Getting There Is Not Half The Fun

Great Britain

BR Chaos

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.


5 comments on “Getting There Is Not Half The Fun”

  1. Brooke says:

    The AVE is wonderful! Love it.
    Under-investment in public systems has been the name of the game in the US as well as the UK. We have no passenger rail system except on the densely populated Boston to Virginia corridor, and that is going downhill rapidly except in rich states like New Jersey, New York and Connecticut who keep regional rail going.
    Interestingly, economic analysis have shown over and over that investments in transportation systems and infrastructure have a very high return and boost employment dramatically. But the federal deficit hawks in this country forestall any efforts to rebuild/ restructure. Good luck with your high speed link.

  2. Vivienne says:

    Travelling from Gatwick regularly, I wonder how that airport can even think of expanding when the access is so bad. My last two trips on the Gatwick Express were mind numbingly slow as the driver told us we were following a suburban train. How can they run a system like that? And then when you arrive, you very often have to go miles on a travellator and then a toy train to the North or South terminal. By then, orientation is not my strong point. Then further walks to a gate at the far end. Until they can cope with current traffic the idea of another runway is surely ludicrous.

  3. Steve says:

    Just to put the other side of the case, there’s very often an inverse relationship between the success of a country’s economy and its investment in flashy transport systems.
    As for Heathrow and Gatwick, Heathrow Express is owned by Heathrow Airport which is owned by a bunch of foreign carpetbaggers let’s not forget. Which is why the prices are such an utter rip off. The basic infrastructure is there to service Gatwick. It needs a bit of money and inclusion into the oyster system.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    It has been a pleasure to deal with transit since we got the equivalent of the oyster card. People move quickly and your only problem then is whether you’ll have to stand for the whole trip across the Fraser. We’ve had breakdowns lately and the whole system shuts down if someone decides to throw themselves in front of a train (announced as a “medical emergency). Half the stations are being rebuilt while still operating, bridging buses are substituting for non-operating elevators, there aren’t anything like enough buses on major routes, and they wonder why some people refuse to use public transit. I agree that investment in public transit of all forms is the way to go. N. America fell in love with the car a century ago and it has been downhill ever since. Our cities wouldn’t be so madly spread out if it hadn’t been assumed everyone would drive cars.

  5. Sally Erickson says:

    Rail travel is nearly nonexistent in the American Midwest. You can’t go anywhere without a car. I love traveling on trains in Europe. We’ll never have them here because no one wants to invest in them. We’re becoming a third world country. (Oh wait, most of them have better transportation!)

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