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Wembley? Forget financial drain, let cable take the strain

Last week two more ambitious plans for new heavy infrastructure ran into the same sand trap as the Dome and the London Underground. First came the new Wembley Stadium, whose estimated cost has soared to a prohibitive £660 million. The Football Association, which only four months ago agreed to bail out the project after the banks had refused to finance it, and was only too pleased to sign a three-year £400 million television contract based on the assumption that it would go ahead, suddenly went grey-faced and appealed to Downing Street for the money.

Downing Street said no.

But within days came a second blockbuster from the Strategic Rail Authority, whose chairman told the Commons Transport Select Committee that neither the £29 billion of public money already committed to getting the railways back to pre-Hatfield levels of service, nor the additional £34 billion supposed to come from the private sector, nor even the £63 billion of John Prescott's 'rail renaissance' would be enough to do the job.

This time Downing Street was struck dumb.

The result - as with the Dome and the Underground - will be that Wembley and the rail network will struggle on trying to raise ruinous sums of money to prop up old long-wave 19th century technologies instead of checking out the cheap, short-wave 21st century substitutes that can practically be bought over the counter at Dixons.

What no one ever seems to understand is that Big Tops capable of holding 100,000 people, underground railways dating from before German Unification (not reunification), gigantic Americanstyle 'cash register' sports stadiums, and a surface rail network that was bankrupt when it was first nationalised more than 50 years ago, are long past their sell-by date. Like penniless relatives whose needs are never satisfied, it does no good to lecture these relics of 19th century technology on the virtues of thrift and then say, enough, no more money. They always need more, and more and more as they get older. Where a few thousand pounds could build a railway in the 1830s, millions have to be frittered away in public inquiries, political, legal and technical preparations and massive compensation before the task can even commence today.To talk about updating, expanding or improving a transport system whose track width was decided on the basis of the average of 50 horse-drawn carts 200 years ago is sheer fantasy. The economic sense of this ancient system has long since vanished.

Only nostalgia keeps such ancient infrastructure in operation. All of it should be run down to heritage level and operated for tourists during the summer months, because it is congenitally incapable of delivering business at the speed of thought.

As Wembley would have it, sports arenas are the most recent examples of the giantkilling power of 21st century short-wave technology. The US has just come through a 10-year binge of building giant arenas without parallel in this country.

They are wrapped in retail outlets, awash with corporate suites, club and premium seating, restaurants, health and fitness centres, hotel rooms and elaborate TV production studios. But, despite their grandeur, their time has come to an end because their huge cost and their loss of so much unreserved seating has pushed ticket prices for professional football, baseball and hockey games so high that attendances are falling. What Wembley is trying so hard to get enough money to become is exactly what is already in intensive care in the US. There they know that if an arena is tailor-made for TV there is no reason why punters should fight for a seat in it.

Increasingly the real professional sports arena is the short-wave technology of cable TV.

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