London: Why take Heathrow Express?

HeathrowExpress.svgMy recent visit to London, the first in 19 years, gave me a new appreciation for the dangers of creating express trains to the airport that are useful only to high-paying travelers.

We stayed at Paddington, on the north-west edge of the inner city, because I presumed that the Heathrow Express — nonstop trains between Paddington and Heathrow Airport every 15-30 minutes — would help us handle the awkward moves with luggage.  It worked fine for that, but the fare was obscene (well over GBP 20 each way) and the trains were therefore nearly empty.  I should have suspected this from the logo's resemblance to a luxury car hood ornament. 

This appears to be a classic example of an overspecialized transit service — designed to separate people by fare even though they are all going in the same direction at the same time.  Its based on the assumption that people with money would like to wait longer for a more comfortable service that skips a few stations, rather than use the ordinary Underground line from Heathrow that is far more frequent and runs directly to many more parts of London.  I have similar concerns about overspecialized airport train projects in Toronto, and others proposed elsewhere in the world.  

Quite simply, I'd have been happy to pay half the fare for a train that made a couple of stops, so that a lot more people could get on.  Heathrow Express has achieved a nice sensation of luxury; near-empty trains are always a pleasure, but they also suggest a poor business model.  Heathrow Express will eventually have competition from Crossrail, which will run deeper into London with a few more stops, but which will still be much faster than the old Piccadilly Line from Heathrow.

After all, if people with money refuse to ride the Underground, then why does the Underground contain advertising for first class seats on Emirates?  

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18 Responses to London: Why take Heathrow Express?

  1. Bruce Nourish March 26, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    Your criticism of the overspecialized express service in on point, but the Piccadilly line is seemingly interminable at roughly an hour to Paddington. I stopped taking the Piccadilly line when I got my first job after university.
    I’ve always thought the sweet spot was Heathrow Connect. Mainline train-cars with mainline stop-spacing, 25 mins and half a dozen stop to Paddington for ten pounds. If HE trips were converted to HC trips, you’d have a single mainline service pattern running every 10 mins. I just wish it took Oyster.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heathrow_Connect

  2. Jarrett March 26, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

    Bruce. To be fair, the sweet spot will be Crossrail. Jarrett

  3. Alai March 26, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    I suspect that the first-class Emirates ads aren’t actually intended to advertise first-class seats. They’re meant to associate the brand with luxury, even if most of their customers fly in economy.

  4. Dwight March 26, 2015 at 7:32 pm #

    Only reason my wife & I used it when we were there last autumn was a MASSIVE discount on a two-person round trip (open jaw both ways) pre-purchased – was 60% for the second person. Combine that with our train to/from Exeter originating at Paddington, & it made good sense.
    If I was by myself, I would have definately used the Tube.

  5. Jeff March 26, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

    I take the Heathrow Connect unless the wait is twice the headway of the Express.

  6. Reality Check March 26, 2015 at 10:00 pm #

    Here’s another vote for Heathrow Connect. It’s much faster and more comfortable than the Piccadilly tube line and is only a bit slower than Heathrow Express at about half the fare.

  7. Philip March 27, 2015 at 1:49 am #

    The reason this exists is that the airport owner contributed financially to the construction of the line, and in exchange were allowed to run premium fare services. I also believe that’s why Oyster and Travelcards can’t be used on Heathrow Connect.

  8. Guy March 27, 2015 at 1:51 am #

    Exactly, the Heathrow Connect appears to fulfil the author’s statement that “I’d have been happy to pay half the fare for a train that made a couple of stops”. I guess that means there’s choice for those that want a fast/expensive service and those that want a slower/cheaper service.
    I’ve also found Heathrow Express to oddly empty, and really can’t understand who would pay for first. But given I understand this service is owned and operated by Heathrow itself, it must make some sort of sense to them!
    Also agree with Jarrett: Crossrail will significantly limit the attractiveness of Heathrow Express for those that want to access places other than Paddington, e.g. those heading to the West End, City and Canary Wharf.

  9. Christopher Hylarides March 27, 2015 at 4:20 am #

    3rding Heathrow Connect. It’s about half the price with more stops and double the journey time. Heathrow express is a “Premium” train for people with expense accounts who want to zip in and out of London on the same day. The tube does go to heathrow as we all know; it is over an hour at half the price of the connect.
    And while the express does seem empty and expensive, the company that runs it is profitable. So the fare structure works within the choice of travel options, I think.

  10. anonymouse March 27, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    I suspect that in a few more years, after Crossrail opens, Heathrow Express will die a quiet death as its schedule slots on the Great Western mainline are reallocated to better uses.
    Interestingly enough, while there are a lot of relatively empty (and obscenely priced) airport trains, not all airport services are in this category. Moscow’s Aeroexpresses run full and are profitable to the point where they’re investing in double-decker trains just to meet the demand. And that’s with a reasonable frequency of a 10-car train every 30 minutes and premium fares, for a service that only stops in the city and at the airport.

  11. Neil March 27, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

    I’ve used the express to leave London, when the extra time means extra sleep. Always use the tube when I arrive, though. I don’t recall finding the price unreasonable, but it has been a few years…

  12. Andrew March 27, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

    The Toronto airport rail link (UP Express) is much worse. It is designed so that only small trains dedicated to the airport rail link can use the spur at Pearson Airport, and the regular GO Transit rolling stock that the rest of the commuter train system uses cannot run on the spur. Basically, it would have to be totally rebuilt in order for regular GO trains to use it. It also is not electric, although the province is talking about electrifying it after the fact, along with the rest of the GO train system (the Kitchener line, which runs on the same track as the UP Express, currently only has a few trains a day in rush hour, though the province is talking about electrified train service that runs every 15 minutes).

