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UK AirRail 2015

This year’s UK AirRail 2015 conference took place in London, giving the attendees an overview of current airport policy environment and recent developments at a selection of national airports. Many of these enhancements were presented in the context, and response to, a lack of a national aviation and surface access strategy and the move towards regional and local devolution.

This review begins with the keynote speech by Lousie Ellman MP, Chair of Transport Select Committee, before introducing other speakers where relevant to the topic under discussion. It then moves on to detail the stand-alone presentations given by various airport owners and rail operators – acknowledging that presentations by easyJet, SNC-Lavalin and GhostData have not been included.


The overriding themes for the day were set out early by Lousie Ellman MP who reported on evidence heard by the committee on the subject of airport surface access. A report on the topic will be issued in due course; however, Ellman was able to cover some of the high level influences. First amongst these is the awareness that the debate about a possible new runway at Heathrow or Gatwick had dominated the aviation landscape, thereby sidelining the whole topic of regional airports and their relative access. It was Ellman’s desire that the upcoming announcement on the new runway would mean that there was an opportunity to have a real debate about the part that regional airports could provide to accommodate future growth.

Ellman went on to introduce the conference to the two main issues that came out of the evidence received:

  1. The lack of a national policy or strategy on surface access

  2. The impact of devolution

National Policy

Airports in Britain face a common set of issues: Though there are policy guidelines on the national transport networks, these do not include airports. Ellman felt that this results in a failure to maximise the use of current assets. If access was to be improved, Ellman believes that airports could make more efficient use of their capacity and become leading centres of growth.  As an example, she cited the development of an £800 million Enterprise Zone business park being constructed at Manchester Airport, as part of the Northern Powerhouse project. In contrast, the lack of surface access to both Bristol and Leeds Bradford airports act as an impediment to growth, even though both airports have existing capacity for additional passengers.

Without a national policy on the issue, the efforts of the various layers of government and those of the airport and national network operators rarely align. A further example of Birmingham Airport was used where the High Speed 2 station was being promoted nationally but that it was being left to the local region to deliver the link between the new station and the airport.

The influence of national policy and airports’ contribution to growth was developed in a subsequent presentation by Jonathan Pugh, Manager Strategy and Rail Franchising, Rail Delivery Group, who promoted the need for integration of spatial, economic and transport planning, “We need to get the levers of policy moving for the benefit of customers“, Pugh said.

Pugh cautioned though, that just because their is a railway close to an airport doesn’t mean that it is most appropriate to link the two. This remark was in contrast to the many presentations given at the AirRail Italia 2015 conference where EU policy guidance was used as a core argument for developing airrail links.

Pugh went on to say that airrail schemes need to be both viable and deliverable and that promoters need to consider:

  1. whether they are providing an airport link that takes people to where they want to go;

  2. whether there space on the railway;

  3. who will own and operate it; and

  4. do proposed timetables reflect airport needs for both employees and passengers?

In light of the lack of a national policy, Pugh’s limited advice for airport operators was to respond to both Network Rail Route Utilisation Strategies (RUS) and all relevant franchise consultations.

Ian Elston, Head of Airport Policy, Department for Transport, then advised the conference that one of the four strategic priorities of the DfT is to enhance transport to ports and airports; however, general DfT policy is that airports should fund upgrades to transport – only where there are wider benefits would the Government look to find supporting funds.

With a lack of national policy it is not clear how an airport would be guided to develop schemes that could prove they offered wider benefits that would satisfy the DfT.

Jonathan Pugh – Manager Strategy and Rail Franchising, Rail Delivery Group

Localism and Funding

Though airports are expected to draw up their own transport plans, the capability of the national and regional funding agencies is the main decider on whether they get built. Louise Ellman MP contended that the approach to developing airports was becoming fragmented with the expansion of the Devolved Governments, City Deals and elected mayors. At the highest level, there was the fact that new City Regions wouldn’t cover the whole area that was served by an airport within them.

