggling toddler bodies confined in a narrow space, the evil stares of other passengers wanting some peace and quiet.

I confess it's not only the kids; I loathed flying even before children came along. The notion of being in a metal tube 30,000 feet in the air, entirely powerless should disaster strike - the palms grow clammy at the mere thought. But you don't have to share my barely-repressed fear of flying to love the train. Instead of flying over endless stretches of blank cloud, you are travelling through a country, seeing its ever-changing landscape. Who needs the dull sedative of the head-rest TV screen when you have the wide vista of a train window, revealing the countryside of France or Italy roll by?

You only have to see the instinctive reaction of my kids. Of course getting on a plane is a thrill, but their excitement about the journey we'll make tomorrow has been building for weeks. We could have got the high-speed Eurostar to Avignon and made it in little over six hours. Instead we'll be on the ferry to Calais and then the overnight sleeper heading south, thereby satisfying two little boys' delight at the very notion of a bed on a moving train.

To cap it all, this is foreign travel without a guilty conscience. Eurostar estimates that a train journey with them emits a tenth of the carbon generated by a flight to Paris.

Of course the drawback, and it is real, is cost. Adult tickets on the fast train to Avignon go for less than a hundred pounds, but that's still more than you'd expect to pay with one of the budget airlines. Now, for many it's worth paying the extra just to avoid the hell of Heathrow. But others will need a push.

Which is why I'd like to see our government giving rail travel some serious economic help. It's nothing our European partners don't already do: France's superfast TGV is only possible, and affordable, thanks to massive state subsidy. But we now know, thanks to the Stern report, that the environmental cost of aviation will eventually translate into an economic cost - so whatever money we spend shifting people from the skies to the railways will be worth it.

Right now, we effectively do the opposite, thanks to the 1944 Chicago Convention which prohibits the levying of fuel tax on international flights. It means we're giving the airlines a huge economic advantage, one that in the era of climate change is surely indefensible.

If we act, the potential is enormous. When the new Eurostar terminal opens in St Pancras on November 14, we will get a glimpse of what's possible. Why shouldn't the train become the standard way we travel to Europe? From November, it will take little over two hours to reach Paris and French engineers have successfully tested locomotives that go at nearly twice that speed. So why not connect Eurostar with an entire high-speed European network, so that Rome or Madrid come within easy reach of London, with no need to go anywhere near an airport?

Of course we could start closer to home, improving our railways to the point where the domestic flight becomes a thing of the past: if you could get to Manchester in 85 minutes, why would you ever fly? There are some who already dream of superfast maglev - magnetic levitation - trains running through airless tunnels, even under the ocean. The lack of air resistance would make speeds of 5000mph possible: London to New York would take less than an hour.

It may be a dream, but our grandparents felt that way about the channel tunnel. Either way, we do not have to resign ourselves to our fate as we slouch glumly towards Heathrow. There is an alternative. To recall a slogan of my youth: this is the age of the train.

There’s a good idea somewhere in HIPs

We should not write off the Home Information Packs - they might help first-time buyers and the environment

Published in the Evening Standard

It?s been like watching a train wreck - in very slow motion. The government?s plan to change the way we buy and sell houses ? by obliging sellers to pay for a detailed Home Information Pack (HIP) before they put their property on the market ? has crashed and burned before our very eyes. On Tuesday, cabinet minister Ruth Kelly finally had to face a jeering House of Commons to announced that HIPs would not be legally required on June 1 after all, but would kick in on August 1 instead.

That was not the only retreat. Now only four-bedroom houses will need a HIP: smaller properties will be included at some unspecified time in the future. And all this on top of last year?s climbdown, when the government dropped its requirement that the new packs include a ?home condition report,? so eliminating the need for buyers to commission a survey.

Even if you don?t go along with the Tories? chant that this is a fiasco, demonstrating the government?s ?arrogance and incompetence,? you?ve got to admit it looks a mess. The usual rule when governments try to make a big change like this is to get all the relevant players ? the ?stakeholders,? in ministerese - on side. HIPs have indeed got almost all the relevant stakeholders in the housing market ? estate agents, surveyors and lawyers ? on the same side. The trouble is, they?re all against the government.

Some of their objections do bite hard, especially in London where the ever-surging housing market looks out of control at the best of times. Estate agents are warning of a rush of sales to avoid the August 1 deadline, so warping an already warped market. What?s more, they predict a new form of linguistic deception. To add to phrases like ?opportunity for development? (meaning ?it?s a dump?) or ?part of a lively community?(meaning ?noisy?), make way for ?three bedrooms and a study? ? meaning, ?it?s a four-bedroom house but we didn?t want to do a HIP.?

Others have warned that HIPs could incur extra costs, especially in London where one estate agent initially predicted charges of