July 31, 2003

The dangers of multi-mode travel or Nothing beats a Dutchman with a BMW

Michael Jennings | Transport Miscellany

For a week until Monday, I was partaking of a little tour of the South of France, mostly in Provence. As it happened, I purchased a return ticket on Ryanair from London Stansted to Montpellier, which thanks to the deregulation of European air routes cost me only 53 pounds return, tax inclusive. After arriving in Montpellier last week, I slowly worked my way to Marseilles, which was where I found myself at 5.30pm on Monday. My flight was due to fly out of Montpellier at 10.20pm, and the final check-in time was 9.50pm.

No problem. France's world famous railways should get me there in plenty of time. There were frequent services to Montpellier, including one leaving at 6.03pm, arriving at about 7.30pm. I would have plenty of time in Montpellier in which to buy some wine and a few bottles of Belgian beer, both much cheaper than in France then in England. I normally travel very light - just one small backpack that I carry as hand luggage - so I would need another bag to carry the drinks. As it happened, my rucksack was old and falling to pieces, and I saw one for sale cheaply in Marseilles, which I purchased. I now had two bags and would have to check one of them rather than just carry hand luggage, but such would be the price of having some of that lovely Belgian beer to put in the fridge when I got back to London.

So, I got on the train to Montpellier. After about 15 minutes, the train stopped in a place called Rognac, barely outside the suburbs of Marseilles. There was an announcement that I could not understand, because I do not speak French. The young woman in the seat in front of me was talking on her mobile phone in English (and there was an open copy of The Economist on the seat beside her), so I asked her if she had any idea what was going on. She didn't, but the message eventually filtered through from the other passengers that there was a fire near Arles, which was causing the delay.

After about 20 minutes, the train resumed moving. There was another announcement, that included the word "Avignon" several times. Again I asked the woman in front of me if she understood, and eventually the information filtered through that rather than going through Arles, the train was being diverted along another line to Avignon, and it could eventually get to Nimes and Montpellier via a longer route.

Okay, I still had some time in hand, but it then turned out that the other train line was a very minor branch of the French railways, so we went very very slowly. It felt like a speed of about 20km/h. (There was an irrigation canal beside the railway for much of the way, so if nothing else, I managed to learn a fair bit about the irrigation of the Rhone vineyards by looking at it). Eventually, after a long journey, we got to Avignon. By this time it was after 8.30 pm. I had barely more than an hour to get to Montpellier airport. It didn't look good. A bus to the airport seemed out. Perhaps it was possible if I caught a taxi.

However, it got worse. The train conductor came down the train, and informed us that the train was going to terminate at Nimes. To get to Montpellier, we should board the next TGV going in that direction, and we would eventually arrive there at 9.45pm. This was no good to me. I was going to miss my flight. I managed to convey this message to the conductor, who was sympathetic but not able to help. He merely told me that if I missed my flight, I should go to the information desk at Montpellier station and they would find me (and pay for) a hotel room. This was better than nothing, but not great. I would still have to try to rebook onto another flight. Like with most discount airlines, Ryanair's tickets say that if you miss the flight you are not entitled to anything, but in practice they usually rebook you onto the next flight for which there is an available seat. However, they only fly once a day to Montpellier, so I had a 24 hour wait at least.

However, the woman in the seat in front of me had mentioned that she had been planning on meeting her fiance in Montpellier, but that due to the delay he had driven to Nimes, and was waiting for her there. I therefore asked if they were going back to Montpellier, and if there was any chance of his giving me a lift. She said that we might as well try it. We got off the train in Nimes (by which time it was 9.15pm). The lady's fiance turned out to be a Dutchman, who had driven down to France on business, and she had flown down to join him once he was finished. After a brief set of greetings that appeared to indicate that they were very pleased to see one another, the situation was outlined and the Dutchman was also willing to give it a try. We went to his car, which was a brand new BMW minivan. After slight difficulties finding the entrance to the autoroute, we headed for Montpellier. After a few minutes I glanced at the speedometer, and saw we were doing 180km/h. I don't know whether this was for me, if the Dutchman always drove that fast, or simply if the two people were just very, very eager to get to their hotel room, but I was relieved. The car had one of those navigation computers that gave estimated arrival times and exact locations (using GPS) and the like, and as we went down the motorway, the estimated arrival time steadily got earlier. It needed to, as we were cutting it fine.

However, we arrived at Montpellier airport at about 9.45pm. I thanked the couple profusely, ran to the check in desk, and checked in just in time. Now, I had two bags, one empty, due to my not having had time to buy any beer. Both were hand luggage sized individually, but airlines these days are cracking down on people who try to take more than one piece of hand luggage. Therefore, I checked one piece of luggage in. As it happened, I needn't have, as nobody at this particular airport seemed concerned about such things. (However, I didn't know that in advance).

