Ben Lowry: This is a golden age of travel for those of us lucky enough to live in the West

Perhaps the greatest transport innovation of recent decades, the London to Paris Eurostar train. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Perhaps the greatest transport innovation of recent decades, the London to Paris Eurostar train. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

I have just returned from a holiday to Europe, which has reminded me how lucky we are to be alive in the 21st century in the first world.

Northern Ireland now has excellent transport connections to the Republic, to Great Britain and to continental Europe. It still has a transatlantic link to America, thanks to the arrival of Norwegian Air.

The Eurostar journey time got even shorter when the service moved to St Pancras International station above in 2014, where it was opened by Her Majesty The Queen, accompanied by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh

The Eurostar journey time got even shorter when the service moved to St Pancras International station above in 2014, where it was opened by Her Majesty The Queen, accompanied by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh

But perhaps the single greatest improvement to Ulster’s global links is the motorway to Dublin. Even in the 1980s, when I was still at school, I was annoyed at the backward single carriageway Belfast to Dublin road, in which cars travelling between the two biggest cities on this island would get caught behind lorries or even tractors.

As recently as 2004 the first Translink coach to Dublin left Belfast at 8am and was scheduled to arrive at Dublin Airport at 10.45am but was typically delayed at the various bottlenecks en route and rarely arrived before 11am.

This meant no-one flying out of Dublin before lunchtime could get there by public transport unless they paid for a hotel the night before.

Now the motorway passes the door of Dublin Airport and is used by fast bus services to that increasingly well connected international hub (Aircoach raised the standard for buses).

Dublin Airport, which is by far the busiest airport in Ireland, with almost 30 million passenger movements a year. If Northern Ireland had a single hub airport, it might be a minor challenger to Dublin, and reach 10 million passenger movements

Dublin Airport, which is by far the busiest airport in Ireland, with almost 30 million passenger movements a year. If Northern Ireland had a single hub airport, it might be a minor challenger to Dublin, and reach 10 million passenger movements

I have long felt that Northern Ireland should have only one airport, which could rival Dublin, instead of three, and that if we had one airport it would make it easier to justify a rail link to Aldergrove.

It would also make it all the more essential that the dual carriageway to Londonderry was completed, and it would make feasible a fast road link between Templepatrick on the M2 and Moira on the M1, passing close to Belfast International.

With such internal transport links to the rest of Northern Ireland, a single airport would potentially achieve the critical mass (10 million passenger movements a year) that might make it a junior rival to Dublin (almost 30 million passenger movements).

However, there is no sign of Stormont displaying the leadership for such a bold approach. We are far too used to an equality-impact, out-for-consultation, all-things-to-all-men approach to policy.

Hence, instead of building one great stadium that could have catered to the biggest rugby, football and GAA events, we upgraded three smaller stadiums.

And hence we have three smaller airports, one of which – Derry – would not survive without public subsidies.

While I think this multiple airport policy is not good for Northern Ireland, it suits me.

Ten days ago, after a half day at work, I left the News Letter Belfast office in the city centre by taxi at 2pm, having checked in online (what a technological advance online check-in has been). I realised many years ago that I was always bringing more clothes than I needed so now, through careful packing, I try always to travel hand luggage only.

With the airport a 10 minute drive from Belfast city centre, I was easily on time for a 3.10pm flight to Heathrow, despite the fact that there was a long queue at security (it took 20 minutes to clear).

Then I took the Heathrow Express to Paddington (another big transport innovation of the last 20 years) and the tube (Bakerloo line, then extended Jubilee line – the extension was a further transport innovation of the last two decades – to Westminster), where I arrived early for a 6pm reception.

That night I stayed with a friend in west London, and we took an early tube the following morning to the greatest transport innovation of them all of recent decades – the Eurostar to Paris.

Since it moved to King’s Cross St Pancras, and began using the HS1 line through Kent, Eurostar London to Paris journey time has dropped to just over two hours.

Whatever happens with Brexit, the magnificent Eurotunnel has brought Britain closer to the rest of Europe.

I hope that this government continues to make infrastructure a high priority for public funds, and forges ahead with the HS2 rail link to the north of England.

One day, perhaps, advances in engineering will mean that some sort of physical transport link between Ireland and Great Britain – a tunnel or a bridge – is not just a dream but a reality.

If so, there might even be babies alive now who live to use it. They will be centenarians if so, but it seems we are entering an period in history in which there will be many centenarians (another reason that this is a golden age).

Later that day I took the fast train from the Gare de Lyon to Perpignan, near the Spanish border, first class. This is not as grand as it sounds – France is so egalitarian that first class is not much better than standard, and almost as cheap if booked early.

Days later I travelled on by fast train to Barcelona and on to a nearby resort, where I met a friend who had flown out from Belfast.

On Thursday night, after a full day on the beach, we got the last easyjet flight back to Aldergrove (10 hours before the minor rail crash in Barcelona).

Each leg in this overall journey (NI to England to France to Spain to NI) was under £100, through a combination of early booking or travelling off-peak (people tend not to want to return from holiday on a Thursday).

As recently as the early 1990s, one-way air tickets were difficult to find and more expensive than cheap returns.

The internet has radically improved transport, and all the while our physical infrastructure gets better.

It is true that it is privileged people such as me who get the maximum benefit from these improvements.

But most people in the west are now privileged. Air travel has become the norm.

In Northern Ireland alone there are hundreds of thousands of people who would, by the old job classifications, be described as ‘working class’, but who holiday abroad in the sunshine every year.

In contrast, plenty of the ‘middle classes’ have grandparents who barely, if ever, left Northern Ireland. Being on the fringe of the British Isles, this was once a difficult place to get in and out of.

Not now.

There are huge global challenges ahead: terrorism, automation in jobs, how to support an ageing population, environmental pressures, and so on.

I suspect that the greatest challenge on earth is the soaring population in Africa, the poorest and most dysfunctional of all the continents.

As a boy I remember the 1980 estimate that it had a population of under 500 million, and now it is marching towards two billion. Many of them will one day die trying to reach our shores.

But in the meantime, we who have been born in the West are exceedingly fortunate. With hope and with good governance, it will stay that way.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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