TV Review: Ben Elton's great railway disaster

Ben Elton pleads for investment in the railways
Ben Elton pleads for investment in the railways

Ben Elton: The Great Railway Disaster, Channel 4, Monday and All 4

Ben Elton isn’t a man famed for understatement, so it’s no surprise that he has declared railway privatisation a disaster. And it seems everyone agrees.

Trains in Britain are slow, late, prone to cancellation and extremely expensive.

This is entirely opposite to what John Major’s Tory government promised when it introduced British rail travellers to the ways of the market in 1992.

Except it isn’t a properly functioning market. The barriers to entry are impossibly high (you can’t just build your own network) and only a franchise to run the rolling stock is available.

We’ve a different system in Ireland with the trains run by government-owned companies, Iarnród Éireann in the south and Translink in the north.

Neither are perfect, nor particularly cheap, but the service is for the most part reliable.

Railways have probably disappeared in Ireland to a greater extent than Britain, with a very limited service in the north and a much smaller network in the Republic than 100 years ago.

The time to destination has also fallen, in many cases to slower than decades ago.

Dublin's Connolly Station, 130 minutes by train from Belfast
Dublin's Connolly Station, 130 minutes by train from Belfast

We’re in a world of rapidly changing technology and the advent of an artificial intelligence revolution, yet it takes 130 minutes for a train to travel between Belfast and Dublin.  

Let’s not insult anyone here, but they are the only two decent-sized cities on the island and it’s hardly an engineering feat to connect the two eastern-board conurbations by railway line.

Yet, by my calculation we’re getting an average speed of just over 50mph while the nearby M1 motorway in the Republic has a speed limit of 75mph.

Back in England, Elton’s polemic relied too heavily on a survey, with passengers' opinions on the service and data about delays and cancellations presented as on a giant station train timetable.

For the Great Railway Disaster he travelled across and around the north of England, pointing out the closed lines, the unconnected stations, the missed opportunities and heard the stories of cancellations and high fares.

Elton, who co-wrote the brilliant Blackadder, clearly loves and romanticises railways. 

It fits with his view of the world. Communities together on the train versus the capitalist individualism of cars.

He yearns after the Victoria years of progress, construction, engineering achievements, striking viaducts and church-like stations.

One can only hope that none of these great projects were built with the proceeds of empire, colonialism and the slave trade.


Former RTE director general Dee Forbes was unable to attend due to ill health (Niall Carson/PA)
Former RTE director general Dee Forbes was unable to attend due to ill health (Niall Carson/PA)

Oireachtas committee hearing on RTÉ, Oireachtas TV,  Wednesday

The last time there was such a rush to watch a live parliamentary session was probably during the high jinks of Brexit at Westminster.

This isn’t quite at the same scale, but the Oireachtas TV link was freezing under the weight of demand on Wednesday afternoon.

We didn’t have the histrionics of John Bercow but it was good fun nonetheless.

Highlights for the TV and streaming audience may have been the embarrassment of the RTÉ team at their incredible assertion that none of them were aware of the extra payment to Ryan Tubridy and only the now departed and currently ill former Director General was in the loop.

Viewers may also have enjoyed the meeting of worlds as the urbane RTÉ leadership board crossed swords with Independent Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath.

The RTÉ panel was left perplexed at a number of Mr McGrath’s questions, including his inquiry as to whether individuals were “lial” to RTÉ. The national broadcaster’s interim Deputy Director General, Adrian Lynch, eventually figured out that it was “loyalty” he was asking after.

God only knows what drama Bercow would have made out of that.