To Liverpool to chair the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce, stout yeomen of the country’s small- to medium-sized businesses. I’ll let the train take the strain, I thought, and burnish my green credentials, even though I planned to travel on a Sunday, which meant the normal two-and-a-half-hour trip would take an extra hour. In fact, it was my wallet which felt the strain first: Richard Branson’s Virgin charged me £320 for the privilege of a first-class return from London, an obscene amount of money for a modest train ride. (I can fly business class to Nice and back for less!) Undaunted, I arrived at Euston in plenty of time for a 4 p.m. departure. That’s when it all went pear-shaped. The concourse was packed tight with people all staring at departure boards displaying the same word in capital letters: ‘DELAYED’ (to be strictly accurate some carried another word: ‘CANCELLED’). I made my way to what is laughingly described as Virgin’s first-class lounge, a dreary, scruffy room which was rapidly turning into the Black Hole of Calcutta as delayed passengers accumulated.
I inquired how long the delay to Liverpool would be. ‘No idea, sir’ was the polite but uninformative reply. I stood against a wall for 20 minutes (there was no place to sit — even floor space was at a premium). Nothing was moving. I could be here all night, I thought, might as well drive. So I jumped in a taxi and returned home. I’d spent £40 on taxi fares to get back to where I started. But it proved to be the right decision. I made it to Liverpool in my small but speedy BMW Mini Cooper in three and a half hours, with only the usual delays around Birmingham, checking into, while it was still daylight, the Liverpool Malmaison.
Driving turned out to be as fast as the Sunday train service — in fact, it turned out to be a lot faster for I learned later that my train, when it eventually departed, took seven hours, trundling like some magical mystery tour round Middle England to avoid repair work on the track and power cuts. Memo to self: never again try to travel by train in Britain on a Sunday. Two days later I was travelling again, this time leaving for Edinburgh from that world-famous testament to British incompetence, Heathrow’s Terminal 5. I’d cut it a little fine, arriving only 25 minutes before British Airways’ 5.15 p.m. departure. But I’d checked in online, printed out my boarding pass and had only hand luggage, so there shouldn’t be a problem.
Wrong. Security rejected the boarding pass and directed me to the BA check-in desk, where I was told I had been ‘removed from the aircraft’. But I never made it on to the aircraft, I remonstrated, that’s the problem. ‘You’re too late, you’ll have to book on to the next flight,’ said a particularly unhelpful BA assistant. ‘I’m a BA gold card holder,’ I pleaded, ‘and 25 minutes was always enough time at Terminal 1.’ She shrugged her shoulders, mumbled that things were different in Terminal 5 and repeated that I would have to catch the next flight. Are there any seats available, I inquired? ‘Dunno,’ she replied. ‘You’ll have to go to Area E,’ which turned out to be halfway towards the other end of the terminal. It was then that I realised the real drawback to Terminal 5: BA has you hostage. In the old days of Terminal 1, I would have dashed across the corridor from BA and tried to hop on the departing British Midland flight. But BA has a monopoly at Terminal 5: there are no other airlines and you are their captive passenger. I conceded defeat and trudged to Area E. ‘No, there is no gold card check-in facility,’ another unhelpful BA jobsworth told me. ‘You’ll have to join the queue.’ So I did. It was quite long; but it hardly mattered — after all, I was no longer in a hurry. Eventually I got a seat on the 6.25 p.m. and thought I’d pass the time over a drink in the executive lounge. This being my first visit to Terminal 5, I had no idea where it was. I asked three BA attendants to direct me: two didn’t know, one sent me in the wrong direction.
Wee Willie Walsh, BA’s hapless boss (for now), seems to have populated Terminal 5 with a tribe of spectacularly sour and ignorant teenage trolls. For an airline fast running out of friends, this doesn’t seem to me like the most obvious way of making new ones. It was, of course, inevitable that the later flight would be delayed — which it was, by over an hour. I only discovered the delay by glancing at the departures screen in the executive lounge (yes, I eventually found it). Will you announce when we’re leaving? I asked one of the lounge staff. ‘We don’t do announcements any more,’ he replied. Does BA have a death wish? I eventually arrived in Edinburgh almost three hours later than planned.
Naturally, my driver was nowhere to be seen: he thought the flight was coming in even later. The following night I made it to the airport in plenty of time for the last BA flight back to Heathrow. I needn’t have bothered: it was delayed by an hour. I began to wonder if this is the default position for all BA flights — that being an hour late is BA’s idea of being on time. Is there anybody alive who can still remember when a BA flight took off on time?
I eventually crawled into my home just before midnight. I should have been home by just after 10 p.m. I’m sure readers will have experienced much worse travel horror stories: my delays were not disastrous, just tedious and tiring. But for those who have a gnawing fear that too many things in 21st-century Britain no longer properly work — and that we’ve lost the will or ability to fix them — travelling round the country by plane or train will quickly confirm your worst fears. John Prescott’s grandiose ten-year transport plan, unveiled with such a flourish in the first blush of New Labour government, turned out to be a work of fiction, left to gather dust while the delays, jams and cancellations grew relentlessly. We might be one of the richest countries in the world, but so much of our transport system is distinctly Third World.
Actually, that might be unfair on the Third World. I recently passed through Mumbai airport. I cannot claim it was a pleasant experience. But if I had a choice between Mumbai airport and Euston on a Sunday afternoon, I’d take Mumbai any day.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 10, 2008