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NEWS Last modified on November 28, 2014

Air rail links and projects discussed at UK AirRail conference

Improving rail links into UK gateways to boost growth, the planned new development of a dedicated direct link to London Luton Airport and a rail service to Dublin Airport, were on the agenda at the UK AirRail conference yesterday.

The event at the Hilton London Paddington Hotel, which was organised by the Global AirRail Alliance attracted a record number of delegates.

Among the opening speeches was Fraser Brown, commercial director of the Heathrow Express, who explained how the strategy for gaining new business was to create more awareness, but to also "consolidate" and the aim was to attract more leisure passengers.

Brown also told delegates that on-board Wi-Fi is now a key service offering and essential to future growth, due to the number of business customers, and 70% of customers use it on journeys, around 7-8,000 a day.

Next up was Mark Hopwood, CEO of First Great Western, who talked off the rise in train passenger numbers into Gatwick, notably on the Reading service, where numbers were up by 14%, and he also revealed plans for Wi-Fi on trains.

He said Crossrail, set to be opened sometime from May 2018 to December 2019 will have a tremendous impact on services, and as for future links he added: “I think we should ambitious and one day we can maybe have a direct link into Bristol Airport, as it is not far from Yatton.”

He also added it was great news the Department of Transport had committed £500 million towards a new rail line from the west into Heathrow, possibly starting at Langley, that would boost connections to the hub considerably.

The first main session of the day focused on projects and saw heavyweights from UK gateways detail plans to improve rail links, and the message was clear from Clive Condie, executive chairman of London Luton Airport, who said rail links must be improved to the gateway, which handled 10.5 million passengers last year, and expects 11.5 million in 2015.

In his view, the UK’s 5th busiest airport has lost passenger traffic to Gatwick due it having no direct train service, while the rail transport option has not worked well.

“We are losing a lot of traffic to Gatwick, and we believe that is because our rail access does not match Gatwick’s,” he explains.

He said a £100 million capital investment programme is seeking to address issues, and there are now eight trains an hours to the capital from Luton Parkway, with the fastest taking 19 minutes, while next year there is a commitment to operate trains 24-hours a day.

Backed by a marketing campaign to raise awareness, he said one of the major issues is the bus from Parkway, which he says The Independent’s travel editor Simon Calder told him was the reason he never flew from London Luton, and always chose Gatwick.

Condie said terminal improvements will raise the capacity 15% to 18 million, and the gateway hopes to fill in four to five years, so it will look into improving surface access options for passengers.

“We possibly could go for a Heathrow Pod, but likely we will not, and our real ambition is to have a dedicated London Luton Airport Express service in maybe two to three years time.

“We have real ambition and we want to see the airport grow and want to improve rail links,” he explained.

railLHR

The session also Simon Earles, head of surface access strategy at Heathrow Airport, who told delegates, as the hub seeks to win the backing of the Airports Commission for a third runway, rail plays a “critical role in the surface access strategy”, now and in the future, and it was trying to deliver “compass rail connectivity”.

Earles hailed the planned new rail schemes which are in the proximity of Heathrow such as Crossrail, that will see four direct trains from the gateway to Canary Wharf, rising to six and possibly eight one day.

He said Crossrail, HS2, the new Western Line access, and upgrades to the Piccadilly Line will all improve access to the hub by rail for passengers, but called for a line to be developed to the south linking Heathrow with Windsor, Clapham and the south coast, which is “essential”.

Heathrow’s ambitions he said was to have 52.3% of passengers, or 33.8 million, travelling to the airport by 2030, including 25.5% by rail, and 16.5 million.

Last year, the total travelling by public transport was 41.2% or 20.4 million, with only 9.2% or 4.1 million travellers by rail.

“We will be providing multi-modal choice, and it will means 75% of the UK’s population will be three hours from Heathrow. Expanding Heathrow is a unique opportunity as only Heathrow can connect the whole of the UK to growth,” Earles explained.

Tim Hawkins, corporate affairs director at M.A.G, then told delegates the UK must maximise existing capacity space, such as at Stansted Airport, and it was vital rail access to the city from the Essex gateway was cut to around 40 minutes from the current 55 minutes, to aid growth.

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The second session of the day customer engagement focused on how social media can improve services, and the key to satisfying passengers and included a presentation by David Lees, managing director of Southampton Airport, who was looked on in envy when describing how the 1.8mppa regional gateway is only 99 steps from the train station, which he confidently says is the UK airport with the best rail access.

International rail projects and links was the focus in the third session of the day, and included speakers from the Netherlands, Finland, and Ireland.

The stand-out news was Cormac Rabbitt, managing director of Metro Dublin, who detailed his firm’s plans for a 6km train link connecting the city with Dublin Airport, and the waiting game with the tender set to be announced in the summer of 2015.

On a different theme to links, Juha Mattsson, deputy CEO of Walkbase described his firm’s work on tracking passenger flows using sensors at Helsinki Airport in Finland.

He told delegates the top 10 list of location-based services that will transform the passenger experience at leading airports are to find gates; your current location; find any service; find estimated walking times; queue management; recommended activities; people flows; connection based offerings; location based offerings; and find services and staff.

The final session saw a discussion on distribution and technologies, and saw speakers from Travelport, the SMART Ticketing Alliance, and Atos, who all talked about ways to enhance the customer experience, and linkage of air-rail tickets.

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