Will Luton’s New Express Rail Service Make The Airport More Attractive?

London Luton Airport is set to get a brand new express railway link to the heart of the city. Opening next year, the service will see a modern fleet of trains deployed on a direct and swift connection with London St Pancras station, shaving minutes off the connection time and reducing associated booking hassles. Simple Flying asks if this will make the airport more attractive to airlines and air passengers as a result.

Luton Express Rail
Luton will get an express rail link. Photo: Luton Airport

Luton’s new express railway service

The new express railway service promises to get passengers from Luton Airport to London St Pancras station in under half an hour. The existing fleet of intercity trains will be replaced with 165 brand new bi-mode carriages in 33 trains, running every half an hour along the line between Bedford and St Pancras.

Currently, the journey takes around 40 minutes, and operates as frequently as once every 10 minutes at peak times, but as infrequently as once an hour overnight. While the trip doesn’t require any changes, it does involve an additional 10-minute shuttle bus and separate ticketing for both parts of the journey. Luton Airport’s Chief Executive, Alberto Martin, said in a press release,

“Once the developments are completed, passengers will be able to reach the airport terminal in a little under half an hour from central London. This transformation of service with its own sub brand, website, easier ticketing and dedicated platform at St Pancras will be welcomed by all passengers who travel to us by rail.”

The new express style rail connection will reduce the whole journey time to 30 minutes or less, including the transfer from the airport, and will use a single ticket process making it much easier for passengers to manage. In 2021, the journey time is likely to be reduced even further by 2021 when a Mass Passenger Transit system is due to be finalized.

Luton Airport
Getting to and from the airport will be faster and easier. Photo: Luton Airport

The express rail project will be delivered by Abellio, a company which has recently signed up to operate the East Midlands Railway for the next eight years. Luton Airport has said that the partnership with Abellio will bring more than £600m of investment into the rail services. As well as improving the Luton Airport connection, Abellio plans to invest £20m across all the stations on the network, including the development of a new waiting area at St Pancras.

How important is rail connectivity to airports?

While some passengers arriving at London airports may be heading on to somewhere else in the UK, most will need to get into Central London in order to get out again. Many will, of course, be using London as a final destination. As such, the ease of making a connection between their flight and the heart of the City will be key to the quality of their journey.

None of the London airports, barring City, are particularly close to the center. Heathrow is 16 miles away, Gatwick 28, and Luton and Stansted 34 and 39 miles out. However, most are well served by fast connections into the city, making them seem much closer than they are.

London Airports
The airports serving London. Image: Nilfanion via Wikimedia

Heathrow has had the Heathrow Express train service in place since 1998, which uses Class 332 EMU trains to get to Paddington Station in just 15 minutes, or 21 minutes from Terminal 5. Gatwick too has an express train service, aptly named the Gatwick Express, which leaves every 15 minutes and takes just 30 minutes to reach London Victoria station.

However, one London airport still lacks a fast connection. Stansted Airport claims to have the ‘Stansted Express’, but in reality, this is just a mainline train service that also stops at the airport. It stops at many other stations along the way, and is slow and expensive to use. Despite being only five miles further from the city center than Luton, the journey time from Stansted is typically around 45 – 55 minutes and will set you back around £21.

Will Luton’s connection make the airport more appealing to airlines?

Luton has always lagged behind, having no dedicated rail service for airline passengers. However, with this new service set to launch next year, the airport will be brought in line with the larger London airports in having a swift, direct and convenient connection to the city.

Heathrow chaos
Swift links make airports appealing to both airlines and passengers. Photo: Tony Higsett via Flickr

A House of Commons Transport Committee Report published in 2016 noted that,

“Limited or poor surface access to airports can constrain growth, adversely affect the passenger experience, and force passengers, employees and freight operators to choose modes of travel to and from airports that exacerbate environmental problems and congestion. The Airport Operators Association has recently described surface access to and from airports as “perhaps the single most important area” to address to spread tourism across the regions.”

By investing in surface infrastructure, Luton is certainly making itself a more appealing airport to passengers. This, coupled with lower landing fees than the larger London airports, could see more international airlines attracted to the airport.

It seems it’s time for Stansted to up its game and make plans for its own true express rail link, if it’s to attract the business of more airlines and maintain its position as London’s third busiest airport.