Heathrow Express Offers a Private Model for Trains to Planes

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LONDON - Alighting a jet here, it's impossible to miss the ubiquitousblue and grey signs for the Heathrow Express. It whisks passengersnon-stop by rail to central London's Paddington Station in just aquarter hour, every quarter hour from 5:00 a.m. until nearly midnight.Its delightful slogan would thrill Andy Warhol: "HeathrowExpress," the ads read. "Famous for 15 minutes."

Journeys begin at Heathrow Central Station, a short walk from Terminals2 and 3. A clean, sleek, well-lit entryway opens onto a ticketing area.User-friendly machines with multilingual, computer-touch screens selltickets 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 - apleasant surprise and mild extravagance, given the ride's brevity. Greenand blue renditions of the system's X-shaped logo adorn the blue andpurple seats. Conductors in equally purple jackets punch tickets with astamp that embosses the logo in bas relief. Short on cash? Conductorscharge credit cards via hand-held, electronic scanners. The processtakes 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 leisureand business travelers. They feature detailed street and subway mapsplus sightseeing, shopping and dining tips.

Before one can nod off, the train arrives at Paddington Station nearKensington Gardens, atop four separate Underground lines. HeathrowExpress also offers Hotel Express, a two pound ($3.20) coach thatdeparts 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 June23, 1998 launch. "This financial year, we expect to make an operatingprofit," says Claire Keane, the system's Communications Manager.

How did Heathrow Express combine speed, elegance, accolades andearnings? "It's the only railway in England that's been privatelyfunded," Keane explains. Heathrow Express is the brainchild ofBritish Airports Authority, the for-profit company that operatesnow-privatized Heathrow Airport, Europe's busiest. Accountable tostockholders and bankers, BAA built a 450 million pound ($730 million)service that enriches investors and stylishly speeds travelers to Londonand back.

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

"A city that is at the center of the global economy cannot afford tolag behind when it comes to extending the mass transit system to theairports," New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently told MetropolitanTransit Authority Chairman E. Virgil Conway. City Hall is dedicating$600 million to a Manhattan-La Guardia Airport link. Selling ColumbusCircle's Coliseum should yield another $345 million. Meanwhile, anon-stop Midtown - JFK connection remains under study. Queens BoroughPresident Claire Shulman is involved. So is New York Governor GeorgePataki. So, too, is the New York-New Jersey Port Authority which "hasdone a second-rate job in developing access to the airports," saysAnthony Coles, the mayor's Senior Advisor. Not surprisingly, theseinter-agency discussions have wheezed on for years.

City managers everywhere should understand what New Yorkers areconcluding: travelers and taxpayers alike would be better served bydelegating this entire matter to private parties with the responsibilityand resources to make Gotham's airport links as modern as London's.

Deroy Murdock

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