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.

In Richard’s Footsteps

As a young teen I read Philip Jose Farmer’s SciFi novel, “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”. Without going into too much detail, it’s about a world where all of Humankind is resurrected — amongst them, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Richard_Francis_Burton_by_Rischgitz,_1864The portrayal of Burton captivated me and ever since I have been fascinated by this man, his explorations and his achievements.

As well as his own writings, I subsequently devoured a number of biographies of this Victorian explorer, including, “A Rage to Live” by Mary Lovell. A polymath who reportedly spoke 29 languages, Burton’s complicated character and especially his African expeditions made me long to follow in his footsteps.

Burton’s East Africa Expedition in the mid/late 1850s was funded by the Royal Geographical Society. So when I heard that the RGS & BBC Radio 4 had a joint programme, “Journey of a Lifetime” that makes a grant of £5,000 for someone to do just that and turn it into a radio documentary, I thought, “Aha! Now’s my chance!”

burtonspekeSetting out from Zanzibar with John Hanning Speke in June 1857, they followed traditional caravan routes westwards, via Dodoma & Tabora, eventually reaching Lake Tanganyika in February 1858. The men’s health has suffered greatly: Speke is too blind to see the lake. During the return journey, Speke took a detour northwards and discovers Lake Victoria while Burton recovers in Tabora. They return to Zanzibar in 1860 weakened by disease and (sadly) on the way to becoming bitter enemies.

In his journal some time during the expedition, Burton writes: “Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the Slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood….afresh dawns the morn of life…”


Does London Need Another Runway?

As the debate continues to rage, with Heathrow & Gatwick both claiming to be the best option for an additional runway, I thought it might be interesting to review the current situation and ask whether an extra runway is needed at all.

London has six international airports within an hour’s drive or train-ride of the centre: Stansted (north), City (east/central), Southend (east), Luton (northwest), Heathrow (west) and Gatwick (south).

The BBC recently featured a useful summary which pointed out that, “Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has said the UK needs to increase its aviation hub capacity to compete with international rivals. That view is shared by some politicians and business leaders, but others argue that no credible case has been made.”

The situation is further complicated by the appallingly inaccurate forecasts made by UK’s Department of Transport:

From a purely competition-oriented viewpoint, it makes little sense to expand Heathrow, which already represents almost half of London’s passenger traffic:

Airport Pax %
HEATHROW 73,823,635 49%
GATWICK 39,048,023 26%
STANSTED 21,473,072 14%
LUTON 11,190,751 7%
LONDON CITY 4,051,915 3%
SOUTHEND 1,010,998 1%
TOTAL 150,598,394

Normally, I’d expect the competition authorities to be interested in this sort of situation, yet in this case we have a government department apparently prepared to expand a private firm’s dominant market position.

From an environmental perspective, Heathrow noise affects 725,000 people & there are claims that a third runway there would raise this to more than a million. Gatwick Airport by contrast claims that just 36,000 people are affected by noise from its flights.

One argument for expanding Heathrow was the idea that a large hub benefits from economies of scale: more routes attract more passengers, which in turn finance additional routes. Yet less than 1% of Heathrow’s passengers are transit, so where is the benefit?

Even some of Heathrow’s biggest customers are not in favour: Willie Walsh, CEO of IAG (owner of British Airways) was quoted recently as saying the £17.6bn price-tag “cannot be justified on any basis”.

Another factor which appears not to be considered is the dis-economies of scale that result from a very large airport: traffic congestion getting to & from the terminals (on rail as well as road); time taken to get through security etc. These factors can add significantly to total journey time (especially for short hops such as domestic routes) compared with using smaller regional airports. London City and my local airport in Jersey, Channel Islands are great examples of this: I can be through either airport in a few minutes.

If so little of Heathrow’s traffic is transit, why not move some of the domestic flights to other airports such as under-utilized Southend, thus freeing up slots at Heathrow for higher-value long-haul traffic?

And here’s another thought: in Asia, popular 1-2 hour intra-regional routes are often served by large aircraft such as 747s; in UK many of these routes use 737s or A319s but with many flights per day. Whilst this might appear to offer consumers more choice, perhaps CAA or Airports should consider runway pricing that encourages the use of larger planes & less frequent flights on these routes, thus freeing up slots to handle additional long-haul routes without the need for another runway.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn 7 September 2015

Does UK Need More Airports?

Reading the latest document from the Stop Stansted Expansion (which is excellent, and can be downloaded here) it strikes me that although there istechnically debate, nobody seems to be listening to what anyone else is saying.

Two of the graphics in SSE’s latest submission stand out so I’ve included them below. The first shows that UK already has substantially more commercial runways than any of our EU peer group or Japan.

The second shows that, with the exception of Heathrow there would appear to be plenty of spare capacity.

It seems likely that, as with the internet & computer software, airports can benefit from ‘network effects’ and that Heathrow has indeed been the prime beneficiary. So why, when Heathrow has so little growth capacity and other airports have so much, does the Airports Commission refuse to consider the use of Air Passenger Duty (APD) as a policy lever, by setting different rates for different airports? Similar approaches are used in traffic management (e.g. London’s Congestion Charge) and have been successful both in raising revenue and in controlling traffic.

I have to confess to having a personal interest in Stansted: my parents live about 20 minutes northeast of the airport. As I’m sure you can imagine, this can be both a blessing and a curse. Nevertheless, I’m against any expansion at Stansted for the following reasons:

1. It doesn’t seem as though we really need more airport capacity — rather, we need to be using the capacity we already have, better. For example, Southend Airport always seems pretty much deserted whenever I travel through it. SSE also makes an excellent point that in Asia one sees many domestic routes served by 747s or similar large aircraft whereas in UK instead we offer lots of smaller planes.

2. Stansted is really not a great airport:

  • it takes too long to get into London on the train (which is also unreliable and expensive);
  • car drivers cannot drop their passengers right outside the terminal, unlike most other airports (“for security reasons”, ostensibly, but in practice probably to maintain the taxi company’s monopoly);
  • there’s so much glass in the terminal buildings that the IRIS software can’t function;
  • there are no long-haul carriers and 92% of capacity is provider by Ryan Air and EasyJet.

3. Essex has a lot of really nice historic buildings and some lovely countryside, much of which would be under threat from any expansion of the airport.

It probably doesn’t help that all the airports are independently owned, either — after all, as with American politics the person who wins the debate (and the election) will be the one with the biggest bankroll, and in the case of the UK airports, that’s always going to be Heathrow. So the Airports Commission really has a duty of care to the British people to take that into account and attempt (at least) to be a truly unbiased arbiter. Some chance.


This article first appeared on LinkedIn 29 July 2014

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.