Urban gridlock, motorway bunching, mainline and Tube trains off the rails ... The failure of our transport infrastructure must be hitting the bottom line. But comfort - and speed - is at hand. MT suggests some exhilarating travel alternatives to get you to that meeting on time.
If Robert Louis Stevenson were alive today, would he still conclude that 'to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive'? Chasing pirates across the high seas searching for buried treasure is one thing, but even the hardiest adventurer would be hard pressed to get much enjoyment out of rush-hour traffic on the M6, or trying to negotiate the engineering works on the West Coast main line.
These days, the UK's transport infrastructure is so overloaded that there's no longer any pleasure to be had in the journey.
With congestion on Britain's roads at record levels and our trains coming off the rails, arrival is everything and - like banging your head against a brick wall - the best thing about travelling in Britain today is when it ends.
So if you're tired of sitting in jams or waiting for the train that never comes, what can you do? We at MT decided to investigate alternative means of transport for the smarter business traveller. We've come up with four options, which address various travel needs and depths of pocket, from beating the cross-town traffic on a cheap and aerobic push-bike (or, for the less energetic, a motorcycle taxi) to taking to the air in a helicopter or even an executive jet.
Just how hard is it to get around? The latest Department of Transport figures show that road traffic has grown by 73% since 1980, to a whopping 478 billion vehicle kilometres a year, the vast majority of this total being run up by private car drivers. Bus and local rail usage are both down.
In recent years, journey times have started to rise disproportionately, suggesting that we may be approaching gridlock volumes in the worst areas.
Since 1998, journey times along the M6 in Cheshire have gone up by 164% and on the M1 in South Yorkshire by 143%, according to TrafficMaster, the congestion-monitoring company whose sensors line the nation's motorways. In the same period, traffic volumes have grown by only about 10%.
Under these circumstances, travelling is not just unpleasant and stressful; it's costly. The CBI reckons that delays and congestion on the roads alone cost UK plc something like pounds 20 billion a year in lost revenue and wasted time.
Speeds across the network are down too - solicitor-general Harriet Harman was banned from driving for a week recently after being clocked doing 99mph on the M4, but most of Britain's roadstained travellers spend their time behind the wheel stuck in third gear. The average speed on main roads has dropped to below 50mph, and in central London, peak hour traffic speeds are now only about 8mph.
It would be almost as quick to walk. Congestion charging schemes, like the one introduced in London last month, may help to reduce traffic in our cities. We could also learn from metropolises such as Amsterdam, where road, rail, tram and bike co-exist much more happily than they do in Britain.
But if our roads are feeling the strain, our railways are far worse.
The network has been in a state of permanent crisis since the collapse of Railtrack, with delays and engineering works plaguing travellers. After the Hatfield crash in 2000, the productivity of maintenance and track workers plummeted by an estimated 30%, and less than half of national rail services run on time. The fact that many longstanding commuters look wistfully on the days when British Rail was in charge shows just how bad things have got.
So why are our transport systems in such a mess?
Professor Stephen Glaister of Imperial College, one of Britain's leading experts on transport policy, fingers the usual suspect. 'The problem is largely one of lack of investment, although, as the NHS shows, that isn't everything. A clear strategy is needed too.' He points out that despite the Government's talk of more cash-for-transport projects, the reality is different. 'We spend less money as a proportion of GDP on transport infrastructure than we did 10 years ago.'
Driving remains our favourite way of getting around. In cities, suburban rail and bus services are popular with commuters but, nationally, most employees drive to and from work. Government efforts to cut car usage have failed - we're so attached to our motors that it's less a question of being persuaded out of them than dragged kicking and screaming from behind the wheel.
According to Glaister, traffic is an inevitable consequence of commercial activity. 'If the economy grows at 2.5% a year, so will demand for road space. They are pegged together.' Transport Secretary Alistair Darling tacitly admitted as much when he recently announced a pounds 5.5 billion road-building scheme, the biggest for 20 years.
Some hope then for improvements on the roads, but despite the new regime at Network Rail - and the Strategic Rail Authority under Richard Bowker - the future for rail travellers looks grim. 'I see nothing in the new structure that addresses the problems of the old one,' insists Glaister. 'And 50% traffic growth is unrealistic - there isn't the money to service existing levels, never mind add to them.' And even if more cash was forthcoming, new railways take a long time to come on stream.
But you don't have 20 years to wait for a better rail network, or even five years to wait for a new ring road. That big client prospect isn't going to be impressed if you arrive an hour late because of leaves on the line or a jack-knifed lorry, and spending hours every day stuck in traffic or crammed like sardines into a clapped-out Sprinter is bad for the soul as well as business.
Our airborne solutions may sound extravagant, but you'll be surprised how the new, cheaper models and clever timeshare schemes reduce the outlay.
