27 December 2010
Getting home from Budapest and other thoughts
Michael Jennings

In January this year, I was visiting my parents on the Gold Coast, a city on the beaches approximately 100km [That’s about 60 miles, Ed] south of Brisbane. I have both friends and relatives in Brisbane, and one morning I therefore caught a train from Helensvale station on the Gold Coast to Brisbane. I purchased a ticket, and towards the end of the journey, there was a ticket inspection.

I could not immediately find my ticket. I explained this to the inspectors, but rather than giving me a moment to look for it, they assumed instantly that I was lying. I was asked where I had got on the train and where I was going, asked for identification, told that I was going to be taken off the train at Brisbane Central, etc etc. When I produced ID with a British address on it rather than an Australian address, this was received with contempt, as if I were trying to avoid complying with them rather than because I lived abroad. The same questions were asked of me over and over, presumably in the hope that I might say something inconsistent. I was given no time to actually find my ticket. It was pretty standard behaviour from law enforcement officials who think that if they harass you for long enough you will say something that will incriminate yourself in some way of something. Eventually though, I did manage to look down the side of the seat, where I found my ticket, which had fallen out of my pocket. When I thus presented my ticket, I was told curtly that “You were lucky”, with clear annoyance. No apology for accusing me of being a criminal when I was not - just clear heavyhanded arseholery and annoyance that they had not managed to catch anyone. This sort of thing is sadly common in Australia, and is one of the reasons why I do not live there. Heavyhandedness of this kind does not endear the place to foreign visitors.

I was struck by a contrast to this when I was in Budapest last week. I had made an error when checking out transport options to get to the airport, and had assumed that I could get a bus directly from Deák Ferenc Square (the centre of town) to the airport. Having got there, and failed to find any airport buses, I walked into the local metro station (where three lines come together) to try to figure out what I was doing wrong. As it happened, a group of ticket inspectors were doing a sting at that station, and were acting together to attempt to catch fare evaders. I started looking at a map of metro lines and bus routes on the platform, clearly a little confused. One of the ticket inspectors saw this, stopped the fare evasion enforcement for a moment, and came up to me and pointed out where I was on the map. I explained that I was trying to get to the airport, and she explained to me in broken English that I needed to get a metro train to the end of one of the lines, and then I could get the bus. I was then practically dragged to the correct platform. When I attempted to walk towards a ticket machine, the inspector instead pulled a book of tickets out of her bag and sold me the necessary ticket. She then presumably went back to catching fare evaders. I then made my may to the airport with little difficulty and in plenty of time for my plane. Budapest 1, Brisbane 0.

As it further happened, I was flying from Budapest to London last Sunday. There was snow on the ground and very cold temperatures in both cities. I was flying on the Hungarian based discount airline Wizzair (a company that deserves a post in its own right) to Luton airport north of London. Both Budapest and Luton had been closed the previous day, but both were open again on the 19th. I got to the airport and looked at the departure board: British Airways to Heathrow: CANCELLED. Easyjet to Gatwick: DELAYED. Wizzair to Luton: ON TIME. I went through security, and purchased an overpriced beer in the bar. I started talking to a couple of young English women at the next table. One was a PA for a financial firm. The other was a schoolteacher. Yes, Budapest is beautiful. No, they had not seen much of it because they had stayed inside in the freezing weather. Yes, they were hoping they would get home so that they could go to work the next day. This was followed up with “We are lucky to be going to Luton, as it is not run by BAA, who are a really crap company”.

I think this was probably a little harsh. It is true that Luton is always one of the last of London’s airports to close, but this likely has as much to do with the local geography of Luton as it does management. (Stansted was long controlled by BAA, and is always fairly robust to weather, for similar geographical reasons). I think BAA probably does deserves its bad reputation in other ways - they are a fairly typical opportunistic monopolist who are lazy in terms of customer service in general - but they cope with the weather about as well as do other British airport operators. However, a bad reputation filters through to all areas, even those where it may not be relevant.

As it happened, the flight home was about 45 minutes late in all. In the circumstances, not much to complain about. Well done Wizzair. Well done Budapest and Luton airports.

Once at Luton, there remained the question of how to get home. The usual way is a shuttle bus to Luton Airport Parkway railway station, a train to St Pancras or London Bridge, and then a local bus to my home in South Bermondsey. Indicator boards indicated that trains were operating, so I purchased a ticket, and headed to the railway station. Indicator boards indicated that there was a train departing for London at 2133, so I went to the platform and waited. At 2135, all indicator boards changed to state that all train for the immediate future were cancelled. I was stranded. The ticket office was suddenly closed, and there was little opportunity to figure out what was going on or to obtain a refund for being unable to use train tickets. This was annoying.

On the other hand, the good sense of random people prevailed. A group of people near me (who I later discovered did not know one another before this) were discussing sharing a taxi to London. I walked up to them and explained that I was in the same boat, and asked if I could also have a share in their taxi. They were entirely agreeable. One of them called a local minicab firm, and fifteen minutes later we were all in a cab to London. We were going to various parts of the city, but this was okay: we had heard that local public transport in London was working fine.

An hour later I was at St Pancras. It is easy enough for me to get home from Kings Cross or St Pancras by local bus, and this is what I did.

So what can I say. Good work Luton Airport, Budapest Airport, Transport for London, and Transport for Budapest (or whatever the relevant organisation is called). Praise also to the good sense of ordinary Londoners and Luton based minicab firms. Less praise to First Capital Connect. No praise at all to Queensland Railways.

  1. Could not agree more about the ticket inspectors, (or Transit Officers as they are called), of Queensland Rail. And some of the female officers as well are plain rude and lack professional communication skills, which is supposed to be a requirement of the position they hold. As an ex Rail Manager from a large city, now living in Brisbane,  many of theses officers are an embarassment to the tourism industry,and embarrasment to South East Queensland in general. It can be argued that some of these railway transit officers failed the recruitment requirements for the police service, so end up in a “quasi police” role working on public transport. There is saying about Queensland Rail that used to be popular with other rail systems in other states of Australia. “narrow gauge, narrow minds”. How true that is of Queensland rail and their inability to provide a reliable service, and also have professional staff, but to be fair, many station staff do a great job under difficult circumstances. I recently spent some time back in London and in Norfolk,where the rail system is brilliant, (also cheap if you book ahead online), and the staff at the stations are professional and keen to assist. Queensland Rail is like a little model railway compared to what there is in other states of Australia, yet they struggle to be pro active and reliable. The Transit Officers do nothing to promote public confidence in general, so what must tourists think of them as well? Give me the service of Sydney, Melbourne or indeed London any day in preference to the poor service that Queensland dishes out to the travelling public.

    Posted by Bian on  29 December 2010 at 02:55 pm

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