I have a method by which to get them to Earth, of course. Even though our present technology may be a bit primitive we have orbital spacecraft and until the shuttle programme ended we even had re-usable space craft, so there was no challenge in creating something believable, but when I got my characters down to the planet’s surface, what then?
I started out by thinking about how the journey might be made today and then tried to think about how that might change and develop as we move towards future centuries. I concluded that the way the current system has evolved organically over two centuries suggests that very little might be different in the future. That then set me to thinking about how very inefficient and lacking integration the whole public transport system is in this country.
I don’t do a lot of travelling these days, a couple of times a year for holidays or short breaks. But when I do travel I like things to be as simple as possible and with as few changes of transport mode as can be achieved. Taking into account how much I have already spent on my holiday I also don’t want it to be expensive but it must be convenient. Manhandling heavy suitcases is not an enjoyable experience at my time of life, if it ever was.
Let me take you on an imaginary journey. We’re not going far, just from my house in Northamptonshire to Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. That’s less than 70 miles in a straight line. Let’s look at the alternative methods of transport I can choose.
The most obvious is to go by car. Risky! There are often delays on the M40 and the M25 is worse, so punctuality may be an issue, so when I add in time for delays the inefficiencies are already creeping in. I’ll allow two hours driving time, just in case. Now I’ll also need to park. The cheapest parking I’ve found for this week is £89.50 for seven days. I’ll have to factor in petrol, so let’s add £30 for that for the round trip.
Now, I’ll need to take the shuttle bus, they run every ten minutes and take seven minutes to get to the terminal. Looking on the pessimistic side that’s a total journey time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, with four lots of baggage handling for the round trip. That isn’t too bad compared to some of the alternatives.
How about going by bus instead?
From Banbury there are four services a day with the cheapest ticket at £18.75 return so, assuming I’m prepared to hang around the airport for a while, that looks cheap enough. But the bus only goes to terminals 1 to 3, so I’ll have to get a shuttle bus to T5 (or T4 if I were flying from there) which means another two lots of baggage handling, or four lots for the round trip. But I’ve also got to get to Banbury, which means a taxi at £25 each way, or £50 round trip, assuming I travel before midnight. Still good value at less than £70 all in and it becomes more efficient if two or more people travel, as the taxi cost can be shared.
So let’s take a look at trains.
There are a number of alternative routes for rail travel, but I’ll stick with going via Banbury so as to keep the comparisons simple. Let’s start off with the taxi this time, so that’s £50 straight away. Then there’s the train. Best journey time is two hours six minutes, but it goes via London Marylebone and Paddington stations with only a 30 minute connection time and at least two lots of escalators to deal with, each way, to get on and off the underground. The cheapest train fare is £49.80 return, total cost is about £100. Again there are efficiencies if two or more people travel and share taxi costs.
So the cheapest way to travel seems to be bus and the most expensive and complex is by car. Unless, of course my wife wants to come with me (she usually does) in which case rail suddenly becomes much more expensive. Rail also gives me the most baggage handling to deal with.
Now, that is one simple journey from my house to the largest international airport in Britain. Other people’s journeys would be far more complex, time consuming and expensive. It would be too complicated to start working out all the combinations for the different London airports, and once we get into regional airports things start to get very complicated indeed. Imagine getting from Southampton to Stanstead via Waterloo and Liverpool Street stations. I’ll give you a clue, it involves changing underground lines in the middle, so carrying heavy bags up and down more escalators.
As far as I can see, there are only two airports that are directly served by mainline stations rather than point-to-point express lines. Birmingham is one, but that’s only of use if your local station is served by the West Coast Mainline! Likewise Gatwick is fine if you just want to travel from London or Brighton, or intermediary stops. Stanstead runs services to Cambridge as well as London, but you have to change again to get onto the East Coast mainline trains. Luton requires the use of a shuttle bus to get to and from the Parkway station, and to get onto that railway line first requires you to get to St Pancras or Bedford if you don’t live on the First Capital Connect network.
East Midlands Airport is probably the worst connected. It has no railway service and depends on bus services to get people from the rail stations that are quite a distance away. Please don't e-mail to tell me about worse connected airports, but feel free to comment below.
You get the idea. It’s not what I would regard as an integrated system.
The problems originated when we first started to use air travel. Air travel was for the rich, so getting a car or a taxi to an airport wasn’t considered an inconvenience or an intolerable expense. When governments first started granting licences to build airports no one considered how people might get to and from the airports – and that was in the 1940s! But of course these days air travel is for everyone, and therefore travel to the airport is a major part of any journey for us all, both in terms of time and cost. However, as our use of air travel has increased no one has really thought about integrating airports with the rail network. The London underground connection to Heathrow wasn’t completed until 1984 and the full express rail service to Paddington wasn’t established until 1998, over fifty years after the airport was established as the main centre for passenger aviation in London.
