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In the second of our series on alternative London airports, we travelled up one sunny morning from London to experience the airrail link at Birmingham Airport.

London Birmingham Airport

The Service: Virgin Trains operate 3 times per hour from London Euston to Birmingham International station, calling at Watford Junction on route. The journey took 1 hour and 10 minutes from Euston and 56 minutes from Watford Junction: this compares to a rail journey time of 49 minutes from Euston to Heathrow T5; 54 minutes to Gatwick; and 1 hour and 4 minutes to Stansted. A slower, stopping service operates up to 2 times per hour by London Midland, which may pick you up from your local station.

Any longer and passengers on this CrossCountry train would get wet

Journey time is not the only difference between the two services as Virgin Trains offers seat reservations, power sockets and an onboard shop. You pay for these amenities though: picking a simple fare comparison from London (it’s never that simple with UK ticketing), the cheapest walk-up Super Off-Peak Return ticket is £32.80 on Virgin Trains and £25 on London Midland; however, Advance fares are as low as £15 and £12 respectively.

Platform signage direction you to the stairs

The Station: Birmingham International is helpfully located on the mainline between London and Birmingham. Upon arrival, you are greeted with a fairly standard UK railway station and that is a problem: it should not be a standard UK railway station, it’s a major airport station and should provide the welcome you’d expect from such an important hub.

Passengers have to step down from the train onto platforms that are partly located underneath the station building. Unless you happen to be in the central part of the train, you alight onto an exposed platform with no shelters and only a few seats. It seems surprising that such an important station is so exposed, given that passengers on an 11 car Pendolino can have quite a long walk back to the centrally located stairs. Here too, another omission, in that there are no escalators; you can make use of the lift, but if you are worried about time you’ve no option but to shuffle up the stairs with your luggage, along with a fair number of other passengers: only when you are up on the station concourse do you see that there is in fact an escalator but it was hidden down at the rear (First Class) end of the platform.

Air Rail Link at Birmingham International Station

Once up in the station concourse, the experience improves markedly: well placed signage leads you to the “Air-Rail Link” for the 2 minute shuttle to the terminal. Having Birmingham Airport branding at this point provides timely reassurance that you’ve made it (hopefully on time!).

On board the Air Rail Link

The “Air-Rail Link” itself is quick and smooth and offers the huge benefit of arriving only a few metres from security screening area – this really would offer a time-conscious passengers a seamless journey straight into Departures. If you want to go to the check-in counters they were located downstairs.

Air Rail Link platforms at the terminal

In the opposite direction there are equally clear directions to the railway station and down to the platforms.

Signage to the London platforms

You definitely can’t miss the clearly identified platform entrances once you are on the station concourse.

The Experience: Birmingham International does not present itself as a world class station; it’s not until you climb up from the platforms that you see the passenger facilities you would expect at a major airport, shops, coffee, seats etc. – even those hidden escalators!

Distance between Air Rail Link and security screening point

Acknowledgement must be given to the number of staff we encountered on our journey through station; though fewer staff were seen within the airport terminal, there is only a few metres between the “Air-Rail Link” and Departures so you are unlikely to get lost.

Transporting Cities’ Gauge: Our journey took us from London Euston to airport security in less than 1 hour and 20 minutes – that is quite competitive. Depending on your origin, the fast rail service to Birmingham Airport is comparable to reaching some London airports and the well located “Air-Rail Link” certainly pulls the airport and station together into a coherent interchange. Thankfully we undertook the journey on a sunny day so the lack of rain shelter didn’t affect us but in the event of rain, your trip wouldn’t get off to a good start if you had to pull your wet suitcase up the stairs.

Given the wider range of flights and long haul airlines from Birmingham, expectations are likely to be higher than those of Southampton Airport where we visited previously: on the whole these expectations were met and we can recommend the airport as a worthwhile alternative but we would like to see the quality of the platform environment enhanced so that the whole journey offers a consistent, attractive passenger experience.

Signage upon arrival at Birmingham International Station

Update: I am pleased to append the following response received from Virgin Trains:
“We are always looking at ways to improve the customer experience at all our stations and therefore welcome Liam’s most helpful review of Birmingham International. It is always good to get feedback. Record numbers are now using the station to access both the Airport and the NEC, taking advantage of our fast and frequent services from London and the North West.