Rob Hersov's Marquis Jets will give you the use of a plane for less than a tenth of the cost of buying one. A secondhand Robinson RB22 helicopter can be yours for the price of a new Merc limo, and it won't cost much more to run. UK Robinson agent Sloane Helicopters - based at Sywell Aerodrome, Northants - uses the slogan 'Do 120mph down the M1, legally'. But as sales manager Jonathan Newman points out, speed isn't everything. 'The beauty of a helicopter is that you can go anywhere, and there's no cheaper way to get up in one than a Robinson.'
Why not give it a try? You might even start to enjoy the journey as much as getting there.
HARRY AND HIS HELICOPTER
Helicopter flying is no longer the sole preserve of racing drivers and super-rich tycoons. Harry Wiggins, 53-year-old founder and chief executive of Viking Office Supplies in Lichfield, Staffs, has been a private helicopter pilot for four years, and he loves his chopper.
'I travel all over the country, and flying saves me a lot of time. If I've got a lunch meeting in Southampton, I don't have to leave the office until late morning and I can be back at my desk for tea. That simply isn't possible using any other form of transport.'
Helicopters are very quick for short hops of 200 miles or so. A fixed-wing plane is faster in the air but needs a proper airstrip to take off and land, whereas a chopper can often transport you door-to-door. 'It's the ultimate in convenience. I keep it on the drive at home, parked next to my car. I can walk out of my house and be airborne in five minutes.'
But convenience comes at a price. Wiggins' machine - the Robinson RB44 pictured - is the cheapest four-seat chopper on the market but cost pounds 230,000 when he bought it new a year ago.
Tuition to acquire the coveted letter H on your pilot's licence is a further expense - in both time and money. It took Wiggins 60 hours' tuition at pounds 180 an hour to get his. Now he flies about 200 hours a year.
'The beauty of a helicopter is that there's always somewhere to put it down. You can get near the centre of most cities in the UK very easily.' Apart, that is, from the capital. Heli pilots face the same difficulty on arriving in London as drivers - nowhere to park.
You can charter a pilot for about pounds 250 a day, plus the hire cost of the craft (an RB44 is pounds 375 an hour). But for enthusiasts like Wiggins, that misses the point. 'I love flying - it's a privilege to be able to do it. I've been to Wales and Ireland, and I'm going to fly to Spain this summer. I'll have to refuel to get there, but it'll be great - you can land on the beach,' he says.
< COST Robinson RB22 two-seat entry-level helicopter: Brand-new - pounds 120,000 Secondhand - pounds 80,000+ Operating costs - pounds 90 per hour Insurance - pounds 10,000 TIME Lichfield to Southampton (c.150 miles): By helicopter - one hour By train - four hours, change at Birmingham By car - three hours 15 minutes FAVOURED BY John Caudwell, David Frost, Eddie Jordan CONTACT Jonathan Newman, Sloane Helicopters 01604 790595 firstname.lastname@example.org www.sloanehelicopters.com TWENTY YEARS OF UK GRIDLOCK BY ROAD Total traffic 1980 277bn vehicle km 2002 478bn vehicle km change +73% Car traffic 1980 215bn vehicle km 2002 384bn vehicle km change +79% BY RAIL Total traffic 1980 30.3bn passenger km 2002 39.1bn passenger km change +29% BY BUS Journeys taken 1980 5.5m 2002 4.34m change -21%
FAST AND FUN: MOTORCYCLE TAXI
Time is at a premium for lawyer Stephen Mostyn-Williams. As a senior partner and head of London firm Cadwalader's banking and finance practice, lost minutes cost him - and his clients - dearly. But getting quickly across a congested city like London can be as hard as the more complex financial transactions he arranges. 'London's traffic has slowed to a crawl,' he complains, 'so taxi bikes are my first choice of transport around town. They get me from A to B in half the time of a car.'
Surprisingly, there are fewer than 25 chauffeured motorbike taxis in the UK, and London-based Addison Lee's TaxyBikes service, set up in 1991, accounts for six of them. Customers are a disparate lot, ranging from company directors and pop stars to journalists and hotel porters. The one thing they all have in common is that, like Mostyn-Williams, they are in a hurry.
'Taxi bikes are very fast, very efficient and fun,' he says - clearly a winning combination for a time-starved executive with a penchant for speed. They are also pretty comfortable. TaxyBikes uses Honda's Pan-European 1100 V4 - a top-spec bike with plenty of room for driver, passenger and luggage.
Expertly handled, the bikes can cut car journey times across the capital and to and from its airports in half. The drivers' in-depth geographical knowledge ensures that potential traffic hold-ups are avoided and predicted journey times are met.
Any disadvantages? 'If you haven't got waterproofs and it starts to pour, you get wet,' says Mostyn-Williams. 'I'm generally in a hurry, so I don't have time to put the protective clothing on.'
For those who do have time, TaxyBikes supplies a jacket (one size fits all), gloves and a helmet complete with intercom system. The service even includes a tabard to keep your legs warm - which, for the 30% of passengers who are women, helps if you're wearing a skirt.
Although taxi bikes are Mostyn-Williams' first choice for business travel across the city, in a perfect world he'd prefer four legs to two wheels. 'I like to ride horses,' he says, 'but it's rather impractical around London.'