Part of the problem is the way the railway systems developed in the 19th century. They were built over time by private companies and each had to have its own terminus in London. LNER went to Kings Cross, GWR to Paddington, etc and never the twain shall meet. The same applied in other cities where different companies had franchises to build railway lines.
Nationalisation of the railways in 1948 did absolutely nothing to change that state of affairs. The Beeching cuts of 1963 slashed rail services without really integrating what remained and the privatisation of 1996 has done less than the nationalised service in terms of improving connectivity.
In London there are 11 termini, 12 if you count Moorgate. The majority are connected by the Circle Line but four, including one of the largest, require a not inconsiderable (at my age) walk to reach that underground line. Two others are served by completely different underground lines which means changing lines somewhere if you want to travel from one of those termini to another. How do you sort out a mess like that in order to ease the traveller’s burden?
One of our newest airports, from which I flew quite recently, is London City which opened in 1988. It’s connection to Central London, just 6.2 miles away, is by the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). Does it connect to a mainline station at the city end? No, of course it doesn’t. To get to most mainline stations involves at least one and in some cases two or even three changes.
I sometimes wonder how foreigners see us in the 21st century, when they land at Heathrow or Gatwick and find that to get to any other part of the country is going to involve a journey as challenging as any that a 19th century traveller had to undertake. Indeed, the foreigners in my book, who are more foreign than most as they come from a different star system, are horrified by the public transport system, but that’s fiction for you.
If we were starting from scratch today how might we do it better? If the railways, bus companies and airports were all being set up now, how would we integrate things so that travel was more convenient for everyone?
This is my idea of course, you might have your own, but it’s fun to play around with these sorts of things. I’ll ignore cars and buses, because the one thing that all airports have is road access. Not necessarily good road access, but road access none the less.
To start with you would have a mainline station at every airport, so that you walk out of one and straight into the other. No shuttle buses, no extensive tunnels - have you used the underground to get to Heathrow? The last time I did I felt as though I was walking to London!
Each station would run services to a main rail hub that would then connect to major cities. Interestingly there is a massive rail marshaling yard in the Willesden area of North London that would serve the purpose. It seems mainly to be used as a playground for graffiti artists to display their skills, so it would be good to put it to better use. This would take inter-city trains away from central London, expect for those aimed specifically at business travellers of course, leaving them free to concentrate on improving commuter services. It would also ease congestion on the underground, as all those journeys to Paddington, Victoria, Liverpool Street and Kings Cross Thameslink, purely to catch a train to an airport, would instead go through the rail hub. It wouldn't be difficult to connect the hub to the underground as well. The Bakerloo line runs through the same area and Hanger Lane, on the Central line, is less than a mile away.
The big advantage to that is the amount of traffic that could be taken off the roads. If you have a decent, easy to use, cheap rail service to connect you to the airport you don’t need to use your car and pay for expensive car parking. And that has to be good for the environment. It would also reduce the stress for all the other travellers who have no alternative but to use the road. How many accident’s might that avoid? Finally it would privide, for the first time ever, a complete national connection of rail services that in many cases would only require one change of train to get from, say, Inverness to Southampton or even Penzance.
Of course it would require someone of vision to actually set about making such a change and, sadly, I don’t see anyone like that around. Mayor Boris wanted to build a new airport for Ebbsfleet, but I didn’t hear much talk of an integrated rail network to get the passengers to and from the rest of the country. No joined up thinking, as usual.
This week saw the publication of a long awaited report which recommended the building of a third runway for Heathrow Airport. This, we are told, would increase passenger handling capacity by a significant amount. Was there any recommendation for upgrading its railway connectivity so all those extra passengers would have an easier journey to and from the airport?
I haven’t actually read the report so I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m guessing there wasn’t. Of course the new runway may yet be built at Gatwick, if the government decides to bow down to opposition groups, but that will make matters worse for the traveller, because there is no alternative route to Gatwick, such as the Piccadilly Line, to fall back on.
Is it feasible to build a rail hub for London and connect it to the major airports? Of course; It's an engineering problem and as such can be solved. The cost would be high and of course the political fallout from the people who would be affected would be massive. However, none of those same considerations seem to be stopping the plans for HS2. I would suggest that the business case for my idea is far more robust than that for HS2.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, come back, we need you now!
In the meantime in my book I have decided, for fictional purposes, that it takes less time to travel from London to Birmingham than it does to travel from the London Spaceport to the centre of the city. I can only hope that life never comes to imitate art.
By the way the first of the books in this Sci-Fi series is not due to be published for about 12 months. My next book, The Warriors: Mirror Man, is due out this month – watch this website for news – and I have another book in the pipeline for publication later in the year. However, Sci-Fi fans, your turn will come with the publication of The Magi sometime around the middle of next year. Eight sequels will follow at roughly 6 monthly intervals. I do love a challenge!