With the devolution agenda spreading the responsibility for funding infrastructure to local regions, Ellman had a concern that the long term nature of the surface access schemes means that it is inappropriate to fund them through ad hoc local funding streams for which LEPs must compete. She cited the Airports Commission’s urge for central Government to prioritise surface access to airports in spending plans. Failure to sufficiently fund surface access schemes means Government priorities to achieve mode shift and enhance access to employment will not be possible.

Jonathan Pugh’s take on the devolution agenda was that more localised control over transport provision, through new regional transport bodies, would enable airports to have a greater influence on franchising proposals and local decisions.

Services for Commuters or Services for Airport Passengers?

If an airrail proposal is to be appropriate for the passengers who use it, the actual service offered needs to be attuned to airport passengers, Jonathan Pugh’s 4 considerations for the development of a scheme were couched in the language of compromise between commuters and airport passengers. He cited the fact that provision of space for luggage was not compatible with high density commuter services. This theme was returned to later on by airport and rail operators; however, it set the background for a discussion on the needs of various passenger groups.

David Sidebottom, Passenger Director, Transport Focus, developed this topic citing research that 55% of passengers choose an airport based upon price and convenience of getting to that airport: Research through the National Rail Passenger Survey has shown that satisfaction is generally better for trips to airports but that passengers felt they were getting lower value for money than for an average rail trip.

Sidebottom cited Transport Focus’ research that though only 1/2 of airport passengers were travelling in the peak time, 65% of passengers had a peak ticket; further if 1/3 of passengers buy their tickets in advance he posed the question of why passengers are buying peak time tickets unnecessarily – was it for insurance or was it simply the easiest one to buy?

The price of rail tickets was raised along with the lack of through-ticketing as a significant barrier to using rail to reach an airport, others were:

  1. Train crowding – 5 of the 10 most crowded trains in Britain are services that go to an airport.

  2. First and last train times.

  3. Access to local station by bus – frequency, cost and convenience.

  4. Step-free access.

  5. Signage at airports.

  6. The restriction on using Oyster and other contactless payments.

  7. Lack of ‘safety net’ in case of disruption or missed connections.

David Sidebottom – Passenger Director, Transport Focus

In response to these presentations, a question was put to Pugh as to whether airport passengers were getting good value for money out of the franchising system which seemed to be focussed on commuters: the example of Govia Thamelink Railway (GTR) was used where 1/3 of revenue is generated from airport passengers. Pugh again urged compromise in his response, stating a desire that franchises should be sufficiently flexible to serve the needs of all passenger groups but that, whereas commuters have a champion in local politicians, airports need to be the passenger champion for airport passengers.

A delegate posed the question as to whether compromise is good enough when the airrail experience is probably the 2nd impression that a foreign visitor has of Britain. Pugh and Sidebottom both acknowledged this fact stating that perhaps a better term should be to optimise capacity until upgrades have been completed. Sidebottom went on to warn delegates that failure to communicate with passengers may lead to a loss of trust before those upgrades are delivered.

Airport Projects and in the Context of no National Policy

London Luton Airport

Nick Barton, Chief Executive Officer, London Luton Airport presented plans for the development of Luton Airport but noted that surface access is the biggest challenge but also biggest opportunity. Luton Airport is served by the nearby Luton Airport Parkway station but passengers are required to catch a shuttle bus between the two. This undermines the high level rail journey time of a 19 minutes on some services.

Without a policy background to stipulate the development of surface access, Luton’s approach follows 3 core strands:

  1. Immediate improvements – such as better relationships with train operators  over branding and information at stations. This has lead to a 30% increase in tickets for rail to airport in last year. With new Class 700 trains to be introduced from 2016, the airport is anticipating further developments next year, to include:

  2. the extension of the Oyster payment system, hopefully by the end of 2016.

  3. improving overnight services – the current hourly service through the night will be increased to a 30 minute headway – expected to enable an additional 2 million passengers per year to use rail to access the airport.

