Simon Calder: Plane and train during the reign - not much change
The man who pays his way
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Friday 01 June 2012
Jumbilation at BA, if you will excuse the term. "Jubilee Jumbo to take flight," the airline announced this week. "One of British Airways' fleet of 747s is now featuring a very special emblem to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee."
At the start of its journey to fly the flag around the world, the Boeing will no doubt roll across what Heathrow airport's publicity describes as a "giant Union Jack flag with an image of Her Majesty" – a tennis-court-sized flag adjacent to the northern runway.
The Queen is the world's most travelled head of state by a royal mile. Yet given the technological advances that have transformed everything from money to music over the past 60 years, Her Majesty may be perplexed by how little travel has advanced during her reign. Let's start with that plane, the Boeing 747. The first passengers flew on the Jumbo in 1970. The fact that it is still an aviation workhorse, and that yet another variant is about to enter service with Lufthansa, is a tribute to the makers who have worked wonders with the same basic structure.
The Jumbilee jet that carries the emblem is only 13 years old – one of the youngest in the airline's fleet. Another 747 in service with BA was flying in the 1980s. At least the Jumbo has done better than Concorde. The world's fastest airliner entered commercial service just before Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and was grounded just after the Golden anniversary of her accession to the throne – to the relief of the residents of Windsor, beneath the Heathrow flight path, whose days instantly became quieter.
Despite urban myths to the contrary, older aircraft are no less inherently safe than more modern planes; indeed, British Airways engineers deserve a share in the congratulations for the airline's astonishingly good safety record. But BA's claim to operate one of "the most modern fleets of any airline in the world" is baffling. Many of BA's 737s were around for the Queen's ruby jubilee in 1992, which thankfully no one shortened to "rubilee".
Other airlines are available, but are not necessarily much more modern. Virgin Atlantic ("One of the youngest fleets in the world") flies a pair of veteran Airbus A340s, built 20 years ago.
As the monarch celebrated 30 years on the throne, Monarch became the first charter airline in the world to order the Boeing 757 – and, 30 years on, the Luton-based airline is still flying the type. BA, Virgin and Thomson have the 787 "Dreamliner" jet on order, but until next year at the earliest passengers loyal to UK airlines must stay locked in the 20th century. Quite appropriate, given that both Heathrow and Gatwick – by far the UK's busiest airports – took shape at the beginning of the Elizabethan era.
Wight old rolling stock
Our national railway tradition goes much further back, of course, since we invented passenger trains even before Victoria took to the throne. Almost the entire rail network is 19th century, and the retro traveller need not venture far to find rolling stock that predates the start of Elizabeth II's reign. The Isle of Wight is sometimes pejoratively described as being decades behind the rest of Britain; trains on its single railway line, from the pier head at Ryde to Shanklin, are 1938 ex-London Underground stock and therefore almost as old as Engelbert Humperdinck.
The Queen herself travels in the epitome of 20th-century railway comfort. The last refreshment of the Royal Train deployed InterCity Mk 3 carriages manufactured in the year of the Silver Jubilee, 1977. This rolling stock is fit for commoners, too, as shown by Chiltern Railways hungrily buying up Mk 3 stock to run on its line from Birmingham to London Marylebone.
Revolution? Not aboard the no 9
In the unlikely event that you make it to the capital this weekend, given the multiplicity of rail closures, take a 1950s bus ride aboard a Routemaster on the most royal of routes: the number 9 from Trafalgar Square, at the head of the Mall, via the Royal Albert Hall to Kensington. The much-loved bus is in regular service (as it is on route 15 to the Tower of London). You may strike lucky and travel on the Routemaster that was originally painted silver for the 1977 Jubilee: like the Queen herself, its endurance is a British marvel.
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