Crumbling Britannia?

Bob and Audrey Dale are waiting outside the National Railway Museum in York, England. They've just spent the day learning about how train travel has evolved since the days when George Stephenson's Rocket locomotive set a record speed of 29 miles per hour in 1829-and they've learned a lot about waiting too. "You wouldn't think there had been any progress since the days of steam," says Bob Dale after a day of train and taxi delays that almost doubled the time of their journey from Newcastle. "It takes as long now to get somewhere as it did in the Victorian era. Except now you have to pay a hundred times the money for the joy."

Both national pride and politics are at stake here. Britain was once known as the vanguard of the railways, a nation that shaped the future of the steam locomotive, latticed its colonies with railroads and held the world steam speed record with the Mallard's 126 mph some 63 years ago.

Today, after three fatal crashes on Britain's tracks in less than two years, some don't even consider it safe to travel on the country's rail network anymore. John Ellis, a Leicester engineer, says he'd rather take a bus and sit in clogged traffic than board a train. "When I'm going on holiday or visiting friends, I'll always use a coach company," he says. "If it's really far, I'll even pay to fly there. I won't take the train if I don't have to. It doesn't feel safe anymore."

For Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour government, sentiments like these are helping to shape the political debate as the country prepares for its upcoming election on June 7. Polls put Labour comfortably ahead of its Conservative rivals, and the decline of British services like its transport network and once-vaunted national health system aren't expected to oust Labour from office. Nonetheless, public dissatisfaction with the national infrastructure could shape the agenda for the government's next term of office.

So far, Labour's efforts to improve public transport have met with little success. "The government tells us all to use more public transport," says Audrey Dale. "But the service is very poor. Our train was nearly an hour late into York, and that's become normal."

Blair's party has been criticized repeatedly over the botched privatization of the rail networks-a program it inherited from the previous Conservative government, but which it is accused of continuing to mismanage.

More recently, the Treasury has been attacked for refusing to compromise on the planned partial privatization of the London Underground. The government is now facing off with Bob Kiley, the American recently appointed to turn around London Transport in the same way he revitalized the New York City subway system. Kiley has a tough task. His vision of a reliable, safe and efficient public utility, balanced with satisfying the interests of the private companies, seems virtually impossible to most Britons. Even a track attendant at London's Angel tube station says he never takes the Underground. "I get free passes as a work perk, but you'd never get me on the Tube," he confides. "I drive to work every day."

In an effort to regain commuter confidence, Labour last year unveiled an ambitious 10-year transport plan to address years of underinvestment with a $250 billion package of public- and private-sector cash. The government is promising to increase spending on transport by 20 percent for the next three years; give $84 billion for the rail network to boost passenger levels by 50 percent, and modernize the entire national bus fleet by 2006.

The party is also trying to turn these problems into a political advantage, arguing that it needs another term in office to prove its policies have created better performance and greater accountability.

Nor is the transport system the only public service needing repair work. Britain's medical system-once considered at the cutting edge of free health care programs-is ailing too.

Take the case of Jane Tilda, a disabled mother of four who lives on the outskirts of Leeds. Tilda had to wait 18 months for her most recent surgery-and is grateful that the wait was half as long as she'd been told to expect. "The waiting list has been shortened in our area," she says.

Tilda thanks the Labour government for her cut in wait time, but even Blair admits that an 18-month wait is a poor showing next to comparable Western European countries. "What marks our public services [as different] from the best in Europe is not just that for too long average quality has been low," he recently told an audience in Gravesham, Kent. "We have also had a far larger proportion of completely substandard provision [of care]."

Labour has promised to use a second term to increase health spending by an average of 6 percent each year for three years. They promise to provide 10,000 more doctors and 20,000 extra nurses. What's not clear is where these medical professionals will be found.

This week, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) announced that the number of overseas nurses registered to work in the UK will exceed the number of British nurses. In London, a third of all nurses are already recruited from abroad. The huge rise in overseas recruitment has been condemned by the RCN as "stripping" developing countries of vital staff. South Africa's former president, Nelson Mandela, expressed a similar view two years ago when he appealed to British authorities to stop poaching his country's medical staff.

One reason for the shortage: young graduates are not drawn to a career known for its inadequate pay and tough work hours. Eifion Jones, a 20-year-old student nurse at Swansea University relaxing at the Taibach Rugby Club in south Wales one Saturday, says he spends 371/2 hours a week working on a student placement that brings him little more than $2 an hour. "It's a struggle," he says. "If I wasn't living at home with my parents, I wouldn't be able to do it."

Jones believes the government needs to make nursing more attractive to get new recruits-and to keep qualified staff in place. According to RCN figures, a fourth of nurses between 18 and 44 plan to leave the profession within a decade. "The National Health Service is creaking," says Marion Sneddon, on a shopping trip in central Glasgow. "I'd rather be sick in my own bed than go to hospital. Across the country, people die before they're seen to. We need more nurses, more doctors and more beds."

Both the politicians and the public recognize there are no easy-or cheap-fixes for problems like these. Voters have not responded to long-standing Conservative promises of tax cuts, and Blair has warned that his Labour government cannot invest in public services if it lowers tax rates. Britain's third-largest political party, the Liberal Democrats, has gone a step further: it is campaigning on a platform that would raise taxes as the only "honest" way to improve Britain's infrastructure. The majority of voters won't buy that one either-but their reaction to the idea of paying more for their services may yet serve as a barometer for the country's political leaders in the years ahead.