  13. Roger B March 28, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    To understand the business model, one first has to understand that Heathrow Express is owned by the private company that owns the airport. Like most airports, whether for profit or non-profit, they make a large percentage of their money from parking fees. Their worst nightmare was to have another government built line with cheap fares connect to their airport. They took advantage of government privatizations to buy the line, and put a high price on it to discourage ridership. Even with the high fares, the cost of the line’s operation and maintenance means that parking is much more profitable.
    Toronto’s line was supposed to be built and operated by SNC Lavalin as a profitable line. The plan came from meetings between Transport Min. David Collenette and proponents who told him that they would build it without spending a dime of taxpayer money. The Ontario government, picked up the project after the Conservatives took power federally, because SNC is a major Liberal fundraiser. They spent a half billion on the line, but the figure would be much higher if the Ontario government hadn’t dubiously attributed much of UPX’s costs to future GO improvements, which remain in the planning stage.
    SNC bailed on the project, reportedly because it could not get operating profit guarantees from the Province.
    The Province maintained SNC’s business model of high fares, and as few stops as possible. Transit experts such as S Munro have said the this along with other irregularities (separate branding, management) appears to have done to make the line easy to spin off in the future when a profitable proposal can be worked out.
    Ontario has justified the pricing by pointing to the private Heathrow express, and saying that this is a premium service not a commuter line. The argument is not particularly substantive.
    The GTAA was threatening to add a $2 surcharge to the UPX line to make up for lost parking revenues but after discussions they agreed not to charge. This was just prior to UPX prices being revealed and I expect they were happy that the high prices would discourage ridership, as Metrolinx has predicted. It is sad that so many airports have successfully suppressed non-auto access.

  14. David M March 28, 2015 at 5:23 pm #

    I get your point about specialised services and ones that appear over-priced like Heathrow Express. but is was always intended as a premium service. It is fast, and frequent, but you pay for that. It seems well used, on average 16,000 people a day use it,a nd there are 150 trains a day.
    There already is another option and that is Heathrow Connect. This is an electric semi-fast train (it makes a few intermediate stops on the way) and runs every 30 minutes. The prices is much less – about a quarter of the price. Heathrow Connect goes to Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3 and Terminal 4. To get to Terminal 4, get off Heathrow Connect at Heathrow Terminals 1,2,3 and transfer (for free) to the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5.
    Then there is the Piccadilly Line which runs to all 5 terminals with trains every few minutes. Though journey’s are longer, about 45 minutes to central London.

  15. Stephen Richards March 29, 2015 at 11:11 am #

    Yes, you’re right that the price is expensive (all public transport in London is extremely expensive), and is not as useful as the tube in that it only serves one part of London – Paddington, but on the few occasions I’ve used it (yes I normally use the tube to get to Heathrow because I live near a Piccadilly line station and not Paddington), the train certainly hasn’t been empty. It’s been rather crowded, but not crushingly full with hundreds of standing passengers like the tube. So that’s what you’re paying for. And from 2017, it will integrated into the new Crossrail line giving direct access to many more stations in West, Central and East London.

  16. David Marcus March 30, 2015 at 1:11 am #

    I had a similar experience in Seoul recently. The expensive, non-stop train runs with so much less frequency than the local that it’s typically faster to take that local train. Of course, the express does offer the luxury of having a train all to yourself.

  17. Si April 8, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    Contrary to Roger B’s post, Heathrow’s owners wanted the line, and paid for the junction and tunnelled spur themselves.
    The reason why it is expensive (even when it comes to Heathrow Connect, which is still more expensive than a standard zone 6 ticket) is that they are trying to pay back the money that the tunnel cost. I guess that they reckon low occupancy paying high prices gets the cost back better than reasonable occupancy paying reasonable prices.
    It had the marketing strategy when it opened of Paddington< ->Heathrow in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes, for 15 pounds (which means lower fare rises than inflation, though starting from a high level in the late 90s).
    I imagine that the high cost is a selling point to executives, etc (and might dissuade them from using Taxis) just as it is a turn off for us plebs.
    @David M – IIRC, Connect now runs to Terminal 5, with the Terminal 4 service provided by a shuttle. Crossrail will likewise go to Terminal 5, rather than Terminal 4 (and will have double the frequency of Connect)
    Crossrail arrives 2019, HEx trains are due for replacement a couple of years later, which is also roughly when the HEx concession agreement runs out and electrification of the GWML is complete, with new trains and higher frequencies between London and Reading. There’s rather a lot of variables that might upset the lines future, though the Western Rail access is a similar ’21-’23 time period and trains running fast to Heathrow, then semi-fast to Reading and beyond (as HEx want) might keep the service alive.

  18. Ben Smith April 8, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    The thing which annoys me most about Toronto is that there is very little middle ground in accessing the airport, especially from downtown. You have the subway plus subway transfer plus express bus transfer which is $3.00 cash and takes about 65 minutes, or you will have the limited stop Union Pearson Express which will take 25 minutes for $27.50. Playing with Google Transit, it also points out you can take a commuter train to the west terminus of the subway, and connect to the airport bus from there for $8.60 and in 45 minutes, but you have to be travelling during rush hour to benefit from this option.
    But why not have an express bus from downtown Toronto straight to the airport? There used to be a private route which cost about the same as the new train, but why not a public one by GO Transit? Downtown Toronto and the airport are both directly connected by highway, and the fare calculator suggests it would cost $7.60 and take 20-40 minutes based on traffic.
    Funny thing is that GO DOES run an “Airport Express” route – to a suburban parking lot and local bus terminal 22km (14 miles) north of the city!

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