< COST About pounds 1.85 per mile. Minimum one-way fare: pounds 20 TIME Strand to London City Airport (9 miles): By car - about 1 hour By TaxyBike - about 30mins. FAVOURED BY Chris Tarrant, Simon Woodroffe (Yo! Sushi), Richard E Grant, Gaby Logan CONTACT Christian Evans, TaxyBikes, 020 7255 4269 email@example.com www.addisonlee.co.uk/taxybikes.html
AFFORDABLE EXECUTIVE JET
If you were ever pitched to by of one of those dodgy 1980s timeshare salesmen, you're probably only too pleased that the idea of handing over a few thousand quid in return for an annual two weeks in a crumbling apartment in Fuengirola has had its day. But the principle - if not the patter - is back, and 'fractional ownership', as it is now called, is gaining currency as a way to lighten the financial load for businesses aspiring to the ultimate corporate status symbol, an executive jet.
Schemes like the Private Jet Card offered by Marquis Jets - launched by Rob Hersov last April - are aimed at companies and individuals who want the cachet of their 'own' plane for less cash than the pounds 25 million that a decent aircraft costs.
Marquis's clients pay between pounds 81,000 and pounds 184,000, depending what kind of jet they want - from entry-level Cessna Citation Bravo for Euro-hops to the top-of-the-range Dassault Falcon 2000, which cruises at 590mph and can cross the Atlantic non-stop.
In return, they get a matt-black credit card entitling them to 25 hours' flying time over a 12-month period. Unlike true fractional ownership schemes, where clients buy a part-share in the aircraft itself, there's nothing to pay except the flat fee - no maintenance charges or hourly fees and no depreciation costs.
Most of Marquis's business is with high-net-worth individuals and professional sportspeople. 'The corporate market is hard at the moment,' says Hersov.
The company guarantees to supply a plane at as little as 10 hours' notice and is doing good trade with private customers such as Alistair Donald, senior partner at Accenture.
'I can only compare it to how the 1940s and '50s might have been, when travel was still seen as something of a luxury,' says Donald. 'With Marquis, I can just drive up the M40 from my house to Birmingham airport, the pilot greets me on my arrival and whisks me through immigration, and the plane's ready and waiting to go.'
Donald appreciates the fact that his plane can touch down closer to his final destination than the average charter flight, saving extra time.
There's also a security benefit to flying this way - you know exactly who's on the plane and who the pilot is.
< COST For 25 hours' flying time in Marquis's most popular jet, the Cessna Citation Excel - pounds 111,000 TIME London to Madrid, centre-to-centre (c800 miles): By scheduled flight - typically 4hrs 30mins By private jet - typically 3hrs 10mins FAVOURED BY Tim Henman, Ian Woosnam, F1 drivers and other pro sportsmen CONTACT Annette Barrett, Marquis Jet Europe, 020 7349 7968 firstname.lastname@example.org www.marquisjet.com
PEDAL POWER: COMMUTING BY CYCLE
When Susan Bright got a new job two and a half years ago, there was only one problem. Used to walking to work, she now faced a long bus ride. 'I hated it. I had to leave 45 minutes for what should have been a 15-minute journey.' So - in the spirit of which Norman Tebbit would have approved - she got on her bike, becoming one of the 12,000 or so people who cycle to work every day in the capital. 'At first it was entirely about saving time, but now cycling is part of my life.'
Last year she set up her own business with a friend, an agency called Sharp & Bright that brings together photographers and corporate sponsors.
She now works from her home in central London. Bright reckons to do about 25 business miles a week in the saddle, cycling regularly and in all weathers from Bloomsbury to Hackney, Shoreditch and Southwark. 'I don't mind the wind or the rain. If you've got waterproofs you don't get as wet as you would waiting for the bus. The only thing that stopped me earlier this year was the snow.'
About 3,300 cyclists are injured on London's mean streets every year, around 20 of them fatally. But despite these grim figures, Bright prefers cycling to any of the alternatives. 'I don't like the Tube at all. By the time you get to work you're half asleep. But when I've been on the bike I always feel fantastic. It's a great de-stresser.'
City traffic can be hair-raising, but security is one of the biggest problems for urban cyclists. 'There aren't enough bike racks, and it doesn't matter how good your lock is or where you leave your bike, it can still get pinched. My last one was stolen from outside a police station.'
Bright relies on pedal power for nearly all her business travel in London.
'I don't approve of cars in cities. People don't usually mind if you turn up looking slightly dishevelled,' she says. But even this two-wheeled evangelist draws the line sometimes. 'I probably wouldn't ride to a critical meeting with a potential sponsor - I don't want to meet a big corporate contact for the first time carrying my helmet and panniers.'
< COST Trek lady's hybrid bike - pounds 300 Helmet - pounds 40 Insurance - pounds 30 TIME Bloomsbury to Tate Modern (4 miles): By bike - 10-15 minutes By car - 20-30 minutes By Tube - 45 minutes FAVOURED BY Steven Norris, Adam Hart-Davies, Vivienne Westwood, Jon Snow