Harry Kroto

May 16, 2003

Our country must be the only one in which passengers never know from which platform their trains will leave - if they leave at all

Why is it that the nations that led the 'high-tech' war cannot move their citizens about with the ease of the Japanese?

As I sit on the train in a carriage that must surely once have been pulled by Stephenson's Rocket, I ponder my perennial trauma of how to get to Heathrow in time for my plane without dislocating my back from lugging cases up and down too many stairs.

Should I get off at Gatwick and catch the X, Y or Z-link bus to Heathrow? Some trains don't stop at Gatwick just to make life difficult, a peculiarly British approach to transport. Instead of being able to pay the fare on the bus, now one must haul bags back and forth across a road to a makeshift office and take a ludicrous gamble on whether an X, Y or Z-link bus will arrive while you're queuing behind the tourist trying to get to Nuneaton whose only two English words are Manchester and United. Anyway, do I really want more abuse from the rudest bus drivers in the country while sitting in fear of a traffic jam on the M25?

Like a Maginot line, the orbital motorway protects London from those who need to get there. Actually the Maginot line was easily breached - if only France had been shielded by the M25 instead.

I stay onboard and, at Victoria, pass ranks of stuffed penguins gawping like zombies up at the departures board, waiting for "The Word" - the platform from which their train might depart. Why do we accept this ridiculous situation as natural? Our country must be the only one in which passengers never know from which platform their trains will leave, if they leave at all.

I hulk my bags down the stairs into the London Underground concourse where the bewildered tourists and commuters make the residents of Dante's Inferno look like choirboys. Is it really too much to ask for an escalator into one of the capital's major underground stations? After all, there is one to the shops.

A teenage girl offers help, but vanity stops me from accepting as I try to prove I am not as old as I feel or as she perceives me to be. I struggle along to the District Line and somehow stuff my bags through a barrier, then lug them up one flight of stairs and down another to the platform, where I hear that the Central Line is still closed - fortunately I don't need it. I understand that the motors fall off Central Line trains. Frank Hornby, who invented Meccano and those 0-gauge electric trains, must be turning in his grave.

I take the District Line and change to the Piccadilly Line at Hammersmith by simply crossing the platform. I feel a little glow of satisfaction, as if I have won a little victory. If I had changed at Earls Court, I would have faced an assault course devised for an SAS training exercise.

I am on my way to Japan where the Shinkansen bullet train will whisk me effortlessly at high speed almost anywhere, never late - and also never early. I visit Japan regularly, partly because the Japanese really appreciate my science and education initiatives, partly because I empathise with their aesthetic and cultural attitudes and partly because of Yasukunidori, one of the two finest streets of bookshops in the world (the other being London's Charing Cross Road).

After a week in Tokyo, travelling each day by underground, I can report that every escalator was working. At Narita Airport, every lift and walkway worked, too. No such luck at Heathrow, where some walkways are definitely "made for walking". One does get the impression that no London Underground station ever has all its escalators operating at the same time. As a devout - nay fundamentalist - democratic socialist, my sensibilities are sorely tested by the fact that Tokyo's underground and train systems are privatised and yet are so much superior to ours. I wonder if it is because some lines are run by department stores, which would lose customers if they ran them badly.

I went on to the US and, blow me down, on arrival at Minneapolis, the very first escalator was down, as were three walkways at the airport from which I left. Hmmmmm - and we and the US had just started that "state-of-the-art" high-tech war. One wonders what might have happened if we had picked on a country that was not so miserable, impoverished and poorly equipped as Iraq. Of course "new" Britain is not into fair fights anymore, but then God is supposed to be on our side, so it must be all right.

Finally, on my return via Gatwick station, I discover something that epitomises travel in Britain: the lift to my platform can be reached only by slipping surreptitiously through a door marked "No Entry" as arriving passengers exit.

Sir Harry Kroto is professor of chemistry at Sussex University and chairman of the Vega Science Trust (www.vega.org.uk). He won the 1996 Nobel prize for chemistry.

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