The global engineer
E&T sums up some of the new travel technologies of the past year.
There's a huge poster in my local London Underground station, just above the platform. It carries a picture of Mahatma Gandhi - still, serene, reflective. Underneath is a quote from the great man himself: "There is more to life than just increasing its speed."
I hope the morning's commuters - as they curse having to wait two minutes until the next train - take a moment's pause to note the irony. But perhaps they're so entangled in their personal technology - iPhone, iPod, Brain Teasers - they don't notice these words of wisdom shining down on them. Certainly transport trends over the last year have been about knocking off those extra seconds. The most important part of a journey is no longer the point of departure, but the time of arrival.
'Faster' and 'bigger' seem to have been the two bywords in travel for 2009. Whenever I've mentioned something in this column that has travelled more quickly or risen higher than anything before, it has been out of date by the time the magazine hit your doormat. At the start of 2009, Europe boasted the fastest rail transport, but now the East Japan Railway Company has unveiled a rival 'bullet train' that can run up to 360km/h. The new E-5 type 'bullet' benefits from reduced air resistance due to an elongated nose, making it look more suitable to fly through the clouds than along a track.
I haven't only been outpaced this year, but outsized too. As soon as I'd reported walking along the gangway of the Independence of the Seas, "the largest cruise ship in the world", another mighty vessel took to the oceans. Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas is 16 decks high, has 2,700 cabins and can accommodate 6,300 passengers and 2,100 crew. It boasts of being five times larger than Titanic - somewhat of an unfortunate comparison.
It is manoeuvred by four 7,500 horsepower bow thrusters, each ten times the horsepower of Jenson Button's Formula 1 racing car. It's also the first cruise ship where you can plan all your activities before you board, using online planning tools. The ship (floating apartment block, more like) also features various 'neighbourhoods' - parks, squares and arenas with special themes, including a tropical environment with palm trees. At the time of writing, the Oasis of the Seas has just launched. But who knows what mammoth hulls have been welded together by the time you read these words?
Presuming our addiction to speed isn't going to abate, where will we all be heading to in such a hurry over the coming year? In this discovered world, are there still adventures to be had, frontiers to be crossed? Manny Fontenia-Novoa, chief executive of Thomas Cook, believes there are. His prediction for 2010 is that we will travel in realms that are, quite literally, untrodden. "I'd like to see the technology developed which would allow us to see the beautiful worlds beneath the sea. There's a whole world largely unexplored underwater. Just think of the opportunities," he says.
Opportunities for what, I wonder. Getting wet? Looking at fish? Developing flippers? Just because something is new, it doesn't necessarily mean it's meaningful.
I believe the best way to find a new place is not to know about its existence in the first place. In February's column, I celebrated the joys of getting lost in a well-mapped world. And I regretted that so much technology was aimed at ensuring we always find the exact spot we set out for. Of course, less than a year later there are many more gadgets and applications on the market aimed at guiding us safely to our goal. Even distinguished brands from an era of sedate travel are now fearful of their customers losing their way. The century-old Michelin guide wants to make sure you always know the coordinates of its tables by using their new iPhone application, allowing users to discover the nearest recommended restaurant. A second click, and your table is reserved - and if you're displeased with your duck à l'orange, the application allows you to post a comment for other restaurant-seekers to read.
We got horribly lost on our way to Santa's Magical Kingdom. This land was not in unexplored territory, but in deepest, darkest Kent, just a few miles off the well-worn travellers' highway known as the M20. We went there in search of another fake climate, a subject I reported in my September column. We don't seem to need to actually go anywhere anymore; we just need the temperature of a place we'd like to go recreated a few miles away from home. But sadly, Santa's Magical Kingdom was out of snow on the day we arrived. A huge storm, with winds gusting up to 90mph, had blown all the little false plastic flakes away, taking many of the Christmas trees with them. I imagine India's Father of the Nation would find this very amusing - nature defeating all attempts at fakery.
So we drove slowly back home through the buffeting wind. When it comes to the best speed to travel, I stroll along beside Gandhi.