“So we share his view that Birmingham International is a realistic option for those living in London and the South East wanting to fly long haul. It is important however we make their passage from train to ultimate destination as seamless as possible and we are delighted the report highlights the role played by our staff who are key to our service delivery. We will of course take on board the findings.”

About the Author

Liam Henderson is an independent transport professional who set up the consultancy Transporting Cities, offering transport planning support to across the rail industry. He is passionate about improving the passenger experience.

Prior to setting up Transporting Cities, Liam worked in the planning departments of Transport for London and the Docklands Light Railway in London. He managed the design and roll out of a new, passenger-friendly, network map for the DLR and championed a programme to roll out realtime departure information at stations. He also developed station facilities using funds he secured from private sector developers and advocated for specific improvements on the line to London City Airport. With his regular experience of international railways, he is keen to share his own experience of best practice on airrail integration.

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Regular passengers flying into and out of London get used to looking up flights from the usual list of airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, City and Luton. However, there are options that are slightly further afield which could provide a useful departure point. Beginning a trip in central London, I tested whether Southampton Airport would be a convenient ‘London’ airport.

The Route: Southampton Airport (Parkway) station is on the South Western mainline just 1 hour and 6 minutes from London Waterloo.South West Trains from Waterloo call at Clapham Junction on route, from where the journey time is 1 hour: this compares to a rail journey time of 54 minutes to Heathrow (plus connecting walk); 25 minutes to Gatwick (plus the connecting shuttle, if using the North Terminal); and 40 minutes to City.

Southampton Airport Sign web

The Station: The airport and station lie just to the north of Southampton city. Trains from London pull up immediately next to the terminal complex; however, the airport’s welcome is definitely not warm. The southbound platform 2 is rather desolate with few facilities: given its role in serving the airport, it is strange that the canopy doesn’t cover the edge of the platform so your luggage is likely to get wet if it’s raining.

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The (lack of) weather protection on platform 2.

Once under the canopy, there is a signed walkway off the platform and across the road to the terminal building. This is where the benefit of the air-rail link becomes obvious as the walk is very short. For anyone used to the long corridors, tunnels and escalators at larger airports, the short connection is welcome. It is only 99 steps from plane to train – I’m not sure why it’s not 99 steps the other way around, maybe there is a lift somewhere!

Southampton Airport Rail2 web

The Information: With such a short walk link between station and terminal there wasn’t really much need for information on the way to the terminal; however, the journey information available for arriving passengers was quite impressive and, most importantly, clear.

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Comprehensive onward journey information is displayed in one place, making journey planning simple for the passenger: details of direct rail and bus services are shown as well as onward services from Southampton City Centre.

The Ticket: As the station is further away from London than the main airports, the rail journey is longer and more expensive: an off-peak return is £43.40 (£28.65 with a Network Railcard). Using the airport will obviously cost a little more for the rail journey required, however, you may find that you save this amount on your flight.

The Service: Services from London operate up to 3 times an hour off-peak. As the station is also served by regional South West Trains across the south and Crosscountry trains to the Midlands and the North, up to 6 trains an hour depart the station in each direction, with further destinations available via interchange at Southampton Central.

Southampton Airport Rail4 web

Note that unless you travel in First Class, South West Trains does not offer plug sockets on their services, this is a shame as it can limit you in making best use of the journey.

The Experience: The real attraction of using Southampton Airport is the very short distance between train and plane, this is a comparable distance as advertised by London City or Southend airports. If the ease of the air-rail connection is of value to you and you happen to live near Waterloo or Clapham Junction, then it is definitely worth checking your flight options for your next trip. Neither the station, nor the walk link offer the world class travel facility you’d find at a major airport but it’s so short, you probably won’t notice.

Southampton Airport Rail5 web

About the Author

Liam Henderson is an independent transport professional who set up the consultancy Transporting Cities, offering transport planning support to across the rail industry. He is passionate about improving the passenger experience.

Prior to setting up Transporting Cities, Liam worked in the planning departments of Transport for London and the Docklands Light Railway in London. He managed the design and roll out of a new, passenger-friendly, network map for the DLR and championed a programme to roll out realtime departure information at stations. He also developed station facilities using funds he secured from private sector developers and advocated for specific improvements on the line to London City Airport. With his regular experience of international railways, he is keen to share his own experience of best practice on airrail integration.

