Don't have a car? You've been sleighed

Santa Claus is coming to town? Not on public transport, he's not. Simon Calder surveys the trains and boats and planes over Christmas - and offers the chance to `name that tune' and win a festive prize. Spot the song titles and win the new `Rough Guide to Rock'. Contained in the following story are the titles of 16 Christmas hits, many of them naff. If you can spot them all, you could be in the running for a free copy of this new book, which retails at pounds 17.99.

"I wish," crooned Roy Wood of Wizzard, "it could be Christmas every day." He cannot be much of a traveller. Were it permanently 25 December, then the transport map of Britain would look decidedly bleak. If a spaceman came travelling to the UK on Christmas Day, he would assume that almost no one went anywhere without a car.

Suppose Mr Wood wanted to venture from his home town of Birmingham to Wolverhampton to deliver some mistletoe and wine, and say merry Christmas, everybody, to his pals from the band Slade. He'd better watch out - not because Santa Claus is coming to town, but because the last northbound train from New Street is at 9.05pm on 24 December. The first one back is not until 6am, two-and-a-half days later. This story is repeated on almost all UK rail services on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The honourable exception is the Gatwick Express, which is making a late bid for bargain of the year. From 7am to 5.30pm on 25 December, trains will run every half-hour - and passengers travel free.

Midlands musos are better served on the buses. National Express is breaking its usual Christmas duck (or should that be turkey?), with a 25 December bus from Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry to Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Another coach will link Swansea, Cardiff and Bristol with the pair of London airports. And that, as far as National Express is concerned, is it. On 26 December, a limited service of buses will run based around London and Birmingham. When Wizzard first hit the charts, Roy Wood could have relied upon the London Underground network to whisk him around the capital on 25 December, but the Tube closes altogether now. After 10pm on Christmas Eve, the Tube will be silent, night and day, until around 8am on Boxing Day.

A few London buses are running, including a free service, number 208, between Lewisham and Bromley. Unlike last Christmas, the Transport and General Workers' Union has brought its festive 732 service between Edgware Station and Cricklewood Broadway to a full stop.

The cavalry may have been the inspiration for the pricing policy on London Buses on Christmas Day, because the bus operators - like the Light Brigade - can charge what they like. The 716 bus from Trafalgar Square will get you close to Staples Corner, at the foot of the M1. The Hitch- hikers' Manual: Britain rates this as a four-star junction (average waiting time 10 minutes to travel north from here) and says that motorists are more prone to stop on 25 December than on any other day.

I was born on Christmas Day, so the prospect of flying down to Rio (on Varig at 10pm) appeals rather more. The price I was quoted was pounds 650, but Mary's boy child would travel for one-tenth of this until His second birthday.

To reach Heathrow airport by public transport looks rather tougher than travelling by donkey to Bethlehem. The Al and A2 Airbuses are running from Victoria and Euston respectively. These buses step into Christmas mode around 6am and step out again shortly before 3pm in time for a late lunch. With a seven-hour wait, I could be doing a lot of walking in the air terminal. The Gatwick-Heathrow link (6am-7pm) completes the airport loop, and enables you to yell, "A wombling Merry Christmas!" as you speed past Wimbledon.

Eurostar is running no services from Waterloo and Ashford to Brussels and Paris on 25 December. The reason, says the company, is that there are no connecting transport links on the British side.

It'll be lonely this Christmas down at the P&O terminal in Dover. But in the Stena Line cross-Channel schedules I've been studying, I saw three ships come sailing in - and three sailing back to Calais. A day-trip ticket costs pounds 1.

To flee the transport inertia of Britain in December, stay in France - where you will find many trains and buses running normally, the sort of commitment to public transport I believe in. Father Christmas, though, might be tempted to ask: "Do they know it's Christmas?"

Eurostar: 0345 303030.

London Transport: 0171-222 1234.

National Rail Enquiries: 0345 484950.

National Express: 0990 808080.

Stena Line: 0990 707070.

How to enter: Hidden in the story are 16 song titles. Your task is to identify them all. Write them on a piece of paper, or tear out/photocopy this story and highlight them. Then complete this sentence: "The best book to give Santa when he comes to town is the `Rough Guide to' -", in as many words as you like. It could be an existing book - such as `Turkey', both the home country of St Nicholas and his favourite dinner - or an imaginary one, such as the `Rough Guide to Lapland and Chimney-climbing'.



1. "I wish it could be Christmas every day" counts, but "Flying down to Rio", and "I saw three ships" don't as neither were Christmas hits. And don't even think about "Waterloo", "Victoria", "Stop", or any other one-word wonders.

2. Punctuation should be ignored, so beware of things. Like this.

3. No Robson & Jerome songs or Andrew Lloyd Webber compositions are knowingly included, or comprise acceptable answers.

4. Don't worry if you can't get all 16; if you have a jolly good try and can think of a neat tie-break, you will be in the running.

5. The competition is open to employees of Newspaper Publishing plc and their relatives. This may save on postage.

6. The travel editor's decision is final. Only entertaining correspondence will be entered into.

Send your entry to Santa's Suitcase, Travel, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL, to arrive by 6 January.

The 10 best entries will be sent a copy of the Rough Guide to Rock, an up-to-the minute compendium covering more than 1,000 bands and artists.

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