Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Start early on the Old Kent Railroad to Britain's newest airport

"Hey Dad, I've just left Victoria," said the young woman into her telephone. "I'll be back in about an hour." Travel these days is a cinch, isn't it? At four minutes past midnight on Wednesday morning, the first train of September from London Victoria to Ramsgate lurched off and hauled itself over the Thames. As it rattled along the Old Kent Railroad, the late-night passenger settled back for some high-intensity texting to fill the 60 minutes before her father would meet her.

"Hey Dad, I've just left Victoria," said the young woman into her telephone. "I'll be back in about an hour." Travel these days is a cinch, isn't it? At four minutes past midnight on Wednesday morning, the first train of September from London Victoria to Ramsgate lurched off and hauled itself over the Thames. As it rattled along the Old Kent Railroad, the late-night passenger settled back for some high-intensity texting to fill the 60 minutes before her father would meet her.

Further back along the carriage, a contingent of men had just been deafened at a heavy metal gig. The loud conversation was not as offensive as the odour from their in-train snack, which appeared to be the entire stock of the Victoria station branch of Burger King.

While they wolfed fries and argued raucously about the relative merits of AC/DC and Judas Priest, the train tiptoed through Herne Hill, Sydenham Hill and assorted slumbering suburbs. I, too, longed to sleep, but it was essential to stay awake. I had a plane to catch.

Kent international airport opened for business this week. Manston, as it used to be known, plans to go from zero to 800,000 scheduled airline passengers in a year - thanks to a new no-frills airline called EUjet. In a market that looks uncomfortably crowded, this Irish-based operation has found a niche in south-east England that keeps it comfortably away from the competition.

Manston is comfortably away from the nearest station, too. This is Planet Thanet, the erstwhile Isle at the far end of Kent. There is talk of building an airport station on the Canterbury line, which passes nearby. Meanwhile, the only rail option for anyone setting off from London for the first EUjet flights of the day, to Amsterdam and Dublin at 6.15am, is to leave the capital six hours before departure.

At Chatham, the mobile young lady stepped smartly from the train to parental car; now that's what I call a seamless, integrated transport system. Just before Rainham, the first frustrated smoker started pacing up and down asking for cigarettes (he found one, and a light, in the last carriage).

By the time Birchington-on-Sea crept up, the passenger payload appeared to have sunk to two. Half of us got off. This is the anointed station for Kent International. The first airport bus reaches the terminal three hours after check-in closes. So I had brought my folding bike for the four-mile ride to Britain's newest scheduled airport, and a flight to Dublin on Europe's newest airline.

The village church bell chimed two, and I convinced myself I was hallucinating. Cycling around Kent is a grand occupation on a fine September day. But on a clear, crisp September night beneath a full moon, it can be weird. Going south from the station, I passed the Sea View pub, even though the water is half a mile away. At the far end of the village, the garden of Fountain Cottage has some unusual furniture: a pillar box and a telephone kiosk, the latter illuminated. Stranger and stranger. Manston is the only airport I have seen that boasts a camping and caravanning site a Jumbo's length from the runway. And talking of Boeing 747s: there are two of them parked in a field beside the road.

Journeys to airports by road or rail are so fraught with uncertainty that the rational airline passenger builds in plenty of "dwell time"; the four hours that I had to spare is not unusual. The doors at Manston, however, remain locked until 3.30am. For the first hour I dwelt outside the door, wishing I was inside a telephone kiosk. Inside, the electronic displays danced for no one.

Rarely have I been happier to see the clock tick around to half-past-three in the morning. Inside, the overpowering smell was of fresh paint. The airport owners have turned a military airfield into a 21st-century civil air terminal in five months flat. More dwelling, though; the check-in desk did not open until 4.15am, two hours before the first departures. A few other passengers began to arrive, also a tad previous. We each set up camp in different corners of the terminal. I closed my eyes and dreamed of Gatwick, which is rarely a good thing.

Gatwick cannot boast such a benevolent ratio of check-in desks to passengers as Manston: six counters opened simultaneously, outnumbering the straggle of passengers. The staff were well trained, having spent the previous week practising on a few dozen co-operative locals who were prepared to pretend to be passengers on flights to nowhere. But immediately I hit a snag. My fold-up bicycle, which from experience I try to conceal in a bag, was uncovered and pronounced to be sports equipment. It would cost £15 to check it in to Dublin, and the same to bring it back. P J McGoldrick, the airline founder, is a brave and decent man, who has sunk a fortune into EUjet, but I had already given him £30 for my return ticket. The bike stayed behind. So did Mr McGoldrick, for media interviews.

The company boss used to be chief executive at what was then another small Irish airline, Ryanair. For this venture, he saved on brand development by conceiving the name himself: "I just thought it up. The dot.com [ www.EUjet.com] had to be available, and it was."

Choosing a name for a new airline could prove a lot easier than selling seats to and from an airport no one has heard of. But the EUjet boss is happy with sales so far. "Prague has been the most heavily booked route, followed by Dublin and Amsterdam." Now Mr McGoldrick has the trickier task of persuading the citizens of those fine capitals to visit Britain's newest holiday "island", the Isle of Thanet.

"We're outside the London traffic area, and able to get in and out of here without any holding time," Mr McGoldrick had told me before I boarded the plane. Usually true, no doubt, but in keeping with the tradition that the maiden flight on every no-frills airline is late, the captain said that the air-traffic control computer at Swanwick had temporarily failed. We waited our turn while Sellotape and string were applied.

Both EUjet aircraft left half an hour late. Still, the well-appointed plane - a Fokker 100, with leather seats and generous legroom - was more comfortable than the train had been. After take-off, and an unusual flight path that involved a 270-degree turn to fly directly over the airport, we reached Dublin only slightly late. The Irish capital bestows immediate vitality on the weariest traveller. It remains to be seen if the same can be said for Planet Thanet.

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