So, having boarded the plane, I relaxed as I was flown back to London. For the cost of one small can of Heineken on the flight I could have bought three large bottles of Abbaye Mont St. Jean (complete with champagne corks in the top) in a French supermarket, but I felt that I had earned a beer so I handed over the four euros and I have to confess I did enjoy it.

In any event, we made good time to London Stansted, arriving 20 minutes ahead of schedule at about 11.10 pm. As is usual on Ryanair, the cabin crew walked down the aisle of the plane before the landing selling tickets for the train to London. (The airline presumably has a deal with the rail operator over this and gets a commission on each ticket sold. It's a good deal for the train operator because if they can sell tickets to passengers before they land, this will ensure the passengers catch the train to London and not the bus. One also finds staff directing people to the train station and not the bus station in the airport terminal. The train service is marketed pretty aggressively. There is not of course anything wrong with this. It is a good train service. I had purchased a return train ticket last week, so none of this applied to me).

The last train from Stansted to London left at 11.59pm. No trouble. There was an earlier train at 11.30pm. That would be better, as it would mean I could probably get across London in time to catch the last train to Selhurst from London Victoria at 12.42am, but this was a tall order. If I didn't, this would be a relatively minor issue, as I could get a later train to East Croydon. This would mean a slightly longer walk at the end of the journey, but this would not be a big deal.

So, I walked into the arrivals hall, and my heart dropped. I travel on an Australian passport, and the immigration queue for "Non-EU nationals" was way longer than I am used to. Stansted seems busier every time I go there, and it was a real circus. (When I started using Stansted in 1992, it was the easiest airport in the world to use, because hardly any passengers used it. Also fares cost three times as much as they do now. These two things are not unrelated). Whereas EU (and EEA, and Swiss) citizens are allowed to walk straight through, those of use who come from other countries are required to be hassled by Her Majesty's Immigration Service.

I had to wait in a queue. The 11.30pm train was completely out of the question. And as the queue moved slowly, it became less and less likely that I would make the 11.59pm service. As it happened, I got through immigration at 11.57pm. It might have been possible to make the train (Stansted's train station is very convenient to the terminal) if I sprinted, but to be truthful probably not.

But this didn't matter. As I had waited in the queue, there was an announcement that a belt had broken on a baggage handling machine, and the baggage from the flight from Montpellier was delayed. The clock ticked, and the baggage finally came out at about 12.05am. I walked to the train station to see if the train was late or anything, but as expected it was gone. I had missed the train by about 10 minutes. Presumably, anyone else on the flight who was not an EU national with hand luggage only had also missed the train. I hope that there was an easy way for people who had purchased train tickets on the plane to get their money back.

Annoying, but no big deal. Although the last train was gone, there are regular buses all night. This would cost me more money, but compared to the hassles that would have eventuated due to missing the flight in Montpellier, this was small beer. Interestingly, another bus company (of which I do not remember the name) is now competing with National Express. The words "Stansted Airport to London Victoria from 5 pounds" were written on the side of the bus, with the word "from" very small. It turned out that the fare was in fact 8.50. (The first five tickets sold for each bus were sold for 5.00). This was slightly sneaky, but given that National Express have "Stansted Airport to London Victoria from 8 pounds) written on their buses with "from" equally small, and the fare is actually 10 pounds, I guess these guys are only copying their competition. Better, though, the new service goes nonstop to Victoria, whereas the National Express service stops at lots of places along the way. Despite the silly business with the "from", the extra competition is clearly a good thing.

The bus got me to Victoria Station at 1.45am, which was fine. Although West Anglia and Great Northern are unable to provide a train from Stansted later than midnight (presumably because that entire network closes at that hour - I am sure they would offer later trains if they easily could because there is no shortage of potential passengers) South Central somehow manages to provide later services. There is an hourly service to East Croydon and beyond throughout the night, which must be one of the very few 24 hour rail services in London. I hopped on the 2am train. Although the timetable and departure boards don't give any stops between Clapham Junction and East Croydon, the on board announcer gave Selhurst as a stop. And when we got to Selhurst, the train did indeed stop there. The ticket inspector got off at Selhurst, so it may have been an unofficial stop just for him. Whatever the reason, it saved me a walk, and I was soon at home and in bed, a mere nine and a half hours after leaving Marseilles. I spent almost every moment of those nine hours either travelling or waiting in a terminal of some kind.

And, because this is a serious transport blog, I suppose I had better find some sort of moral for this story - hopefully one that supports the case for free markets. The first observation is a simple one: if you have a journey that involves multiple modes of transport and changes between them, then things are likely to go wrong. The more modes you change between, the more likely it is that your plans will go awry. Probably if I had chosen a single mode of transport - for instance trains all the way - then the hassles would have been less. I may have still missed an intended train, but railway staff are used to dealing with situations in which people miss rail connections. (Getting from Marseilles to south London by train in less than nine hours is easy, too. TGV from Marseilles to Lille. Eurostar from Lille to Waterloo. Done).

