This was no sentimental celebration of a bygone Victorian age of steam. Last night saw a remarkable gathering of the top brass of the rail industry that signals a transport renaissance.
More than 600 people sat down for dinner here in the Great Hall, at an event which did so much more than simply hark back to the glory days of the Victorian railway pioneers, the first to demonstrate the power of transport infrastructure to drive industry, exports and galvanise the national economy.
The dinner marked a modern resurgence for rail, given the £15 billion investment in Crossrail; £800 million spent on restoring St Pancras, the ‘cathedral of rail’; the £30 billion proposal for HS2, the Y-shaped high speed rail link from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds; and the £130 million proposal for a Northern Hub.
In an address broadcast to the throng on huge screens, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker, referred to when the late Jimmy Savile recorded a series of memorable television adverts in the early 1980s declaring ‘this is the age of the train’. It was not true, said Baker. ‘It is now.’
He said his Government had made an £18 billion commitment to rail and remarked that this was a ‘golden age,’ a period of historic opportunity for the railway industry.
As if to underline the connection between Britain’s glorious history of steam and the railway of tomorrow, the Director of the National Railway Museum, Steve Davies, presented his vision of a new £250,000 gallery to ‘showcase, discuss, debate and inform’ the modern industry.
The proposed gallery will ‘provide a rolling opportunity for the industry to promote what it is doing and its exciting plans for the future,’ said Davies, who said today’s rail is faster, more efficient and cleaner than ever. ‘The modern industry has a story to tell.’
Aside from projects such as Crossrail and HS2, the gallery will examine a wide range of issues: how railways are cutting emissions, the future of commuting and the European Rail Traffic Management System.
The black tie event, which was supported by Network Rail, Siemens and Eversholt Rail Group, in partnership with RAIL magazine, saw a remarkable mixture of local dignitaries, celebrities, industry and media, from the Lord Mayor of York and the Lady Mayoress to the pop producer Pete Waterman, Lord Grade – Science Museum Group Trustee – and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.
In front of key representatives of a vast multitude of rail, engineering and operating companies – from Arriva and Abellio to Northern, Systra and the Tyseley Locomotive Works – the after dinner speaker, Sir David Higgins, Chief Executive of Network Rail, declared: ‘We really are in a golden age, and should make the most of it.’