Heathrow Express Braces for Crossrail to End Airport MonopolyBy
$20 billion link will provide direct trains to central London
Incumbent still planning to grow annual passenger tally 10%
Heathrow Express, which runs the only surface rail link to Europe’s busiest airport, pledged to carry on growing even as it braces for the end of its 19-year monopoly on the route when Crossrail Ltd. commences operations next year.
The company will seek to publicize its shorter journey time from London’s Paddington station and emphasize that travelers through Heathrow won’t have to share its trains with commuters, as they will on Crossrail, Managing Director Fraser Brown said in an interview.
The rollout of Crossrail services from the airport to central London and the City financial district will present Heathrow Express with the biggest challenge in its history. Its own trains terminate at Paddington in the west of the U.K. capital, so travelers need to switch to the subway or catch a cab to continue their journey, something that won’t be necessary on Crossrail.
“Crossrail is a great thing and it will increase connectivity and people’s awareness of the train option,” Brown said. “But it cannot match our ‘15 minutes, every 15 minutes’ service and neither will it have the big seats and large luggage spaces that our airline passengers value.”
While Heathrow Express’s guaranteed 15-minute journey time to Paddington gives it an eight-minute advantage over Crossrail trains, which will make five stops en route, the new 15-billion-pound ($20 billion) network should be quicker for longer trips. Trains from Heathrow Central will take 28 minutes to reach Tottenham Court Road in London’s West End and arrive at Liverpool Street in the City in 34 minutes and Canary Wharf in 40 minutes.
Heathrow Express plans to increase its marketing efforts to boost awareness of its services, Brown said. That will include improved visibility and advertising at the airport stressing that its trains are tailor-made for travelers and won’t become clogged with commuters since they travel to Paddington non-stop.
Crossrail will offer four hourly departures, the same as Heathrow Express, as it absorbs Heathrow Connect, a service that Heathrow Express currently runs and which provides a twice hourly stopping service to and from Paddington for more price-conscious travelers, London commuters and airport workers.
Heathrow Express, which is owned by Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd., carried 6 million passengers last year, giving it a 30 percent share of the 20 million or so people who traveled to and from the hub and central London. Shareholders of the airport operator include Ferrovial SA and Qatar Investment Authority.
Passenger growth has averaged about 5 percent annually over the past three to five years, but a figure of 10 percent should be achievable as the company broadens its focus beyond the business-travel market, Brown said. Children up to the age of 15 have traveled for free since the end of 2014. The standard fare on Heathrow Express is 25 pounds, though advanced booking can reduce an adult one-way fare to 5.50 pounds, cheaper than the equivalent journey on the subway, or Tube.
Crossrail, which will be known as the Elizabeth Line once it’s up and running, hasn’t yet set fares, but transit agency Transport for London has indicated they will be significantly less than Heathrow Express with a charging structure more akin to the Tube.
The wider network, to be operated by Hong Kong subway specialist MTR for TfL, will span 73 miles between Reading in the Thames Valley and Shenfield in Essex, with sections opening in stages. Track from Paddington to central London will open in December 2018, though there will be no through trains from Heathrow until a year after that.
Heathrow Express is also facing a challenge from Uber Technologies Inc. taxis, though for the moment the service appears to be cannibalizing the traditional black cab market rather than impacting rail, according to Brown.
The various transport modes are competing for a limited pot, with the airport struggling to eke out more flights with both of its runways essentially full.
Heathrow Express’s owner last month lost a High Court appeal against a ruling by Britain’s rail regulator that it can’t charge Crossrail for using the track to the hub, on which it spent 1 billion pounds two decades ago.
The charges could have meant a 47-million-pound annual cost for TfL, which will run Crossrail and which reports to the London mayor’s office, and could have led it to avoid running the trains to the airport, leaving the Heathrow Express monopoly intact.