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My journey to Milan started on a frosty morning at Heathrow Airport, on board of one of the 95 newly refurbished BA short haul aircrafts.

With leather seating throughout the aircraft, the difference between business and economy class has been somewhat muddled and my mood escapes with a cheerful tweet.

Tweet

Without giving too much away just yet, let’s land at Milan Malpensa. Second biggest airport in Italy (17.6 mppa) after Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino (36.2 mppa), curiously, Malpensa is not considered the “main” Milan Airport. This unofficial title belongs to somewhat smaller Linate Airport (9 mppa), which is favoured by the city dwellers.

First signs of the train connection greets you at the baggage claim hall. Big green and white wayfinding signs, informing passengers about their travel options from the airport, are strategically displayed throughout the entire journey from baggage claim hall to the (in my case) train station.

MalpensaExpress Wayfinding

MalpensaExpress Wayfinding2

 

At no point I was in doubt which direction to follow to reach the train station.

MalpensaExpress Wayfinding3

MalpensaExpress Wayfinding4

 

Trouble started with the ticket machines. Being a person that prefers self-service (I am one of the rare customers who actually enjoy the self-service supermarket counters) I didn’t even consider going to the staffed ticket kiosk. Selecting journey and ticket type was easy enough, but the card reader display was only speaking Italian and it was taking ages, eventually telling me that my card was declined (later I realised that I was too impatient, and removed my card too quickly). I had more luck with other “fast ticket” machines. Although calling them “fast” is little bit generous.

MalpensaExpress Ticketing1

MalpensaExpress Ticketing2

MalpensaExpress Ticketing3

 

In my two days in Milan, I had the chance to use Malpensa Express four times and used all available ticket purchase options, except the online booking: ticket machines at the airport, ticket machines at the city station, staffed kiosk and mobile app. From all those option, the only smooth transaction was with the member of staff – apart from the earlier mentioned troubles at the airport, Cadorna ticket machines only spoke Italian, and the mobile app crashed on the crucial moment of processing my card details.

MalpensaExpress Ticketing4

 

Malpensa Express is a dedicated airport rail service, operated by Trenord (formed in 2011 by Trenitalia and LeNORD, each owning 50% of the company). According to their website, Malpensa Express links the centre of Milan and Malpensa Airport Terminal 1 with 129 trains a day, between 4.28 and 0.26 a.m. 51 trips to and from Milano Centrale (also stopping at Milano P.ta Garibaldi, where passengers can connect to international TILO and SNCF (TGV) rail networks) and 78 to and from Milano Cadorna (of which 36 are direct, with a journey time of 29 minutes).

MalpensaExpress Train1

The Malpensa Express rolling stock is purpose build for airport passengers and was gradually introduced into service from 2010.

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MalpensaExpress Train2

 

The trains offer step-free access to passengers, plenty of luggage and seating space, space for wheelchair users, accessible toilets and charging plugs at each table.

MalpensaExpress Train3

MalpensaExpress Train4

MalpensaExpress Train5

MalpensaExpress Train8

MalpensaExpress Station1

MalpensaExpress Station2

MalpensaExpress Advert1

Interestingly, the only outside (apart of wayfinding and at-station information) promotion for the Malpensa Express is displayed on Malpensa Airport shuttle busses, which might confuse passengers into thinking that the buses are the express service.

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Aside from being a major hub for Delta Airlines, Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport is only a few miles from the Mall of America, the largest shopping centre in the United States. Since 2004 the Metro Blue Line light rail service has operated between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America, serving both airport terminals on the route.

Landing in the depths of a Minnesota winter, with -35C showing on the thermometer, it was time to take the Metro.

The Route: Arriving at the airport, the Metro Blue Line will take you to one of the three destinations a typical visitor would have in mind:

  1. The other terminal – free, 24 hours a day.
  2. The Mall of America – the southern terminus of the Blue Line.
  3. Downtown Minneapolis – the northern terminus of the Blue Line.

Metro Blue Line

Metro Blue Line6

If you are staying in the city, most major hotels are in the downtown core, which you can access from one of five Metro stops, conveniently highlighted on the line map. Journeys into the centre of the city are scheduled to take approximately 25 minutes; roughly the same as the journey by road.

