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PASSENGER SERVICES Last modified on July 9, 2012

All aboard

Robin Stone discovers more about the history and evolution of the airport railway station.

Lovers of horse racing may not be quite so au fait with the  fact that the Grand National – one of the UK’s most prestigious meetings and synonymous with Aintree and Liverpool – was staged in southern England during the  First World War on a site now occupied by Gatwick Airport  railway station.

The original station was built in 1891 with the sole aim of serving Gatwick Racecourse, and was only open on race days. When racing was abandoned during the Second World War, the station fell into disrepair and did not reopen until 1958 when it was rebuilt and integrated with a brand new air terminal.

Racing at Gatwick is just one chapter in a progressive story, which has witnessed the evolution of integrated rail and air travel – and, more specifically, the birth and development of the airport railway station.

Its evolution has been taken to new heights in places such  as Frankfurt, where the airport has two rail stations serving long-distance and regional passengers.

The regional station is situated directly below Terminal 1, a recurring feature of airport design, which maximises use of available space.

Frankfurt’s long-distance station features an eye-catching dome overlooking the ticketing hall, and is connected to the airport by a skyway, which crosses the A3 autobahn. The station is glazed all the way round, giving it the appearance of being completely open.

The vast domed roof has been integrated into a huge commercial complex superseding the old Frankfurt Airrail Centre. Known as The  Squaire, it contains shops, hotels and convention centres.

The construction work entailed the excavation of 400,000 cubic metres of soil before concrete slabs and piles could be installed, and cost in the region of €225 million. Steel beams and trusses can support an eight-storey building.

Today, Frankfurt’s airport station is the largest in Germany, spanning 600m x 55m, and can handle 23,000 passengers a day. It was opened 13 years ago as part of the Cologne-Frankfurt ICE (inter-city express) line – one of 14 serving the airport – and has quadrupled its capacity for handling long-distance trains.

Frankfurt is, of course, just one example of a city where express trains speed passengers into the heart of the airport. It’s a far cry from the early days of air transport development, when coaches and private cars were often the only practical means of directly reaching an airport.

And passengers who opted to take a train to the nearest railway  station would often need to complete their journey to the airport by taxi or shuttle bus.

Nowadays, airport planners have to take into account social and environmental factors when considering the transport infrastructure. Smooth, efficient rail links help ease the pressure on local roads while providing a greener travel alternative.

And if travellers can be persuaded to ‘train it’, rather than drive to the airport, provision of adequate parking spaces within restricted boundaries becomes less of a headache.

With space often at a premium, underground stations are popular with airport planners. Singapore Changi, like many others around the world, has gone down this route, while at Tokyo Haneda, the rail station is effectively split, with platforms catering for Keikyu-bound passengers located underground, and the Tokyo monorail platforms above ground, connected to the third floor of the terminal building.

Where space permits, some airports are able to build air and rail terminals side by side. The location of Copenhagen Airport Station –  built at the ‘pointed’ end of its triangular shaped Terminal 3 – means that an estimated 15% of air passengers transfer direct to trains for their onward journey.

An express rail link is high on the agenda when a new airport is planned, and integral to most redevelopment and improvement plans.

In the UK, a new €20 million rail station at Southend Airport opened last autumn and connects the Essex coast with central London. Indeed, the gateway views it as central to its target of boosting annual passenger numbers to 2mppa by 2020.

Elsewhere in the UK, Gatwick Airport’s station is currently undergoing a €65 million redevelopment including a new platform, refurbished concourse, an upgrade of its track and signalling. The work will be completed by the end of 2013.

However, as airports expand to handle ever-increasing passenger traffic, a single airport station is, in the case of the international gateways, not always practical.

As a result, stations often serve individual terminals – Heathrow has three separate stations to cover its five terminals, for example. Most recent was a new six-platform station for Terminal 5, which opened in 2008, for passengers arriving on the Heathrow Express or via London Underground’s Piccadilly Line.