Secondly, it illustrates the weaknesses of public transportation (ie trains and buses) compared to private transportation (ie cars). Simply, when something went wrong on the train I had no flexibility and I was not in control of my own destiny. Having lost time, there was no real way to gain it back as the people in control ultimately did not share my concerns. That is not to say that they were unsympathetic - only that the concerns of one passenger is a small thing compared to the concerns of an entire trainload, or compared to getting the train system back to normal after a set of delays. On the other hand, once I was in a car talking to the driver - even a driver who was simply very kindly doing a stranger a favour - then my concerns were suddenly important and things were being done about my making a train on time.

Once again, back in Stansted things would have been much easier if I had left a car in the long term parking lot. The time of night wouldn't have mattered, and I could have simply driven home. Once again we had a train system being operated to provide for the needs of a passenger body in aggregate and not so much for the needs of individual passengers. Car travel is much more individual.

But all this pales before the ultimate moral of the story, which is that when you are in trouble, there are few better things than having a Dutchman with a BMW on your side.

Trackbacks

Comments

Right. Individual modes of transport are fantastic. At least as long as there are not too many individuals on the same road. Otherwise, the result is jam. Just imagine all the commuters into London going by car …
By the way, spending a week in Provence and not realising there are right now some of the worst fires for years might be seen as a lack of interest.
And if you like beer with champagne corks, try Jenlain – best beer I’ve been drinking in France.

Posted by Rike on July 31, 2003

You can be delayed using any means of transport, sure. However, if you are in a car you still have more control than a train. You can pull over to the side of the road, take a back route, and if the whole journey is by car you know you will ultimately get there.

Provence is a big place. The vast majority of it was not on fire, and as far as I knew the fires were further east. Apparently SNCF were unaware that their lines were about to be cut off by fire until after my train had left. I don't think it was that unreasonable for me also to be unaware of this.

And I shall certainly try the Jenlain when I have the chance.

Posted by Michael Jennings on August 1, 2003

This story reminded me of what I found the most useful rule of thumb for transportation in Europe: "wherever you are going it takes a whole day".

Posted by Neville on August 2, 2003

By contrast, the only time I've ever missed a flight was in the US, when my now-wife and I got stuck in Boston's famous traffic snarlups on the edge of the city, and spent two hours travelling about five miles along the interstate alongside other 'individuals'. The additional cost? $100 for a hotel, and $200 to rebook the flights (low-cost airline).

Had we hired a car on the outskirts of the city, we might have been able to take the T from there to the airport, since, as anyone who's flown through Logan knows, reaching it by car entails driving right through the city to the coastline. Wonderful planning, that. There are no real 'back-roads' through what is, after all, a built-up city on a seventeenth-century plan.

(And perhaps, just perhaps, the reason the autoroute isn't jammed like Massachusetts' roads is because the French have a viable option of taking the train for routes beyond the city limits.)

The only other time I've come close to missing a flight was when I had to drive through Atlanta, another city with very limited public transport, and that only within the city limits. (If you're white and use the MARTA, you're an anomaly, sad to say.) Atlanta's traffic levels, even on the eight-lane downtown connector, rival those of Los Angeles, and have the potential to snarl up in matter of minutes -- again, with little option to take backroads.

Anyway, I'll second the recommendation for Jenlain.

Posted by nick sweeney on August 12, 2003

Cars can break down too! And if your car breaks down in the wrong place then you are really in trouble. You can't just abandon it and hail a taxi. Well, you can, but I think most people wouldn't want to.
I would expect trains to be more dependable than cars. They have reliable diesel engines or electric motors, they are regularly maintained, driven by professionals on a controlled, private track. However, this is never borne out in practice, at least not in the UK, where car is the most reliable form of transport, if not always the fastest (because of traffic congestion).
There's a horrible paradox at the centre of individualised transport. It is liberating and wonderful, but only as long as it is used by a minority. Once everyone starts using it and the traffic starts to back up, it becomes more restricting than liberating.
This reminds me of a public transport experiment that was proposed for Cardiff a few years ago. 4-seater light rail-mounted "pods" were to be made available throughout the city. They would act like taxis, in that you could summon them from anywhere on the pod-rail system, and travel to anywhere else on the system. A central computer would determine the most efficient means of allocation and routing of the pods. It has a kind of retro, 1950s sci-fi feel about it, but it was an interesting compromise between "public" and "private" transportation. I don't know if it was ever built.

Posted by paul leahy on August 13, 2003

I LOVE the new BMW X5. On that page, it lists the price a little bit higher, and the car review is really good. I think the ride is really smooth, and the style is amazing. BMW has done well!!

Posted by Mike Clecco on November 20, 2003

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