Commentary

Heathrow Express Offers a Private Model for Trains to Planes

By Deroy Murdock
December 23, 1999
LONDON - Alighting a jet here, it’s impossible to miss the ubiquitous blue and grey signs for the Heathrow Express. It whisks passengers non-stop by rail to central London’s Paddington Station in just a quarter hour, every quarter hour from 5:00 a.m. until nearly midnight. Its delightful slogan would thrill Andy Warhol: “Heathrow Express,” the ads read. “Famous for 15 minutes.”

Journeys begin at Heathrow Central Station, a short walk from Terminals 2 and 3. A clean, sleek, well-lit entryway opens onto a ticketing area. User-friendly machines with multilingual, computer-touch screens sell tickets and accept credit cards as well as dollars, pounds, marks, francs, yen and euros. The one-way, 12 pound fare roughly equals $19.00. Up to four children under 16 can accompany each paying adult for free. Frequent riders can buy 10 fares for the price of eight.

The Heathrow Express’ ergonomic seats are extremely comfortable - a pleasant surprise and mild extravagance, given the ride’s brevity. Green and blue renditions of the system’s X-shaped logo adorn the blue and purple seats. Conductors in equally purple jackets punch tickets with a stamp that embosses the logo in bas relief. Short on cash? Conductors charge credit cards via hand-held, electronic scanners. The process takes 30 seconds, tops.

TV screens provide BBC news briefs, after which one watches 17 miles of scenery zip by at 100 MPH. Free, glossy guides are available for leisure and business travelers. They feature detailed street and subway maps plus sightseeing, shopping and dining tips.

Before one can nod off, the train arrives at Paddington Station near Kensington Gardens, atop four separate Underground lines. Heathrow Express also offers Hotel Express, a two pound ($3.20) coach that departs every quarter-hour for eight major hotels around Marble Arch, near fashionable Oxford Street.

Returning to Heathrow, a passenger on American, British Airways and 14 other airlines may check his luggage at Paddington Station two or more hours before departure. He then either may sight-see baggage-free or grab a boarding pass and walk straight from the train onto his plane. Like magic, his suitcases travel independently from Paddington to the luggage carousel at his final destination.

In a glass showcase at Heathrow Central, a crystal bowl sits beside shiny, bronze statuettes. These prizes the Heathrow Express has won include the Top Rail Operator of the Year Award and a “Greening of Business Tourism” commendation for Earth-friendly management. Thanks to these trains, some 3,000 fewer vehicles travel to Heathrow daily.

Heathrow Express carried 4 million passengers in the year since its June 23, 1998 launch. “This financial year, we expect to make an operating profit,” says Claire Keane, the system’s Communications Manager.

How did Heathrow Express combine speed, elegance, accolades and earnings? “It’s the only railway in England that’s been privately funded,” Keane explains. Heathrow Express is the brainchild of British Airports Authority, the for-profit company that operates now-privatized Heathrow Airport, Europe’s busiest. Accountable to stockholders and bankers, BAA built a 450 million pound ($730 million) service that enriches investors and stylishly speeds travelers to London and back.

While London offers such 21st Century service, don’t expect anything similar anytime soon in America’s largest city. A JFK Express remains far down the tracks. Today, a rail ride from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport is notorious for 70 minutes. That’s how long it takes the A train to lumber from Pennsylvania Station in Midtown to Howard Beach, 28 stops later. An additional bus journey to individual terminals can add another 15 minutes. At $1.50, this voyage is an inexpensive headache.

“A city that is at the center of the global economy cannot afford to lag behind when it comes to extending the mass transit system to the airports,” New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently told Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairman E. Virgil Conway. City Hall is dedicating $600 million to a Manhattan-La Guardia Airport link. Selling Columbus Circle’s Coliseum should yield another $345 million. Meanwhile, a non-stop Midtown - JFK connection remains under study. Queens Borough President Claire Shulman is involved. So is New York Governor George Pataki. So, too, is the New York-New Jersey Port Authority which “has done a second-rate job in developing access to the airports,” says Anthony Coles, the mayor’s Senior Advisor. Not surprisingly, these inter-agency discussions have wheezed on for years.

City managers everywhere should understand what New Yorkers are concluding: travelers and taxpayers alike would be better served by delegating this entire matter to private parties with the responsibility and resources to make Gotham’s airport links as modern as London’s.

New York columnist Deroy Murdock is a Senior Fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.