Simon Calder: Hooray! No more passport queues

The Man Who Pays His Way
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The Independent Travel

"If you're about to go through the barrier and you realise your passport is out of date, keep cool and say nothing. It's amazing how often immigration officials fail to notice."

That was written 25 years ago, in the first edition of the Travellers Survival Kit: Europe, during what must now be deemed the good old days of travel. These days, if you try to check in with an expired passport, or notice that its days are dangerously numbered while you are packing for your trip, you are likely to have to apply for a new one in person. Millions of people have found it to be a far-from-pleasant experience.

The London street of Petty France is unremarkable apart from Clive House, the home of the Passport Office and the place that put the "bureau" in bureaucracy. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to step across its threshold and into the vast, bleak hall will remember the way that your eyes had to adjust to the stark lighting, as you slowly realised that hundreds of people had got here before you. The prospect of trying for a travel document by tea time was more daunting, and less likely to succeed, than applying for admission to the USSR.

Indeed, the whole subterranean horror looked as if it has been imported lock, stock and grey-plastic-chairs-bolted-together from the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of holidaymakers had miserable experiences here during the summer of 1999. The Passport Agency, you may recall, made a small rule change that required children who did not already appear on a parent's passport to have their own travel document. A Chinese whisper that was transmitted through an uncertain travel trade convinced the public that all children, including those happily ensconced on their parents' travel documents, henceforth needed individual passports. (They didn't then, and they don't now, until they reach 16 or the passport runs out.)

Clive House could not cope with demand. Queuing around the block was no guarantee that you would be able to travel, and hundreds of people missed their holidays. And if it was bad enough being a customer, imagine how demoralising it was to work there. No wonder the average interview had all the bonhomie of a KGB interrogation.

Yesterday afternoon, Clive House closed its doors to the public for the last time. It will not be mourned. Today, if you want a passport in a hurry, just call 0870 521 0410 and make an appointment for the much more auspicious Globe House. For a start, it could hardly be easier to find, being about 50 yards from Platform One of Victoria station. Suppose you turn up at Gatwick airport to find your passport has expired – or, as occurs increasingly, the destination country demands it must be valid for six months after your date of arrival. You can be at the office within half an hour and may possibly make your original flight.

Unlike parts of the National Health Service, you will be seen within half an hour of the appointment time. Another disparity from usual government practice: when I say "today", I mean it. The new office is open from 9.15am to 3.15pm on Saturdays, and 7.40am to 6.30pm from Monday to Friday.

One more strange thing: the whole office is flooded with natural light, which explains why everyone from the security guards to the examining staff is many degrees more cheerful than at Petty France. Globe House itself has a noble travel-related history: it was originally built for BOAC, one component of the present British Airways. The new office opens officially on Monday, just in time to meet a diminished demand for passports.

* Winter draws on, at least on the railways. The summer schedule ends today, which means that travellers must get to grips with a new edition of the byzantine National Rail Timetable.

If the value of books could be assessed on a lb-per-pound basis, this tome would win the non-fiction prize (if it were allowed to compete in this category). For those who believe quantity is everything, £10 buys a formidable 2,848 pages, with a bonus 32-page errata section thrown in.

One page looks particularly bare. It is headed "What's New". Rail users can look forward to two new services, one linking York with Pickering and Whitby, the other connecting St Austell to the Eden Project. Each will benefit tourists, though they will not please rail enthusiasts; both are bus services.

* For the Cabinet minister responsible for the railways, Stephen Byers, the new timetable makes far from cheerful reading. It provides one more piece of evidence that we pay higher fares for poorer services than any other EU country. Actually, that's unfair; the trains in Portugal and Ireland are even slower, creakier and more eccentric than ours, but to compensate the prices are a fraction of what we pay.

As Mr Byers inspects the poisoned chalice that John Prescott generously handed on, and seeks inspiration for how to detoxify it, he need look no further than Belgium for advice on how to run a railway. Its acronym might be unwieldy, but NMBS/SNCB is family friendly. Children under six go free at all times on Belgian Railways, while under-12s need not pay outside the morning rush hour. Large clans fare even better. A "Big Families" railcard offers half-price trips to parents and offspring up to age 25, surely the biggest kids on the travel block.

Mothers-to-be in the final four months of pregnancy get an automatic upgrade to first class. And over-65s can travel anywhere in the country, after the morning rush hour, for £1.70 return. Anyone obliged to pay full fare will not suffer unduly – the longest journey in the country, the 210 miles from La Panne to Arlon, costs £9. The single fare between London and York, which are slightly closer together, is £61.

* First you have to get to Belgium. A contact within the BBC was alarmed to read last week about a television crew who, instead of the usual with-frills trip from Heathrow to Brussels, were despatched on Ryanair from Stansted to Charleroi, which masquerades as "Brussels South". He asserts that the show consigned to the cheap seats was none other than Blue Peter Unleashed, which might sound like a questionable parody of the children's TV favourite but is reputed to be a spin-off series devoted to all-action adventure. Maybe that's why they chose a no-frills airline.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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