The Stations: The Metro has been constructed to serve both airport terminals; however, arriving passengers from the two terminals will face a very different welcome to the system:

Passengers on a main network airline (Delta, United, American, Air Canada, etc.) arrive into Terminal 1 (Lindbergh). A free, driverless tram shuttle operates from the terminal building to the lavish, underground Metro stop.

Directions to the Lindbergh terminal tram shuttle

Metro Blue Line3

No need for any weather insulation here.

Passengers arriving on a charter or low cost airline (Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and Icelandair) arrive into Terminal 2 (Humphrey). The route to the Metro station requires a passengers to follow a series of moving walkways/travolaters around the car park before they descend into an open-air station. Despite the presence of overhead heaters, on my visit, passengers and commuters were seen sheltering inside the stairwell to keep warm.

The Information: In order to board the Metro, signage throughout the airport terminals guide you on to the system. Once on the network, comprehensive fares and timetable information is available. If you are used to taking public transport, you will find the system easy to navigate: if you want to go shopping, it’s south to the Mall of America; and for everything else, it’s north towards downtown.

Metro Blue Line4

The Ticket: It’s unlikely you’ll have a Go-To card as a visitor to the city so you’ll pay $1.75 to use the Metro, rising to $2.25 during rush hours. There is no ticket office at the airport so you will need to use a ticket machine. These are simple to use and can also sell you tickets for destinations on the North Star heavy rail service which continues north from downtown towards the suburbs of Elk River and Big Lake.

The Service: Blue Line services operate every 10 minutes during the day, rising to every 15 minutes evenings and weekends. Apart from the 24 hours shuttle between terminals, the last service from the airport into the city is at approximately 02:15.

Metro Blue Line5

From downtown Minneapolis connections are available to the Green Line service across the Mississippi, to the University of Minnesota and onwards towards downtown St. Paul. The Blue Line also connects to the North Star commuter rail service at its current terminus at Target Field.

The Experience: The handy thing about the Metro is that the system is spacious. Arriving at MSP airport, you can easily take your luggage with you without fear of stairs or crowds. If you are arriving at peak times, it’s certainly worth considering in order to avoid traffic on the highway; however, the long walk from Terminal 2 may add to your downtown journey time – be sure to wrap up warm…

liam web

About the Author

Liam Henderson is an independent transport professional who set up the consultancy Transporting Cities, offering transport planning support to across the rail industry. He is passionate about improving the passenger experience. 

Prior to setting up Transporting Cities, Liam worked in the planning departments of Transport for London and the Docklands Light Railway in London. He managed the design and roll out of a new, passenger-friendly, network map for the DLR and championed a programme to roll out realtime departure information at stations. He also developed station facilities using funds he secured from private sector developers and advocated for specific improvements on the line to London City Airport. With his regular experience of international railways, he is keen to share his own experience of best practice on airrail integration.

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First time I visited Bangkok was in November 2011, when the Bangkok Airport Rail Link was in operation for more than a year.

That time I took the Express Line – the non-stop dedicated airport link, connecting Suvarnabhumi Airport and the Makkasan City Terminal in 17 minutes.

In April 2013 SRT Electrified Train Co, which runs the service for the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), suspended the Suvarnabhumi-Makkasan Express Line for major maintenance work as some of the four year old trains have reached their maximum mileage of 1.2 million kilometres.

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In September 2014, all Express services have been suspended until further notice due to rolling stock shortage.

Therefore when I have arrived to Bangkok in December 2014, the only rail option to travel from Suvarnabhumi Airport was the stopping City Line.

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Confusingly, there was no information that the Express Line is not operating. While queuing for the ticket machine, the airport station employee asked me where I want to go, to which I replied that I want to purchase the Express Line ticket (20 hours of travelling tampered with my memory). The employee directed me to the ticket counter where I was given the token to Makkasan Station. No explanation was given that the ticket is in fact for the City Line and that the Express Line is suspended.

The whole thing was quite confusing, only after I was desperately trying to find a way to Express Line, asked the security guard from which platform it is departing and received an answer of vigorous head-shake, I vaguely remembered that the Express Line is not running.

Oh well.

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The Airport City Line trains are not exactly built for airport passenger in mind. The metro style seat configuration does not allow for much luggage space and it gets really busy during the intermediate stops.

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Makkasan Airport City Terminal is connected to BTS Skytrain Phetchaburi station via covered walkway, allowing you to appreciate the famous Bangkok traffic you just avoided.

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