London’s 3rd World Travel Experience

(Original of article for Taxi magazine).

Trains, Planes, Automobiles

Most of us would agree that Britain’s transport infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with new demands, and that we need to modernise in order to serve a growing population and to retain the competitive edge in and attracting global investment.

The debate continues over new air terminals and high speed trains.  We’re told that rival European airports are better equipped to handle large volumes of flights from new economic powerhouses such as China.  And once on English soil, our trains aren’t fast enough  – the journey from London to Birmingham taking an outrageous ninety minutes.

I’m not sure shaving twenty minutes off a train ride to Birmingham is going to make much difference, and I’m not sure it’s the frequency of flights from Shanghai that’s holding us back.   It’s the third world experience on the local infrastructure that’s causing the problem. 

Arrive at Heathrow jet-lagged from the Far East and make for Central London.  There’s nowhere to put your bags on the tube, and the stop-start routine becomes an overcrowded pain by Earl’s Court.  Pay an exorbitant £21 for a fifteen-minute overground train journey, but you only get as far as Paddington.  Take a cab all the way from Heathrow?  Things go well enough until the M4 narrows.  Then, you’ve no sooner cleared the flyovers, than you’re swerving around coaches on Cromwell Road, and in more stop-start traffic past Harrods. 

At least there’s some established infrastructure around Heathrow, however inadequate.  The train to Gatwick is fine, but try doing it by road.   It’s a devil of a drive and there’s hardly any motorway.  Visitors understandably expect a place that markets itself as a London airport to be in London, not half way to Brighton.  People wonder what they’re doing in a one-way system in Streatham an hour into the journey.  This is why I often try to talk people out of a cab ride to Gatwick.  I just don’t need the hassle.  There’s been talk about an airport on an island in Kent.  Ever tried driving to Kent?  Any major transport hub that involves bridges and tunnels is bound to be a disaster.

London’s traffic congestion is the worse in Europe bar Brussels.  Travelling by road can be even worse at weekends and on bank holidays.  Aiming for Heathrow by road on a Sunday sounds sensible.  The tubes might not be running, but you can rely on a trusty London cab.  It’ll be all right, it’s the A4 and M4 all the way.  On Piccadilly your passenger is looking up from his reading matter.  Why have we stopped?  Traffic is down to one lane between St James Street and Hyde Park Corner.  Why are people allowed to park outside the Ritz?  Why are those big vans allowed to obstruct the carriageway further down where people sell art work?  This is the main road to Wales and the West!

Many of London’s major train stations pose difficulties for the driver.  You have to queue in one and a half lanes of Gordon Street to get across Euston Road for Euston Station; you might have to queue to set down at Paddington; and there’s one-way mayhem at Victoria.  I’m never sure where we’re meant to drop off at Liverpool Street.  Top of Old Broad Street is my choice, if it’s open.  Not that you can go right up to the station this way because of the money-making cameras.  The short journey from the Bloomsbury area to St Pancras now involves a major detour around squares and one-way streets.  Even then, there might be a crane blocking the top of Mabledon Place.  Driving from St Pancras to Paddington can mean queuing up at Euston Underpass.  You can’t use the slip as a bypass and go straight through, as you can in the opposite direction, as that’s for buses only.  You can turn left into Gower Street and join Euston Road later on, but you have to fight your way past ambulance ranks and buses (I’ve never understood why ambulances are parked on the street; surely the best place for an ambulance is in a hospital).       

Some of the road chaos can be avoided by clear advance warning.  Sometimes you get yellow signs with a vague description of roads affected, sometimes nothing.  Working weekends, you never know if Old Bailey, Chancery Lane, Cannon Street, or Fleet Street are going to be open until you’ve tried using them.  Signage is sloppy and inadequate.  I’ve noticed recently that you never know if the Diversion signs are warning of a diversion further  along that particular street, or if the problem is elsewhere and you’re advised to use this street as a diversion.  

Most visitors to London will experience our unique travel chaos at some point.  There’s no real rush hour, the roads are jammed for most of the day.  You can get to Paris all right, but once back in Blighty, your onward journey can be fraught with problems.  The buses are slow, the tube trains are full, and inter-city train travel is expensive and unreliable.  Cycle rickshaws helpfully reinforce the third world ambiance.  The journey to the airport needs to be planned carefully.  Heathrow has its problems, but has some established infrastructure.  Gatwick is too far out to be considered a proper London airport and, other options put forward sound unconvincing. 

I’m not really qualified to know what the answer is, but spending so much time on the roads we can all see how improvements can be made here.  Halt road narrowing, remove unnecessary traffic lights, ban parking on major roads, inform of all road closures clearly and in advance.  These are just a few ideas.  High speed trains and bigger airports are only as good as the roads and rails serving them.  Maybe we need to think locally before we think globally?

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