  4. Intercity services – currently only 16 Intercity trains stop at Luton Airport Parkway per day, the airport would like this to increase to 4 trains per hour to open up the rail catchment into the East Midlands region.

  5. Bridging the gap between the airport to the station with a fixed link.

Nick Barton – CEO, London Luton Airport

Manchester Airport

Alistair Andrew of Manchester Airport Group introduced the work undertaken at the group’s two main airports, Manchester and London Stansted. These are guided by four priorities:

  1. Journey times

  2. Reliability and resilience

  3. Affordability and save

  4. Qualify and choice.

The rail mode share at Manchester has reached 14%, helped in part by the 24 hour rail service. Local access was enhanced in 2014 when Metrolink services were extended to the airport. This year, the airport saw the opening of a 4th platform at the National Rail station, being part of the Northern Hub works to facilitate greater access to the airport and adjacent Enterprise Zone.

The airport’s hopes to further improve connectivity in future with the reduction of journey times that would result from the planned electrification and High Speed 2 rail schemes. It would also like to see the replacement of ageing stock with modern, appropriate carriages.

Andrew repeated the message that Ellson had given earlier in that as new runway capacity in the South East is at least 15 years away, investment should be made now to efficiently use the current airport infrastructure across the country, Manchester is a prime example of this asset.

At Stansted, the rail mode share is 24%. Here, the lack of integration between rail and air transport policy has resulted in the rail journey time between Stansted and London increasing from 41 mins in the 1990s to between 45 and 55 mins today.

Recent improvements at Stansted, have included earlier services on some days – though this obviously needs to be extended to be every day and the airport has input into franchise consultations to try and secure this.

Further enhancements would rely on an upgrade to the West Anglia Mainline to achieve 4-tracking and line speed increases, something which the Government has asked a taskforce to consider. Andrew highlighted that it has been two years since the Airports Commission called for an “urgent’ study into the West Anglia Mainline. Eventual integration into the Crossrail 2 project would be desirable.

Alistair Andrew – Planning, Manchester Airport Group

Birmingham Airport

Robert Eaton, Planning Development and Infrastructure Manager, told the conference that much work had already been undertaken to improve public transport access to the terminal. A historical case study is available from the removal of the maglev shuttle between the terminal and Birmingham International station in 1995: Following closure, the rail mode share dropped to only 11% as passengers had to make the transfer by shuttle bus instead. Once a new people mover was installed in 2003, mode share soon increased back to 20%.

Eaton noted too the issue of the local connection to High Speed 2 (2.3km away), reminding the group that proposals were not confirmed and that it had been left to the region to fund this link. It is estimated that High Speed 2 could bring up to 8 million more passengers to the airport so it is important to provide an efficient link so as not to negate the journey time improvement.

Robert Eaton – Planning Development and Infrastructure Manager, Birmingham Airport

Transporting Cities reviewed the airrail connection at Birmingham Airport earlier in the year. 

London Gatwick Airport

Julia Gregory, Head of Airport Development, Gatwick Airport, countered Jonathan Pugh’s earlier view that rail services were a compromise between the different needs of airport and commuting passengers. She argued that most passenger needs were the fairly similar and therefore the the industry should be looking for a winning strategy to achieve both aims. As an example, she suggested that on board space needed for airport passengers’ luggage was equally valuable to a family travelling with a buggy. Given Gatwick’s location on the Brighton Mainline, it has a rail mode share of 35% – it’s worth noting that the same train service travels through London to serve Luton Airport (Parkway) and yet Luton only achieves a rail mode share of 15%.

Returning to the need to influence franchise specification, Gregory recounted how a delay in the award of the GTR franchise, allowed the airport time to develop its own rail strategy to push for improvements in the eventual franchise award. Working closely with various local stakeholders (local authorities, commuters and airlines) the airport was able to secure meaningful changes to the franchise agreement. In response to Pugh’s earlier council for airports to feed into the franchise consultation, Gregory noted that if airports could rely on a national policy it would save them from having to respond to every single consultation individually as the need to enhance airport surface would be included as a given.

