INTERVIEW: Currently 80 East Midlands train services pass through Luton Airport Parkway (LAP) in each direction every day, with a total of just 18 stopping there. London Luton Airport (LLA) is advocating for the inclusion of four fast trains per hour from central London to Luton Airport Parkway as part of the upcoming East Midlands Trains refranchising process.
The Government is due to announce a public consultation on the East Midlands Trains franchise shortly. The current franchise is a Direct Award to East Midlands Trains Limited, which commenced on 18 October 2015. It is due to end on 4 March 2018, although the Secretary of State may extend it by up to a year. The new franchise is scheduled to commence in 2018.
On 1st of March the Department for Transport has announced that the following companies have successfully pre-qualified to bid in the competition for the East Midlands franchise, to run rail passenger services from November 2018:
- Arriva Rail East Midlands Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arriva UK Trains Limited
- First Trenitalia East Midlands Rail Limited, a joint venture company wholly owned by First Rail Holdings Limited and Trenitalia UK Limited
- Stagecoach East Midlands Trains Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Stagecoach Transport Holdings Limited
Last year LLA released independent economic analysis showing that increasing the number of hourly fast trains to LAP from one to four through timetable change could significantly increase rail revenue up to £110 million at no cost to the rail operator or DfT, and could almost double the number of passengers travelling by train to the airport; reducing local traffic congestion by 70,000 journeys and saving 500 tonnes of CO2.
We speak with London Luton Airport CEO Nick Barton about the current stage of the proposals.
Where are you in the discussions regarding the franchise? Do you see your conversations progressing towards a positive outcome?
While waiting for the consultation to be announced, we have continued to build our case and engage with stakeholders. I am happy to say that the initial reaction is overwhelmingly positive, as our proposed timetable change will improve not only the connectivity but also the overall economic impact of the airport.
We’ve been meeting key stakeholders, organisations and individuals up and down the rail line. These conversations were extremely useful, highlighting issues that we could address to make our case even stronger. These included questions about the effect on the wider network, future connectivity and payment systems such as the Oyster card.
What is the biggest challenge you came across in your conversations?
Our biggest challenge is still ahead of us and it is to change the thinking of the railway industry. I understand that our issue is very focused and the people we are talking to have a plethora of issues to consider. The Department for Transport has been extremely helpful in listening, understanding and supporting us in communicating our plans to stakeholders.
In 2015 you have successfully launched hourly night train services to London Luton Airport. How will the fast trains complement this and other rail services available at the Luton Airport Parkway station?
The night service is very valuable offering the ten thousand people who work at the airport, and 2-3 million more passengers, a viable option to use rail to get to and from the airport.
The existing Govia Thameslink Railway stopping service travels through London to the South Coast and offers unique access to different markets. The Farringdon connection will become increasingly important, opening up East-West traffic via the newly created Elizabeth Line. These are all excellent improvements to our connectivity.
These additional services, as good as they are, still stop at intermediate stations and take about 40 minutes to travel to/from the airport. This is great for some passengers and employees, but for many people, especially foreign travellers, the expectation is to see direct non-stop rail services to and from the airport.
That is what the new fast trains on the East Midlands line will offer. It will be a very regular service, operating every 15 minutes in both directions. It will effectively act as an ‘express’-style rail service, similar to those already in operation to and from Heathrow and Gatwick. We’re currently the only major London airport without such a service, which is something we need to change.
What would you say to airports who are reluctant to introduce rail connections in fear of losing car parking revenue?
A growing airport with a well-balanced ground access network and different travel options is far better than an airport with a vast car park. Such an airport would struggle to get national support for growth, as access would be too focused on one mode of transport. Rail is one of the best ways to accommodate the passenger demands associated with a busy airport, offering an efficient means of access and reducing congestion on the roads. We also know that poor rail links can be a disincentive to passengers – for example, the introduction of overnight train services to LAP made rail a viable option for an additional 2-3 million passengers, giving them choice and flexibility.
Currently the airport terminals are connected to the railway station by a shuttle bus, but there are plans to build a people mover to improve this link. Where are you at with this project?
The airport owners have recently submitted a planning application for a £200 million mass passenger transit (MPT) system, linking the airport terminal directly with Luton Airport Parkway station. Subject to planning permission, work on this project could begin later this year – with the system ready for operation by Spring 2021.
The MPT system will be a fully-automated, two-way, 24-hour people-mover based on the latest technology and design innovation.
What is the next challenge in improving ground access to London Luton Airport you see in the future?
With all the projects that are happening now, rail access to and from London Luton Airport will be dramatically transformed. The road connections are already good, so the innovations that will come in the future will be about improving accessibility through public transport.
The proposed Oxford-Cambridge rail link, running through the richest part of the UK, is a very interesting development for the airport. The new East-West line will intersect the Midland Mainline which currently serves the airport. This means that LLA is in a prime position to act as an integrated road, air and rail hub at the junction of these two strategic national economic corridors.