Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Britain's transport policy goes even more off the rails

Published: 21 April 2007

To discover why Britain is years away from having a sensible, integrated transport policy, dial 01325 335406. This is a working telephone (or at least it was when I tested it on Wednesday), but I guarantee that no one will answer. Except, perhaps, around 10.25am today.

The location of this BT payphone is on platform 2 of Teesside Airport railway station. This is a neat and very tidy station on the busy Darlington-Middlesbrough line. It is operated by Northern Rail. The train operator has put up a poster on platform 1 promising it is "Making the Railway Simple for You".

At this particular station the timetable is a masterpiece of simplicity. As with the Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted Expresses, airport trains run at regular intervals. The length of that interval, though, is rather different. If you miss a train from one of the big three airports to central London, there will be another one along in 15 minutes or less. But miss the 10.28am to Middlesbrough from Teesside airport this morning and you face a week's wait for the next. (So, if you do dial at 10.25am, don't keep the intending passenger chatting for longer than a couple of minutes.)

This ludicrous state of affairs has endured for a decade. It prevails because no train operator actually wants to serve Teesside Airport, but the legal process necessary to close a station is so complicated and expensive that it is cheaper and easier to keep it legally open by stopping a train once a week.

THE AIRPORT that began life as a Second World War RAF bomber base has seen a resurgence in traffic, with Flyglobespan establishing a busy network of services to places even sunnier than Teesside. Ryanair and Wizz Air are also starting flights this year. Yet Northern Rail has not seen fit to establish a more rational service. Instead, new arrivals keen to use public transport are invited to travel by bus.

The 737 runs from the airport to Darlington, and is free to people who can prove they are flying that day. But the schedule could be more sensible. The first BMI arrival from Heathrow is due at 7.30am; if it is on time, you have just five minutes to leave the aircraft, pick up your bags and run for the bus. Miss it, and you face an hour's wait.

In the other direction, bus 20 runs from the airport to Stockton and Middlesbrough. Eventually. This is a magical mystery tour of the Tees Valley. It takes in the magnificent viaduct at Yarm, twice, because of some doubling back. The five-mile distance to Stockton takes exactly an hour to cover.

WITH A perfectly good train service between London and Darlington, taking two-and-a-half hours, you might wonder why anyone would want to fly from Heathrow to Teesside. The National Rail Enquiries website sums up the incentive neatly. For anyone seeking a train from King's Cross the next morning, the brutal message is "Cheapest available fare: £102.50". Click across to BMI, and the fare for the 6.30am flight is almost two-thirds cheaper, at £37.

Mind you, Wednesday's flight 330 from Heathrow to Teeside was the grumpiest departure I have ever travelled on. Three reasons: no one on board could have stayed in bed later than 4am; everyone on board was going to be late, apparently due to a last-minute aircraft change; and not even a glass of water, let alone a cup of coffee or a bacon sandwich, was available on board.

ONE MORE absurdity: the station name, Teesside Airport, is no longer the same as that of the airport. Three years ago, the airport became Durham Tees Valley. So anyone searching for that rare train in the timetable is unlikely to find it. Instead, they could well end up 25 miles away in Durham; that city's name was attached to the airport because it sounds more alluring than the trio of nearby towns: Darlington, Stockton and Middlesbrough. The airport needs another name-change, to George Stephenson International - celebrating the "Father of Railways", whose Stockton & Darlington Railway ran to a more sensible schedule in 1825 than the corresponding line does today.

THESE PAGES sometimes go astray. Our story about the Maldives last Saturday included a picture of an idyllic beach scene in the Maldives. It was not, though, the island mentioned in the article and the accompanying caption. Rather than the Soneva Six Senses resort, it showed a Universal Resorts property, Kurumba. Sorry.

THE 'QUEEN' CASHES IN ON BUDGET FLIGHTS

LONDON'S SOUTH Bank was the setting on Thursday for the latest Ryanair PR stunt. A widely circulated e-mail asserted that the Queen would be handing out free flights between 12.30pm and 1.30pm to anyone who gave her a birthday card. I promptly wrote one wishing Her Majesty many regal returns.

This being Ryanair, there was a catch. Or three. It wasn't the Queen, but a lookalike; the tickets arrived an hour late, after Her Majesty left them in the back of a cab; and they were not free, but about £35 return.

The "Queen" and I made small talk; she is really Mary Reynolds from Harrow and performs 50 times a year.

Then something very strange happened. "Are you the Queen's minder?", a tourist asked. Corinne Cozens from Johannesburg had just had her picture taken with Mary, and wanted to leave a US$20 tip. I confessed I was not a royal bodyguard, and urged her to spend the cash on a one-way Ryanair flight between now and October, coincidentally on sale for a flat £10 including taxes, fees and charges - available for purchase over the next nine days.

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