Welcome to Britain

Well then. Back to Blighty. Not the  best journey home, though.

For a start, the 11-hour flight from Cape Town became a 12-hour  flight because of an hour spent circling around in a holding pattern over South London. One expects that at Heathrow. Air traffic delays are the rule rather than the exception, and you learn to get used to it. Kind of. Although since it always happens you would think the airlines might include it in their timetables and other advertising, for the sake of honest and accuracy. Just saying. Nevertheless, this didn’t particularly annoy me.  Despite  getting no more than an hour’s sleep last night I was in a fairly good mood when I got off the plane.

At least until I got into the terminal building, Terminal 5 at Heathrow. For those of you not familiar with this terminal, it’s a gleaming and apparently spacious affair only a few years old. The problem is that when it gets busy, like this morning, you discover that this glitzy exterior masks a design that’s completely idiotic.

We landed at a `B’ gate on a satellite building connected to the main terminal via a `transit’, i.e. a small train. A very small train. When passengers from my flight got to the concourse from which the transit departs, it was crammed full of people who had to squeeze onto the the little train when it eventually arrived:

All this for a journey of about 2 minutes. It would have been much simpler to have constructed a walkway to the main terminal. In fact there is one. For staff only. But not for the passengers. There had to be a transit. Transits are the thing. Of course having a transit means having an extra subterranean level to the building, with lifts going down to it at one end and up from it at another. But lifts are the thing also. There are lots of lifts at Terminal 5. Going forward we’ll all be going up and down.

I wonder if the architect had shares in a company that makes lifts and transit trains?

Anyway on arrival at Terminal 5 there was a similar scrum at the lifts up to passport control. No escalators were working, so I had to wait in the crowd of disgruntled passengers, gradually inching forwards while the 3 operating lifts came and went. As we went up it dawned on me that there might be a delay at passport control..

In fact there were delays before we even got there. The immigration hall was so full that we had to form three separate queues along a corridor just to get into the main queue.

When I finally got into the immigration hall, it was pandemonium. The capacity in this area is clearly far too small and there are far too few people checking passports. The system just can’t cope with the traffic being sent through it. It’s a basic management problem that apparently nobody is prepared to do anything about. Improving it would cost money, of course, but why bother? Passengers are hardly going to turn around and go home at that point, so who cares?

At least the queue for UK/EU passport holders was moving. As I inched forward through the rat’s maze towards a desk I looked from time to time at the “Other passports” line, which barely budged. I felt a sense of anger mixed with shame. What sort of message does this send to visitors to our shores? What kind of country is it that makes showy new buildings like Terminal 5 and then runs them like Fawlty Towers?

They don’t allow photography in the passport control area, by the way. The ban is no doubt an attempt to conceal the evidence of what a shambles it is.

Anyway, at least the long delay at Immigration meant that my bag had arrived at the Baggage Reclaim by the time I got through. I picked it up and made for the Heathrow Express connection to Paddington. The time was just after 8.30; one hour and three quarters after we’d landed.

Still at least I was on my way. Or was I? The train departed and then stopped at a signal. We waited. Eventually the driver explained that there was a major points and signal failure so only one line was operating. We got to Paddington, but it took 35 minutes rather than the usual 15.

There is an alternative way of getting back to Cardiff from Heathrow, which involves taking a bus to Reading and getting the train from there. Although that route is cheaper, there is a risk of severe traffic delays at rush-hour periods, so opted for the Heathrow Express in the belief it was more reliable. More fool me.

When I arrived at Paddington, it too was a mass of disgruntled people. The reason? No trains.

The same signalling problem was disrupting trains into and out of Paddington. All departing trains were simply marked as “delayed” on the boards. Eventually, I got the 9.15, which departed at 9.38. Not too bad in the end. Except that it had to navigate a crowded route westwards. We arrived at Reading after 50 minutes instead of the usual 25.

Then things seem to settle down. We started to move at full speed. I even had a short nap. I was woken by an announcement from the guard. It had been decided that the train I was on would not, after all, be going to Cardiff but would terminate at Newport. First Great Western like to make the most of any possible inconvenience. It’s only 15 minutes from Newport to Cardiff, but it was too much trouble to take us that short distance. We were turfed off and had to wait for local commuter train. Not surprisingly, it was packed so I had to stand all the way.

I’ll be expecting a refund from First Great Western, but that’s not the point. It’s their contemptuous attitude to the travelling public that’s the point. Their prices are so high one might expect them to treat passengers with some respect. But no.

Anyway, I got home exhausted, stressed and frustrated. Given how badly things had gone I half-expected my house to have fallen down while I was away, but thankfully all was well back at the ranch. I decided to cool off a bit before writing this account of the journey, otherwise it would have been even more intemperate! I had been planning to go into work this afternoon but was in no fit state.

Still, it’s good to be home. Kind of.

21 Responses to “Welcome to Britain”

  1. You’ve made me very grateful that I ignored the temptation of Lufthansa airmiles and am flying direct from Munich to Edinburgh this afternoon.

    It’s been reported for weeks on the Today programme that a standard queue at Heathrow runs to 2hr, for which we can thank the hysteria whipped up by the Daily Mail et al. and Theresa May’s reaction to it.

