Simon Calder: Follow that cab - but not to a dodgy bar
The Man Who Pays His Way
Saturday 24 November 2001
"You can't depend on buses. You can only depend on taxis." Too sweeping a statement but I didn't say so to the Belfast cab driver who rescued me after the dawn airport bus went adrift. He proceeded to proclaim the manifold glories of the Hackney carriage at some length.
The men and women who ply for hire around the world are a fine bunch of professionals whose only concern is to provide safe, good-value transportation. Not every cab driver, though, adheres to this mission statement. Gary David, managing director of Cadogan Holidays, came back from the Association of British Travel Agents' convention in Lisbon seething about the "miserable, unhelpful taxi drivers" in the Portuguese capital.
Not fair, nor true, in my experience. But Mr David is right to suggest a certain circumspection about people who take money for taking you where you want to be.
First, you have to work out what constitutes a cab. In Russia, any motorised conveyance can transform itself into a taxi instantly. When you want a ride, and are prepared to pay a few roubles for the privilege, just raise your hand and see what comes to a halt. I have never seen anyone successfully flagging down an armoured personnel carrier in Gorky Street, but I wouldn't put it past Russian soldiers to amplify their earnings in the same way as many of their fellow citizens.
One thing that I have never heard a Muscovite do is ask the driver for a recommendation about a local hotel, club or restaurant. There is just the odd chance that a cabbie, ad hoc or not, may be guided more by self-interest than concern for your welfare. From Nottingham to Novosibirsk, well-established commission structures ensure a taxi driver is rewarded for delivering tourists to the night-club for a ritual fleecing. The victims are the sort of innocents who, in other circumstances, readily accept the assertion that the word "gullible" does not appear in the dictionary (think about it, and then try it on a friend).
So it is odd that the tourist office in Linz insists the best way to track down the nightlife in Austria's third city is to put yourself at the mercy of a taxi driver and ask to be taken to what they quaintly describe as the "in" place. But don't blame me if you end up in (a) the sort of place where drug dealers wind down after work; (b) a brothel; (c) trouble; or (d) all of the above.
"British Airways and Go recommend a minimum of two hours check in. We recommend you check out our two hour 45 minute journey." Virgin Trains is promoting its link from London to Manchester by highlighting the post-11 September check-in times. Nothing wrong with asserting the unique properties of rail travel. Or is there?
For a start, Go has never flown to Manchester, so its presence in the Virgin ad is baffling. In any case, the no-frills airline has a minimum check-in time of only half an hour. On BA, which does fly to Manchester, domestic passengers with only cabin baggage need turn up only 15 minutes ahead.
If the same security measures were applied to the 10am from Euston to Manchester as the 10am BA flight from Heathrow, the "check-in" time at Euston would need to be a lot earlier than 9.59am Eurostar has increased the deadline to half an hour before the departure of Channel Tunnel trains.
Finally, it seems strange that a firm that has no fewer than three sister companies that are airlines should spend time and money advertising the assertion that "check-in time is wasted time", thereby knocking the whole idea of flying, while Sir Richard Branson is signing full-page advertisements that emphasise the high security measures on his biggest airline, Virgin Atlantic.
For four million foreigners each year, the first taste of Britain is Stansted airport. Naturally, it is imperative that the rail service to the Essex airport impresses new arrivals.
So how do the people running West Anglia Great Northern do that, then? By draping the pillars on the concourse for the Stansted Express with energetic exhortations. Passengers about to travel to London are urged to "see, explore, trek". The trouble is, that same concourse is plastered with posters cautioning visitors about the onset of the Leaf Fall Season.
Foreign countries must be sadly lacking in deciduous trees, for I have never seen a similar warning displayed abroad. The poster warns starkly, with novel use of quotation marks, about Leaves "On The Line". In portentous tones, it describes the "huge back-ups and congestion" that result from this unfortunate arboreal complaint. And then it tells you what WAGN proposes to do about this uniquely British scourge: apply "recovery time".
The 8am leaves (that's a verb, not a noun) five minutes early. By 8.15am, though, the next train has shown such impressive powers of recovery that it preens around the platform until its scheduled departure time. Its two successors run two minutes early, while the 9am gets away with just a 60- second head start. Once you get the hang of that unusual timetable pattern, you can sit back to "relax, dream, romance" all the way to London.
The funny thing is, no northbound train is deemed to need recovery time. Yesterday morning, things were working as normal for the line: assume the promised 45-minute journey will take an hour, add a bit for luck and you've a sporting chance of catching the plane. But if you miss it, at least you'll have plenty of time to "visit, enjoy, admire" the drapes at the subterranean station.
How long will this pantomime prevail? Like a theatre poster for an especially successful show, the notices at Stansted have been amended not once but twice. The recovery-enabling timetable was due to finish last weekend, but was extended by two weeks. Before that time was up, a fresh set of stickers announced a further fortnight of this long, lingering autumn.
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