Although situated underground, parts of the station’s roofing are made of translucent ETFE laminate panels, allowing natural daylight to flood down both ends of all six platforms.

ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) is a type of strong plastic designed to be corrosion-resistant.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport even has two rail stations in the same building – one used exclusively by KLIA Express, which whisks passengers on a 57km journey to the middle of Kuala Lumpur in less than 30 minutes, and the other by KLIA Transit.

Rail travel through Incheon International Airport is co-ordinated at its very own Transportation Centre adjacent to the main terminal building.

The futuristic-looking 250,000sqm facility has five levels,  two above ground and three below, where a train station has  been constructed, along with waiting rooms and several parking lots, capable of accommodating 5,000 vehicles, allowing passengers to go straight from their flights to ground transport or vice versa.

Incheon’s Transportation Centre also boasts a number of  shops and F&B facilities, that include Mario Crepes, Olive Young  and Etude. It also boasts  a 250-seat cinema and a 1,933sqm ice  skating rink that are designed to appeal to airport visitors as  well as passengers.

For the record, Incheon is on the AREX (air rail express) line, which links it with the South Korean capital and nearby Gimpo Airport.

The 10-station line, owned by the Korail Airport Company, opened in two phases between March 2007 and December 2010, and will be extended to Incheon’s new second terminal when it opens some time before 2020.

As ‘airport cities’ continue to mushroom, rail access becomes increasingly important. Plans for a new line linking downtown Denver to its international airport include a rail station which will form part of a shopping plaza and hotel complex within walking distance of the main terminal.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has similarly ambitious plans costed out at around $268 million.  A new rail station opened just three years ago, initially to serve the airport’s northern catchment area, but the overall redevelopment envisages a wider regional network into the airport by 2020.

Trains stop on an upper level, with restrooms below and video screens showing departing and arriving flights. Baggage trolleys can be rented for $4, making life a bit easier for luggage-laden passengers unwilling to tackle the 400-yard walk from the station car park to the air terminal.

SeaTac’s new station was opened in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver to serve sports fans passing through Seattle. Designers Sound Transit scaled back the original design, but spokesman Bruce Gray expects 4,000 people a day to take a train journey from the airport by 2030, when the network stretches in three directions.

“It’s going to take people some time to realise this is an easy option for them,” Gray said. “But ridership will grow eventually.”

Hong Kong International, too, has ‘airport city’ aspirations. HKIA’s railway station opened in 1998 at the same time as the rest of the airport, but has since been extended with an extra platform for SkyPlaza shoppers and Terminal 2 passengers. Doors open on both sides of the train on arrival at HKIA, with Terminal 1 passengers exiting to the left and Terminal 2 traffic to the right.

The simplicity of design at Hong Kong’s airport station encourages swift and efficient passenger flow. The station has no shops to distract passengers – retail activity is concentrated in the main air terminal – and is unique in that it has no entry or exit gates. It is accessed directly from the terminal, and all tickets must be bought in advance on the airport concourse.

Singapore’s Changi Airport station, located underground Terminals 2 and 3,  is directly accessible from both terminals. The airport originally planned to do without a dedicated railway station, as it was felt that taxis and buses offered a better, cheaper transport alternative. It was only when Singapore Expo, a S$220 million convention venue, was built along the existing railway line, with the promise of extra traffic, that a new airport station was given the green light.

While many of these multi-million dollar projects are targeted at the business travel market, new airport stations are also being built to cater for the leisure sector. For holidaymakers arriving at Malaga for a week on the Costa del Sol, a new underground station has been built right next to the main terminal (T3) – its main entrance is just 100 metres from ground floor arrivals.

Similarly, Zürich Airport has its own train station under Terminal B with direct connections to most major cities and tourist destinations in Switzerland.

Gatwick Racecourse may have been lost in the mists of time, but it has left one mighty legacy with its passing!

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