Friday, 28 March 2008

T5 versus St Pancras

To say that Terminal 5's opening has been poorly managed would be a generous appraisal. The media have certainly not been so kind. What was particularly striking to me was the contrast between this news story and the opening of St Pancras international.

I thought this evening that they generate two polar-opposite media responses. St Pancras was lauded as an amazing achievement, the return of the age of travel by rail and a truly wonderful piece of architecture that the country could be proud of. It seems I'm not the only one to notice the comparison. The Times have an article with the following quote:

The folk at BAA should take a short ride down to St Pancras International rail station to see how a 21st century terminal should be done. Tasteful, efficient, with only selected quality retail. Today's airport terminals are little more than downmarket shopping malls."

"Oh dear, oh dear - another own goal for BA.....Or BAA? Or both?? Whatever, the CEOs should be forced to resign over this ridiculous affair. "

The reception for St Pancras couldn't have been better. Here's a quote from the International Herald Tribune's article:

But the mood among travelers Wednesday suggested that there was more to the new route than the speed of the journeys, and that St. Pancras has every prospect of fulfilling its ambition of becoming a "destination" in itself.

Forty years after the poet John Betjeman led a campaign to save St. Pancras from demolition, it has emerged from its years of restoration as one of the grandest public buildings in Britain. Architecture critics have been virtually unanimous in praising the result, and, judging by the reaction of travelers and others who crowded into the station for its commercial inauguration, the public loves it just as much.

So what happened? Why is one so praised and the other not. Many of the articles on the problems at T5 point to a lack of testing and training. I attended a breakfast talk on St Pancras in November 2006 and what was emphasised there was the meticulous planning and testing that went into every aspect of moving from Waterloo to St Pancras.

Interestingly there are many parallels between the two projects. Despite T5 being on a bigger scale, they are both the highest level of terminal in their respective fields. Both industries are maligned with strikes (although note how when St Pancras opened Eurostar luckily or skilfully avoided the French strike action). Both are in industries where people often complain about the regular level of service - here's what the Economist has to say about the opening of T5:

Heathrow airport's new Terminal Five made the news for all the usual reasons on its opening day: lengthy delays, appalling overcrowding and lost baggage. This time it was blamed on teething troubles rather than bad weather, terrorist threats or uppity unions that often turn the barely tolerable experience of flight into an ordeal.

However LCR (project owners of St Pancras) seemed to get it right. They took rail travel, which has a hint of romance, but is sullied by the general dislike of the morning commute and the poor reputation of many national franchise holders, and made it something attractive. St Pancras was branded as a destination station; a place one would visit in its own right. The opening was impeccable, the transfer from Waterloo seamless. The opening date for the station was published a year beforehand and was kept to. The project itself embraced the architecture of the original station, but built in new developments to provide a contemporary space. Something genuinely new was provided for the customer (high-speed rail end to end) and it was packaged in a masterful way. Most skilful of all, they named it High Speed One and gave the impression that LCR were the people to deliver further high-speed rail benefits to the UK.

Compare for T5. The architecture may or may not be impressive, but if it is it's been mentioned as an exception. Sentences such as The Independent's:

Eddie Loryman seemed oblivious to the grandeur of Heathrow's soaring new terminal 5 building with its cutting-edge architecture...he was more concerned with finding a lift that was actually working.

litter the press coverage. The Sun is less kind, criticising the architecture and facilities. There is not a feeling that T5 is a break from the norm - The Independent article (ibid) states "For [the terminal's] many critics it was merely a case of service as normal." There is a feeling in several articles that not only has BAA and BA's response been hopeless, it has also shown how they can not be trusted with such a project. They have been portrayed as complacent and uncaring. They have entrenched the perception that flying is a chore, and airports doubly so.

In a few months' time the airport will no doubt be operating fine. However, it will be very hard to shake the damage done here. LCR can still bask in the glory of St Pancras' opening four months after the event. BAA and BA have got no honeymoon from this story, in fact they are fighting fire even harder than usual. As opposition continues to grow to further expansion, and not just from the usual sources, there may not be much for BAA and BA to celebrate for quite some time.

1 comment:

Richard said...

How much money did BA/BAA spend on trialing the new terminal? Quite a lot I'd say. What a total and utter fiasco.

There were two main reasons for building T5: to get all BA's flights under one roof (job provisionally completed - more flights will move there in due course) and so they could have modern, reliable baggage system (singular failure).

But, my friend, I should not be surprised to find you using this incompetence to a) big up train travel and b) play down the need for expansion.

I'm not sure the comparison holds up that well, although Eurostar's flawless move to St Pancras is notable, and I don't think T5's performance will have or should have an impact on a decision on expansion. You know my view: shut the place down and build a monster airport somewhere in Berkshire. Or Kent. Or Sussex. Basically anywhere with a large number of Tories would be good. R