    • telescoper Says:

      It amazed me is that the officious twerps ordering people around in the Immigration Hall seemed to think it was quite unreasonable for anyone to complain. Situation Normal for them, I guess. Why do we go along with such idiocy?

  2. ian smail Says:

    i disregarded the call for people on “short connections” when we last flew through LAX… thinking (foolishly) that a 3hr connection couldn’t be described as “short”.

    i was wrong – the minimum transfer time from the international terminal at LAX (which does involve a walk, rather than a train) is apparently ~2.45hrs.

    terminal 5 when we went through it was a dream by comparison… although obviously not yesterday.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Yes, they are extremely expensive. To travel from Cardiff to London (return) at peak times in the morning is about £200 for a journey of 2 hours (if you’re lucky). I could fly anywhere in Europe for that price. It’s ridiculous.

  4. Peter – just think yourself lucky that you didn’t arrive via terminal 3.

    I also wonder how things will go this summer during the Olympics. Heathrow is bad enough all times of year but there’ll likely be an increase in visitors around that time and airlines using larger planes to bring in more visitors per flight.

    Then right after that there will be an influx of UK residents returning from having left the UK to avoid the event.

    I try to avoid arriving at Heathrow in the morning and have found it a little more bearable late evening but not always. I understand that isn’t always an option and in any case, if you arrive at the same time as a bunch of delayed flights from Mexico and Nigeria then you’ll see the same immigration services you might expect in those countries – and the US.

  5. I travel through the ‘other passports’ line. The questioning at the desk has gotten noticeably more confrontational over the past several years. Queue length has increased proportionally. Based on my grumpy and unscientific observations the questioning is a hell of a lot lengthier and more stressful if your skin colour is at all darker than ‘white’, so I probably shouldn’t complain to much.

    The US and the UK- the two countries I spend the most time traveling between, and the two with the least pleasant immigration processes I’ve been through.

    • I don’t think that’s true, at least for the UK. I needed my passport to open a bank account, to get a national insurance card and to register with my local GP. I then needed these documents to do most other things. I have heard that people not from the EU may get a stamp with their visa specifically denying them access to welfare payments, so presumably obtaining benefits is one of the things you need to show identification for.

      It is true that in the UK I could register to vote, and indeed vote as well, without providing any identification, which struck me as a bit strange. Are there any other things you can do in the UK without ID, that you can’t do elsewhere?

  6. Of course when they open a third runway at Heathrow and also make more cuts to UKBA, you might look back on this experience with nostalgia.

    • telescoper Says:

      Indeed. A sensible administration would either reduce the number of planes flying into Heathrow or spend more money on the UKBA (or both). However, the former would damage the profits of the airlines and the latter would cost the Treasury money. So that just leaves the option of making the travelling public suffer.

      You would think the sizeable tax on air travel would be enough to pay for proper levels of service at airports, but it clearly isn’t being spent on such things.

  7. Garret Cotter Says:

    Only connect. Except at ORD. Never connect at ORD.

  8. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    One tiny suggestion which can help at Heathrow, at least for UK citizens: register for the Iris system and you’ll get through immigration much quicker, as a rule.

    It doesn’t take very long to get an iris scan done at the airport, so factor that extra time in once and save much more in the future.

    Of course, the machines can be a little temperamental occasionally, but once you’ve figured out what you’re supposed to do, it’s usually straightforward. And the queues are generally minimal.

    • telescoper Says:


      Unfortunately, according to the UK Borders Agency website:

      Registration for IRIS is no longer available. All of our enrolment rooms at Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester airports are closed until further notice.

      The Iris scanners have already been removed from Birmingham and Manchester and will only remain in place at Heathrow and Gatwick until the Olympics are over. Then they will also be scrapped.

      The reason? Iris was causing even longer delays than the old-fashioned system…

      And in any case you still have to join the pre-queue queues, even if it would speed you up when you actually got into the main hall.


      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        Oh. That’s a bit of a downer. Another retreat from the future. Will they be stored alongside Concorde?

        I suppose I’ll have to wait until 2015 when I get my new e-passport, before I can feel chipper again. Sorry.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think they’ll fit more comfortably with the Sinclair C5.

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        Not really sure I agree; the IRIS machines always worked fine for me and there are similar machines in operation at Schiphol.

        Still, they both make more futuristic sense than the technology that was used by the US INSPASS system, which involved sticking your hand in a box and it then measuring the ratios of the lengths of your fingers.

        It was introduced in the mid-1990s at some US airports and I signed up about a year before it was cancelled in 2002. I wonder why?

        (Ironically, given what I said above, Wikipedia suggests that INSPASS stemmed from a similar technology in use in the Netherlands called Schipholpass :-))

  9. Bryn Jones Says:

    Another way of travelling from Heathrow to Cardiff is to take a direct bus. That was always the way I made the journey when I lived in Cardiff.

  10. telescoper Says:

    Heathrow `may not cope during Olympics’


    I have news for the BBC – it can’t cope already.

  11. telescoper Says:

    Well, persistence clearly pays off. I lodged a claim for a refund, and was initially offered a small amount of compensation in rail travel vouchers, I sent them back with a comment that First Great Western had chosen to terminate the train at Newport – it hadn’t broken down or been stopped by track problems. Today I got a cheque for the full amount of the fare. Result.

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