In the near future, Gatwick are anticipating a new fleet of Gatwick Express trains in early 2016 (these are based upon the platform that has proven popular on the Stansted Express). Further improvements will follow later next year when the Oyster payment system is extended to the airport; and be radically transformed with the full redevelopment of the station by 2020 (jointly funded by Gatwick Airport, DfT and Network Rail).

Julia Gregory – Head of Airport Development, Gatwick Airport

London Southend Airport

Glyn Jones, Chief Executive Officer, Southend Airport took a contrary view on the need for a national policy presenting the station scheme at Southend Airport as an example of on how the airport had funded and delivered with no public sector funding as it considered rail access so integral to the new airports business. They note that research has shown that demand can be suppressed by up to 80% if rail passengers are required to change to reach the airport which led to the station being constructed immediately opposite the terminal. This location is considered a key reason for the high rail mode share of 33%,  increasing by up to 2% per year.

Jones added a note of caution that smaller regional airports rely on car parking revenue to sustain their operations so they would find it difficult to encourage significant mode shift in the current market.

Lastly, Jones was keen to note that having constructed the station, the airport had management and oversight of the entire passenger environment between aeroplane and train, allowing the airport to oversee and provide high quality customer service throughout the campus –  Transporting Cities had a rather different experience.

How Transport Operators are Responding

In addition to those airports presenting recent developments in airport surface access, a number of operators presented their actions to support airport operations on their networks.


Howard Smith, Operations Director, Crossrail provided a positive tone with new that the project was 67% towards completion. The Heathrow to Paddington section of the line would see new trains operating from 2018; however, it will still be necessary to change trains at Paddington until the full service is operating through the central London tunnel in December 2019. Passengers can look forward to experiencing Crossrail’s service priorities of:

  1. Reliability

  2. Quality

  3. Connectivity

Govia Thameslink Railway

This year has seen GTR spend £2m on airport advertising with the appointment of Partnership Managers to ensure aligned working with airports. They have commitments to improve:

  1. Customer Experience

  2. Product offer

  3. Seamless journeys between train and aeroplane

  4. Aligned customer information provision

  5. Joint marketing to customers

Now the UK’s biggest rail franchise, GTR will benefit from the significant works undertaken as part of the Thameslink Programme would provide a 50% increase in capacity. David Innis, Commercial Director, explained that the operator would retain 4 separate brands so passengers going to Gatwick will still see Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express services; those going to Luton will continue to use Thameslink services. The appointment of brand Passenger Service Directors is an attempt to ensure service delivery is improved brand by brand.

Passengers will see an on board improvement from early 2016 when new, more spacious Class 700 trains begin their introduction on the Thameslink route.

Connectivity to Gatwick will be enhanced in 2018 when the Great Northern route is connected to the Thameslink core service allowing through running from Gatwick to the destinations such as Stevenage and Cambridge. The interchange a Farringdon will see the maximisation of route connectivity, where, from December 2019, the full Crossrail service will allow passengers to reach Heathrow with only one change.

Edinburgh Trams

Dean Anderson, Customer Service and Revenue Protection Manager, introduced the UK’s newest airrail link as a choice for customers: Transport for Edinburgh has maintained the dedicated Airlink bus between Edinburgh Airport and Edinburgh City Centre, even harmonising fares between the two to allow passenger a choice of routes.

Anderson was keen to ensure that on board staff were recruited with an eye to their aptitude for customer service, noting that they were ambassadors for the city of Edinburgh, efforts seem to have paid off with evidence that the first year of operation achieved a 95% passenger satisfaction score. Recent chances have also seen tram staff situated in the airport terminal to intercept passengers as they arrive (an idea borrowed from Heathrow Express).

