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Richard Cottrell: A Long Day’s Journey
Railways have always held a particular fascination for Richard Cottrell, not so much as the lonely trainspotter hovering at the end of platform as an early convert to the concept that the national railway system was being demolished purely for political ends. At the ripe age of fifteen – while a cub reporter on his hometown local weekly in Somerset, his successful
career in independent television far in the future, he formed a pressure group which evolved into a serious bid to take over a Devon branch line lined up for the sharp end of Dr Beeching’s famously bloody axe.
Although that immediate ambition failed, the same group forged on to successfully purchase and operate own two of the most famous heritage railways in the UK, the Dart Valley Line and the Paignton-Kingswear Railway. But Richard did not feel that sentimental longing for the past was really the future. He remained convinced that important political imperatives were necessary to encourage a railway reconnaissance, a task which he took on board immediately on entering the European Parliament at the first direct elections in 1979. As he concedes, a free market Tory loudly advocating investments in public transport was not without inherent curiosity, but nonetheless he became a leading advocate of public transport as a member of the parliament’s influential Transport Committee.
He was an outspoken proponent of the Channel Tunnel scheme, which on one occasion got him into a furious verbal brawl with Margaret Thatcher at a reception within the very portals of Downing Street. Richard said: ‘She who must be obeyed was not obeyed on this occasion and as all present agreed, I was a rare bird who actually debated her into a corner.’
In his Bristol constituency he initiated a project for an LRT (light rail) system largely reactivating abandoned railway tracks closed by Richard Beeching and Barbara Castle, adding some new construction to revolutionise transport in a city renowned for its monstrous traffic problems. Under his chairmanship Advanced Transport for Avon (ATA) successfully piloted an initial enabling Bill through parliament, the first private company to achieve that for one hundred years.
The project failed thanks to ‘petty local jealousies on both sides of the major political divide, selfish and obstinate pride by individuals who were not really interested in the city and its needs at all, just winning elections for a small incestuous self perpetuating cartel.’ It is some consolation that much of the ground-breaking ‘ATA Private-Public Model’ was subsequently adopted with great success in Manchester, Birmingham, Croydon, Sheffield, Nottingham and Edinburgh, not excluding an increasing number of Continental and worldwide cities.
As a Euro MP he was closely involved in the European Commission’s initiatives, beginning in the late 1980’s, to expose state railway systems to external competition and investment. He considered the parallel with airline operations mistaken and ill-conceived, not least because of the imposition of track access charges which he continues to regard as a fiscally punitive obstacle to new entrants to the market
After ten years in Brussels and Strasbourg, he moved to Eastern Europe where he became involved in leading privatization schemes. These included senior management positions with US-owned railway operators prospecting rail freight markets in the region.
He is now retired and writes extensively in blogworld on current affairs. He has published three books; The Sacred Cow, a polemical attack on the EU common agricultural policy; Blood on their Hands, an investigation of the murder of a British reporter and under-cover agent in Greece during the reign of the Colonels; and his latest effort Gladio on NATO’s Secret Armies and related political violence.