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Night trains and how things should be

As I write this, I am flying through the night on a Nightjet night-train from the Netherlands to southern Germany. It's a delightful train ride with lots of nice little touches. Before bedtime, I sit here with a drink in my hand, watching the views go by outside. The view alternates between peaceful countryside and urban/industrial busyness. It really feels like you can see a lot from here.

I'm angry. I'm angry on behalf of my friends, family, and everyone else back home. The UK government has just upended plans for the HS2 and "Northern Powerhouse" railways. I left the UK partly because it has a stupid political setup that frustrates all attempts at (simultaneously) two important things: sensible evolution of policy, and sensible planning and provision for our future. One of the scraps of hope I held on to had been this: The HS2 rail project, imperfect as it is, was one of the few big projects that the UK had actually got its act together on, during my lifetime, or at least one of the few big projects outside London. As a northerner I need HS2 to be implemented sensibly, because I know and feel how left-behind we've been in terms of the over-centralised London government investing in us. Plus, of course, modern train systems mean there's less need to fly or drive: so even when they have some impact in being built, they're likely to be good for our climate aims as well as for providing nice things to ordinary people, making life a little better.

The UK political system means, to a first approximation, that it's pretty likely the wind will blow the opposite way every four years. This is because it's effectively trapped in a two-party system, seesawing between the two. Big projects might eventually get planned - but then they get canned, or at least bodged, a few years later. Thanks to the stupid voting system it's really unlikely this will change in the next couple of decades. In a more sensible system, such as a proportional system, people's votes actually have the effect they're meant to. Parties that were once top-dog can fade to nothing if they don't do good work.

And the UK's problems are even more stuck when you realise how heavily centralised it all is. I hadn't realised this until I left the country and saw other ways of doing it. Running the country from London, pushing all local democracy to the fringe and hoovering up the person-power (see stats from Tom Forth on this), is so blinkered it hurts. The broken voting system, mentioned above, wouldn't matter so much if our local regions (county councils) still had budgets and leverage to get stuff done.

I want the UK to be better. I want to help too. I tried to make a difference while I was there, and I hope I can do again one day. I tried, and in many ways I was stymied.

I'm now living in a European country which - while not perfect - gives me a sense of optimism, a sense that it's possible to make sensible investments and plans that will help everyone. The basic feeling is the feeling that at the top level (politics, civil society, whatever), the rules of the game are not fixed to fuck us over.

I'm flying through the pitch-dark countryside right now, in a delightful night-train that crosses three countries, and I'm still impressed that it can cross countries so effortlessly. - Funnily enough, night-trains were more common in the past before the era of the motorway. Many night train services were dismantled as the car took over. Now, though, we realise they're a good way to do things, and there are many night train services being rekindled across the continent, in an evolving mix of government planning and commercial endeavour. All democracies are messy, and all have good decades and bad decades. I feel hope here, seeing what happens when there's a foundation that allows for civil negotiation and long-term planning.

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