Simon Calder: Changing planes and trains? Not so fast

The man who pays his way

In the 20 years since The Independent kindly invited me to venture some opinions on the travel business, two national institutions have taken up more column-inches than any others: British Airways and British Rail, plus the latter's fragmented successors. And from this week's experience, the best term to describe the behaviour of both BA and BR is French: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more our national airline and railway system change, the more they stay the same.

British Airways has had the most stressful couple of decades of any leading travel firm (except possibly Thomas Cook's journey through the financial tumble-drier). In 1994, BA merely endured rivalry from Virgin Atlantic on key routes from Heathrow. Today, BA faces tougher competition than any other "legacy" airline on the planet. Virgin still challenges on the most profitable business routes from Heathrow and leisure links from Gatwick, mostly westbound.

To Asia, Africa and Australia, the Gulf carriers led by Emirates have seized the Middle East ground, exploiting their location to become the planet's leading people-carriers. Twenty years ago, the default presumption for a trip to Australia was BA to Perth, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane. Today, I'd guess Emirates (with an each-way bet on Etihad, Qatar Airways and the old faithfuls Cathay Pacific and Singapore).

The domestic and European markets have been even more traumatised. Even in the days when BA faced competition only from British Midland and Continental carriers, making money on short-haul was tricky. As easyJet began to expand, BA felt the brunt. For easyJet's third route launch, from Aberdeen to Luton, the upstart tried to place an ad reading: "Warning – thieves operate in this area" directly above the BA baggage carousel. Permission was duly refused, and easyJet duly milked the attendant publicity for all it was worth. Since then BA has shrunk in scale, surrendering its position as Gatwick's largest airline to easyJet and largely abandoning the regions. With links such as Manchester to Los Angeles, Birmingham to Malaga, and Bristol to Edinburgh long consigned to timetable history, BA has been running short of inflight towels to throw in.

With cull after cull, it became clear that BA was turning itself into London Airways: the only routes in BA's book are those that begin or end at Gatwick, London City, or its stronghold, Heathrow. That policy comes to an end this very weekend, with the launch of an Edinburgh-Ibiza link. The plane is a "nightstopping" Airbus A320 that would otherwise park on the ground at the Scottish capital's airport after arriving from Heathrow late in the evening and departing for London in the morning. BA now plans to sweat its expensive asset with a clubbers' flight for those whose evenings are barely starting when the plane arrives on the beautiful Balearic isle at 2.35am. If it works, expect more moonlit flits from the Scottish capital and other cities.

The age of the train?

Britain's railways are thriving – though opinions differ on whether this is because of, or in spite of, privatisation. The main Inter-City train operators – East Coast, Virgin and First Great Western – do a creditable job of carrying record numbers of passengers safely, swiftly and (usually) comfortably. Travellers to London from Birmingham and Yorkshire are benefitting from competition provided by Chiltern Trains and Grand Central against the main operators.

Twenty years ago this spring the first heavily discounted "Advance" tickets were launched with a £19 return between London Euston and Glasgow – not a moment too soon to get some expertise on balancing supply and demand, because a year later easyJet would start transforming Anglo-Scottish travel.

Yet my journey last Monday morning from London to the Lake District showed how clunky the network remains. Even though I was prepared to start at 5.30am on the mostly empty dawn departure from Euston to Glasgow, the lowest fare I was offered to Penrith was the £171.50 "Anytime" price. To avoid it, I bought three separate tickets – one as far as Milton Keynes, the second to Oxenholme and the third to Penrith. Along with a cup of tea at Euston, I paid a total of £50 – a fair fare for a 250-mile journey booked a couple of weeks ahead, but much more complicated than I needed.

I travelled aboard a train capable of 140mph that was limited to 125mph, because to cut costs on the multi-billion-pound upgrade on the West Coast Main Line the running speed was reduced. It sat for 10 minutes outside Milton Keynes Central because the new summer timetable that began last weekend allows extra time in case of engineering works.

I had to change trains at Oxenholme – only to find that the Transpennine service to Penrith had been cancelled due to staff shortage, and there would not be another for 90 minutes. Say what you like about British Rail, but with a single organisation at least there would be some chance that the express from London would be ordered to make an extra stop at Penrith. As it was, I hitched (a Jaguar S-Type, since you ask).

The age of the plane

"Staff shortage" has endured as an excuse for cancelled trains for a couple of decades – and parts of the British Airways fleet have lasted even longer, with many passengers now younger than the plane they are flying on. BA's oldest current 747 was delivered 24 years ago, while the entire Boeing 737 fleet is more than 20 years old. They remain, however, in tip-top condition. Which is something we can all wish for.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz