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.