The man who pays his way

Usually at this time of year, I look back through my grubby, creased and weary travel diary to rate the various transport operators over a year that, for me, began with boarding chaos at Funchal airport for a late Airtours flight and ended with disembarkation chaos at Stansted for a Go flight (delayed plane parks at a gate about half a mile from the one where all the staff are waiting patiently to greet it).

Yet barely have I begun to consider whether the urgent public-address call at Kennedy airport anxiously seeking the crew of an Icelandair jet merits a mention, when the annual festive foul-ups begin and transcend all the previous travails. Last year, you may recall, a flurry of snow and a shortage of de-icing fluid meant that many easyJet passengers enjoyed a short break between Christmas and New Year in Luton and Liverpool airports.

This year, life went smoothly for the no-frills airline – which is more than can be said for some of the other operators. Thousands of passengers found that getting home or away for Christmas 2001 was, with hindsight, an over-ambitious target.

In third place, the last train from Manchester. Virgin's final southbound departure from Piccadilly station on 24 December made a brave attempt to disprove the theory that Virgin Trains, like almost every other transport undertaking, shuts down for Christmas Day. After a breakdown at Tamworth, the beleaguered 5.28pm "express" shuddered into a silent Euston station in London at nine minutes to midnight, nearly four hours late.

Party-goers in the capital trying to hail a cab at around that time were probably out of luck; all available taxis were summoned to take the tardy travellers home. "Anyone who contacts our customer relations department will get a refund," says the company.

Second place goes to another last train to London, this time the final Eurostar departure from Brussels to Waterloo on 23 December. The timetable promises that it arrives in London at 11pm, GMT. When this moment came, and went, passengers were 20,000 leagues under the sea – or at least 130 feet below the Channel – where they had been for some time.

"Anyone with spectacles will know what it's like when you go from the icy-cold outdoors into a very warm restaurant," a Eurostar spokesman explains. "In the same way as your glasses steam up because of the sudden change in temperature, so our locomotives suffered from condensation when they entered the tunnel. They're used to temperature changes, but on the 23 December it was dramatic because of the very cold weather in northern France."

After several attempts to restart the engine inside the Channel Tunnel, the call went out for a locomotive that could come in from the cold without shutting down. Eventually one appeared and, with a hiccup or two, it dragged the ailing train to Ashford International station, where it arrived just before 3am.

There ensued refugee-like scenes where pregnant women, elderly people and families with small children were urged to change platforms and catch a draughty old Connex commuter train for the remaining 60 miles into London. When one traveller noticed a gleaming Eurostar train had drawn up on the adjacent platform, and that the company's staff from the broken train seemed to be lingering, he asked if it would be a better bet than the by-now overcrowded Connex service.

"We don't know when exactly it's going, but we're all catching it," he was told. Eurostar says that passengers were all offered a choice of services.

The Eurostar train glided past the Connex one and pulled in shortly before 5am on Christmas Eve.

But top yuletide travail was endured by the 98 passengers on British Airways flight 202. They were due to fly from Detroit at 6pm on 23 December and arrive at Heathrow at dawn on Christmas Eve, in time for connecting flights or surface transport to their festive destinations. A fault with the anti-icing equipment kept the plane in the home of Tamla Motown so long that had Santa been planning to come to town on BA202, he would have arrived a day late.

To pour sour cranberry sauce on what was truly a Christmas turkey, the plane was overtaken by the 24 December departure from Detroit.

Pay more, get less. That is the promise of the Gatwick Express for 2002. On 7 January, two things will happen. The return fare on the train from London Victoria to the Sussex airport rises by 5 per cent, well above the rate of inflation, to £21. That makes it the second-most expensive railway in Britain, after the Heathrow Express. In return for the extra cash, you can look forward to a depleted service, with fewer, more crowded trains.

The early-morning and evening service is being reduced to half-hourly, while the trains that formerly ran all night are being cancelled altogether. Luckily, there is an alternative – the lower-cost trains run by South Central.

You know that drawer where you keep your passport, along with those soon-to-be redundant European currencies? Do yourself a favour and check the passport expiry date now. This will help you avoid the misfortune suffered by Terry Bezant of Enfield, who successfully travelled to Zürich and back on an expired passport and was alerted to its antiquity only when trying to check in for a holiday flight to Naples. And, if the document's travel-by date is approaching soon, you can save cash by applying for a new passport within the next fortnight.

Surely it is only two years since the cost of a 10-year passport leapt from £22 to £28? Correct. But that 23 per cent increase, one consequence of the catastrophic systems failure in 1999, was not enough. The Passport Agency is anticipating a prosperous new year, thanks to another £2 on the basic passport fee, a 7 per cent rise. The price of same-day renewals rockets from £40 to £75. Anyone keen to escape the family (see pages 2 and 3) should apply before 14 January to ensure the agency does not prosper at your expense, and that you can flee the country with ease.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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