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FORWARD MOTION

23-02-2008

High Speed Train

Pendeli – NO! says Diane Benussi after a trip on one of Virgin’s new fleet of tilting trains. She wonders what other "advances" don’t take us any further forward.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then progress is a close relative of the desire for an improved quality of life.

There is progress a-plenty these days, in almost every quarter, but I remain to be convinced that progress necessarily equals better.

Take my regular business trips to London by train: Virgin’s West Coast main line now boasts a fleet of Pendolinos, electric tilting trains that can reach speeds of up to 125mph and safely “lean” around curves up to 20 per cent faster than traditional locomotives. According to the company’s website, this gives passengers “a gentle ride”.

I beg to differ. The tilting Pendolinos make me feel nauseous – and that’s just when I’m sitting down. I’ve given up trying to lurch my way along the corridor to the loo in case I end up sprawled in a stranger’s lap.

And talking of the loos (another supposed improvement); the smell that permeates the carriages is enough to put you off your food. Well, if there was any food to be had, that is.

On my last business class journey to London on a Pendolino, I was told they’d run out of edible refreshments. When I voiced my surprise, the steward informed me, somewhat stodgily, “Food is only complimentary, Madam” as if that was explanation enough.

The other day I travelled back to Birmingham on an old-style train. The toilets were pristine, the motion didn’t make me feel sick and the journey took no longer than on a Pendolino.

There are many examples of so-called improvements resulting from “progress” that, in practice, are nothing of the kind.

Automated answering services might save companies money, but for the general public they’re a pain in the neck – wasting people’s valuable time and turning the once simple task of speaking to a human operator into a feat of Herculean proportions.

Then there is the ubiquitous mobile phone, whose continued sophistication has transformed it into a mobile office. Progress, yes, but are we really any better off now we can be contacted 24/7 and have the capacity to work wherever we happen to be?

And what of “best practice”, a term bandied around these days to describe a company or organisation’s optimum way of working? My suspicion is that this deliberately vague strategy does little or nothing to improve the working lives and long hours expected of many employees.

I presume “best practice” could be attached to schools’ regular staff training days, tagged on to the start or end of half-terms and holidays, which might be great for teachers, but leave parents faced with the distinctly unimproved position of having to take an extra day off from work or pay for additional child care.

Recycling is progress, too, but the proliferation of ugly collection units on our streets and the surrounding detritus of broken glass and dumped newspapers does nothing to improve the landscape.

Of course, progress does bring about many benefits, but my concern is that in our eagerness to be constantly moving forward, we don’t stop to think whether the old ways of doing things were, on balance, better. I’m not suggesting we should hang on, doggedly, to the past, but let us not make the mistake of going backwards to the future.

(Diane Benussi is managing partner with Birmingham-based matrimonial law practice Benussi & Co)

Any other examples of how “progress” hasn’t taken us forward. Leave a comment on The Stirrer Forum.

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