The Man Who Pays His Way

To find bullets whistling over your head and a guerrilla attack in progress while you are merely trying to change planes must be, to say the least, disconcerting. How fortunate none of the holidaymakers at Colombo airport was harmed in the battle on Tuesday. For the rest of us, life at Britain's airports thankfully involves stress of a far milder order. But I doubt that members of the endangered species comprising visitors prepared to spend their precious time off in Britain are impressed by what they have seen if they have arrived at London's airports this month.

Touch down at Gatwick, and the new arrival is confronted by half a dozen train operators competing for custom; on Sundays, the choice is made a little easier by Connex and Thameslink failing to run to anything like the published timetable. Anyone heading for Luton airport on the Lord's day has faced long journeys and missed flights because of engineering works. But the best timing of all belongs to London Underground, which chose the busiest Sunday of the year to close the Piccadilly Line linking the airport with central London.

All this will sound comfortably familiar to anyone who recalls links from the capital to Heathrow before the Queen opened the Piccadilly Line extension to Heathrow in her Silver Jubilee Year of 1977. Passengers had first to catch the Tube to the bitter end, at Hounslow West. There, if they were lucky, a dodgy old bus numbered A1 lumbered down the A4 to the airport in half an hour or so. From central London, you had to allow a couple of hours to reach check-in – a good bet on summer Sundays in 2001.

What happens if you choose the world's most expensive railway, the £1-a-mile Heathrow Express? That depends on the weather, according to Anthony Baxter. Earlier this month, he tried to use it:

"The Heathrow Express ('famous for 15 minutes') took one and a half hours to get from Heathrow to Paddington. The reason? The hot weather was affecting signals."

Next, he took a Tube from Paddington to Charing Cross – a relative bargain at £1.50. "That was OK. But then no trains were running from Charing Cross to my home in Blackheath, south-east London. I had to get a Tube to Cannon Street. Delays again there. The total journey time? Four hours to travel a distance of around 20 miles."

What made this journey so frustrating, he says, was the picture it created of transport in Britain. "We had to wait an age for our bags from the flight. Anyone looking at transport alternatives into London would have been dismayed. There were no Tubes from Heathrow – a replacement bus instead." Even New York JFK looks civilised by comparison.

At least, when it is running correctly, the Heathrow Express lives up to its name – unlike its counterpart to Stansted.

"We make more time for you", runs the slogan. But the "Stansted Express" is turning into a joke. Travellers on the early-morning service to the Essex airport who turn up expecting to whizz from Liverpool Street station to Stansted "in under 45 minutes", as the train operator promises, find instead that they are aboard a stopping service that ambles through the countryside pausing at no fewer than seven stations before the airport.

The visitor is able to sample the leafy delights of Tottenham Hale, Broxbourne, Harlow Town and Harlow Mill, Sawbridgeworth, Bishop's Stortford and Stansted Mountfitchet, where you can listen to the dawn chorus and admire the flowers that fringe the platform, while a new driver is found for the final few miles of the journey.

All of which is splendid for those with time on their hands, but less satisfying for those with a plane to catch. With the no-frills airlines applying a zero-tolerance policy to anyone showing up with less than 30 minutes remaining, the resulting sprint to reach check-in offers hope for Britain's Olympic aspirations.

Readers in other parts of the country may wonder what all the fuss is about. With the honourable exception of Manchester, which has direct trains from many destinations, and Prestwick, served half-hourly from Glasgow, the notion of rail-air links is laughable. Aberdeen and Edinburgh have railways passing the runways, but so far BAA – which owns both – has shown no inclination to invest a fraction of the £450m cost of the Heathrow Express in building the necessary short links to the terminals. Teesside airport has its own station, and train operators are so serious about helping travellers use public transport to the plane that they schedule one train a week.

Two heroes are at last to be recognised in their home country. Liverpool's airport is to be renamed John Lennon International, while Prince Charles has reportedly given his approval for a garden in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Too late. One country has already recognised both the former Beatle and the late Princess by creating tourist attractions in their honour. The Cuban capital, Havana, has a Parque John Lennon and a Jardin de Diana. That these open spaces have been turned into tributes to British notables is all the more remarkable because Beatles music was banned as decadent during the first decade of the revolution – and Diana represents a class system at odds with the Cuban Communist Party.

Cuba needs all the help it can get, though, because British Airways has decided to abandon its flights from Gatwick to Havana, leaving the island disconnected from Britain. Sir Richard Branson will not come to the rescue of another bearded celebrity, Fidel Castro. The gap in the market looks prime territory for Virgin Atlantic. But the airline says there are no plans to take up the Havana route when BA drops it next March. The alternative is on Aeroflot from Shannon in Ireland to Havana; if the Russian airline needs a slogan, try "from County Clare to Che Country".

"Sri Lanka may be entering a period of increased civil unrest", was the prophetic warning from the US State Department last week. The Foreign Office was cautiously optimistic: "Colombo has been quiet in recent months" – though it did not rule out the risk of further attacks.

Whitehall now says you should cancel "all holiday and other non-essential travel to Sri Lanka". It is easy to talk of horses, stable doors and bolts, but there are welcome signs that the FO's travel advice is getting more responsive, detailed and assertive.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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