So it was a good choice for a rousing speech by David Cameron - richly peppered with references to Brunel, Stephenson and other greats from Britain's engineering past – signalling government determination to repair "decades long degradation" and "build for the future with as much confidence and ambition as the Victorians once did".
Inspiring stuff. Unfortunately, it was one of those speeches so beloved of politicians whose substance fell a long way short of its vaulting rhetoric and vision. There is apparently to be yet another review on how to introduce private finance into road building, as if this is an issue which has not already been analysed to death in countless previous studies. Further airport capacity, new garden cities, a high-speed rail network – this and much, much more was promised. Yes but how and when?
The ideas suggested might have some merit in theory, but in practice they were either so vague, politically suicidal or riddled with obvious potholes as to be almost worthless.
Since Mr Cameron cites the water companies by way of a model for road privatisation, let's start with them. As widely acknowledged, water was among the more successful of the Thatcher-era privatisations. By being required to make a return on capital, water companies have driven big improvements in efficiency, the benefits of which have been shared with customers.
Yet nobody should be under any illusion as to why these companies were privatised. It was to get the costs of upgrading water delivery and sewage treatment off the public balance sheet. Rather than your taxes (before privatisation, water rates were widely regarded as a tax) rising to pay for improvements, private charges did instead.