Let’s face it: Britain’s a mess.
London is creaking under the weight of residents and tourists visiting one of the world’s trendiest cities. Its infrastructure was not designed for this. But corporate incompetence adds to the misery.
On 3 January I had the misfortune to be travelling back from north London to Jersey, via a British Airways flight from Gatwick Airport.
I had be forewarned of potential delays on the main train line so fortunately I left plenty of time. That was just as well. The Transport for London travel planner told me to use the tube to get from Southgate to Victoria and then suggested a train to East Grinstead plus a bus from there to Gatwick. In the past I have regularly done the entire journey from Southgate to Gatwick in about 80mins.
At Victoria, there was not a single sign explaining what was happening: the only indication there were problems was that the Gatwick Express didn’t indicate any ‘next train’. ‎It would have been helpful had Southern Rail made some information available to travellers, but based on my previous experiences with Southern and their apparent contempt for their customers I’m not at all surprised by the absence of assistance.
Scanning the information boards I was surprised to see a direct train to Gatwick (via Horsham)‎ indicated. On previous occasions when there’s been engineering work, my experience of the ‘rail replacement’ service has been rather poor: long queues to board and slow journeys. So absent any information I presumed the Horsham train would be fine.
Two hours later (for a journey more typically 35-45mins) a very full train arrived at Gatwick. It felt like we stopped at every little station on the way plus a level crossing… yet I barely saw a single passenger board or leave the train. So why all the extra stops, Southern Rail?
My total journey time was 170mins, more than double the usual time.
Having navigated security at Gatwick I headed for the British Airways lounge. Around 40mins‎ before the scheduled time the gate was announced and so we trooped to the gate. The next surprise was to see people still coming off the plane, meaning a good 30min wait before boarding would be likely. Then the bad news: the plane was broken and they were looking for a replacement as it wasn’t fixable quickly. I asked gate staff why the gate had been called if this were the case and they told me the problem developed on the ground but this turned out to be not true: the pilot later told us they believed exhaust fumes might have been leaking into the cabin air system during the inbound journey. So it must have been pretty obvious the flight would be delayed. Thus calling passengers to the gate was just wasting their time.
The next surprise was that the new aircraft was on a different stand (45L when we were at 55D). One might imagine that we could have been bussed from 55D to the plane… but no. Instead we had to reverse through the domestic departures then check in again at gate 45L (where there were initially no gate staff). When asked why we couldn’t be bussed, we were told there might not be buses available. Imagine the irony therefore when we step out of gate 45L onto waiting buses, for the usual scenic tour of the airport to find our plane.
I was amused (somewhat) watching the gate staff as this situation unfolded. Surely, at a busy airport a broken plane happens regularly? Yet to observe the situation you’d probably think it was something they’d never encountered before. Yet it’s really not rocket science. Bizarrely, my TripIt Pro app told me about the delay and the gate change long before British Airways bothered to inform its customers.
70mins late pushing back, part of which we’re ‎told is because they had to get permission for passengers to return from domestic gates to get to 45L (which would have been avoided by using buses direct from 55D).
Look, accidents happen but really what distinguishes a world-class company is how they deal with these situations. On this occasion, Southern Rail, Gatwick Airport and British Airways all failed to distinguish themselves.

The Trouble With Trains

I am a big believer in railways as a way of moving people & freight around a country quickly, efficiently and cheaply. It may well be the case that part of Japan’s post-War expansion was thanks to an extensive network of railways.

So I have given quite a bit of thought to UK’s HighSpeed projects, particularly HS2.

Here’s why I don’t think it can work — not to say it won’t get built, but rather than it won’t have the impact the government and its proponents claim.

I took my 17-year-old son to an Open Day at Sheffield University for the day yesterday. Before going, we looked at travel alternatives from London. The cheapest ticket by rail, purchased a week in advance, is about £76 per person return if you take very specific trains (i.e. no flexibility). The ‘standard’ flexible return ticket is more than twice that. By car, it’s a little longer journey but we did it on less than a tank of gasoline, probably for less than £50. So if the existing low-speed rail network can’t compete with a single traveller in a car (let alone two, or a car-full) how can HS2 possibly imagine it will attract anyone?

Presumably whoever has done the forecasts has assumed that all travellers are business-people who value their time over everything else. Even if this were the case (and it patently isn’t), many businesses would probably prefer their staff to spend a little longer getting there if it’s less than half the price. And that’s before considering that in a car I can leave when I like, stop for lunch somewhere that serves edible food, and so on.

Realistically, for HS2 to work either the government has to change road pricing so dramatically that the cost of going up the M1 doubles (tolls, gasoline taxes etc) orthey will have to subsidise HS2 hugely. Or the trains will be empty.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn 12 July 2014.