Getting There Is Not Half The Fun
This weekend I hosted a birthday dinner for 26 in Barcelona, which required a fair amount of logistical manoeuvring as there were people coming in from, and going to, cities all over Europe and further afield.
The ones from Madrid and other parts of the EU had no problem at all; they used the AVE A train, fast, spotless, super-efficient. Most people choose it over flying because of its reliability. Others arrived via excellent low-cost airlines like Vuelling. The UK has a plethora of these economy airlines, which are good if used out of school holidays. Easyjet’s track record for timekeeping has nosedived of late but until recently it was excellent, and I hope it improves.
Unfortunately, then you have to get into London.
Still mired in an interminable row over airport expansions and a strike-ridden third-world Southern rail system, UK travel to and from its major city has hit some kind of grisly nadir, the result of decades of over-investment in roads and under-investment in public transport. This morning friends in and out of London had horror stories to tell of overcrowded platforms, filthy trains, appalling delays and general chaos.
Gatwick airport may have upgraded its retail sites but the link to its hopeless train system is via a single narrow corridor half taken up by a Cornish pasty junk-food shop. As I watch everyone climbing over bags to queue for tickets I remember that Cairo airport runs more smoothly. And this weekend, when travel peaked, there were no trains into London at all.
British airports aren’t ideal but at least immigration control is swift and smooth. However, the first sight that greets overseas visitors is the filthy, litter-strewn junkyard of the rail connection. It’s humiliating to read the texts pouring in from people fighting to board the run-down train replacement service that can’t even link international travellers with London.
How do you fix it? The most obvious start is to smart-card the train service and resite the ticket hall. For those delayed (note to Gatwick users – avoid evening flights or anything routed near French air space) there needs to be a respite space where people can at least base themselves, preferably one not filled with WH Smith outlets and knicker shops.
When I was a kid British Rail was the punchline to endless embarrassing jokes about how bad things could get. It was a catchphrase for useless officialdom. Mercifully it doesn’t look likely that Jeremy Corbyn will ever see power and re-nationalise UK travel. Anyone old enough to remember how awful those days were clearly wouldn’t vote for him.
Air travel has radically changed in my lifetime. Once you used to check in at Kensington and go to Heathrow by coach. Before that, a mad plan was suggested for a rooftop airport over the city. Now there needs to be a radical rethink on how the travel systems connect.
Heathwick is an informal name for a proposal to create a high-speed rail link between London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports, in effect to combine them into a single airport, but no-one can realistically imagine it happening. Until then we have to settle for losing business and suffering the horrors of our railways.