In response to airport considerations, tram service times have been extended by 90 minutes in the morning to serve the first flights. These changes have resulted in noticeable passenger growth. Next steps include more active engagement with airlines.

Gareth Jones, Head of Corporate Communications, introduced the context of a possible network extension to Edinburgh Waterfront, thereby increasing connectivity to the airport. After the many delays in completing the original scheme, it was recognised that it would be essential to secure engagement from the local business before proceeding.

Dean Anderson – Customer Service and Revenue Protection Manager, Edinburgh Trams

TransPennine Express

TransPennine Express (TPE) operate 24 hour services to Manchester Airport. Chris Nutton, Planning Director, was able to show how the operator was increasing passenger numbers on its airport services with the example of the Lancaster, Cumbria and Glasgow – Manchester Airport service: passenger traffic on the corridor has risen from 2,000 in 2008 to 30,000 in 2015. Nutton pointed out that TPE services now made it possible for residents of Scotland to consider Manchester Airport for access to long haul flights – though there was a recognition that new passenger types would have higher customer service expectations. To meet these expectations, TPE provides 2 frontline staff on each train and has commissioned specific customer service training from an outside agency.

Next steps in supporting service development will be subject to the new franchise award in 2016.

Chris Nutton – Planning Director, TransPennine Express

Heathrow Express

As a vertically integrated service, Heathrow Express has a more explicit commercial approach to service development and passenger experience: Fraser Brown, Business Lead, had a relatively simple message that if a passengers enjoys the train ride, they will pass through the terminal in a happier mood and therefore spend more in the shops. In light of this, it is easier for Heathrow Express to undertake promotional activities within the terminal.

One such project has been the introduction of new video screens above the baggage carrousels: these provide a transparent comparison of estimated time and cost for journeys into central London by both taxi and Heathrow Express. Mobile ticket vendors are strategically placed to further encourage sales. Brown’s next project will be to ensure that the screens are translated into the language of the relevant flight’s origin country.

Apart from the screens, Heathrow offer a free map to arriving passengers which displays onward destinations from Heathrow Express’s terminal at Paddington, along with information on the Heathrow Express service: it is estimated that this map is given to 1 in 10 passengers, with a conversion rate of 10%.

Brown reflected that with upcoming works to deliver electrification and Crossrail projects one further action would be to provide more responsive service information in the event of service alterations.

Fraser Brown – Business Lead, Heathrow Express

Summary and Conclusion

Despite some very positive projects being discussed, many airport representatives stated their desire for a national policy on airports and their surface access. Such a policy, it was thought, would guide the framework on which to develop local schemes and would assist airports in navigating these new links through the planning and implementation phases, especially in the context of greater devolution and localism. It was clear that many schemes were proceeding in the interim; however, the overall strategic benefit of these links cannot be assessed without an overall strategic plan. Further, if the central Government is unwilling to fund local schemes, regions need to give investors  some certainty, especially considering the long lead time for projects.

As devolution continues to spread powers out to the local area, airports need to be mindful of the risk that local regions, being expected to fund airrail schemes, may have a more localised view of where connections are needed.

It would appear from the various presentations that the outline policy goals are already understood – from a passengers’ perspective Manchester Airport Group, Transport Focus and others have already outlined the principles that should guide the continued development of airrail links.

With all the discussion of a national policy, I am left to wonder whether UK airports are missing an opportunity here. As referred to earlier, the AirRail Italia 2015 conference heard repeatedly that schemes were being developed specifically to deliver on EU policy directives. In the case of those Italian airports, the designation of the TEN-T Mediterranean Corridor meant specified that intermodal rail links were provided to airports on the corridor; however, there was not a single mention of EU policy at the London conference. Well, with the lack of a UK policy context, might UK airports benefit from taking advantage of European policy provision instead? For reference, the North Sea – Mediterranean Corridor is shown below passing, London City, Heathrow, Luton, Southampton, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh.



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