Opinion

Is Crossrail Going To Obliterate The Heathrow Express?

Is Crossrail Going To Obliterate The Heathrow Express?

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As it unfurls across London over the next couple of years, Crossrail is expected to improve train travel within the city in a way many haven't seen in their lifetime.

But perhaps not everyone is eager for the arrival of Crossrail. Heathrow Express, for instance, has a direct new competitor on its Heathrow-to-Paddington patch — offering a train service that will be cheaper (more often than not), and isn't all that much slower than the Heathrow Express service anyway.

Unlike the Heathrow Express, Crossrail calls at other central London stations too. As one commentator says, "Why would you want to pay a premium fare to change at Paddington onto the tube or a taxi when you can get a through train to the West End, City and Canary Wharf?"

So does the flashy Heathrow Express — with its built-in TVs and Mercedes Benz-like logo — have what it takes to weather TfL's imminent arrival?

Heathrow Connect

One Heathrow-Paddington service that Crossrail will spell the end of is Heathrow Connect. It's a thriftier service than the Express, and has a journey time of around 25 minutes — as opposed to the Express' 15 — calling at five west London stations between Paddington and the airport terminals.

TfL Rail will be taking over the Connect line from May 2018, with the service turning fully-fledged Crossrail in December 2019.

If the Heathrow Connect has capitulated so conclusively, why isn't the Express doomed too?

Heathrow Express Vs Crossrail

Since 1998, the Heathrow Express — or Heathrow FastTrain, as it was then — has proved a handy option for Londoners and tourists wanting to get to/from central London/Heathrow quickly. Taking just 15 minutes (a little longer for Terminal 5) the Express smashes the near-one-hour journey time on the Piccadilly line, and takes approximately a third of the time a car journey does.

In 19 years of service, it's carried in the region of 100 million passengers (not to mention all their suitcases) — so it's obviously doing something right.

Some of that something right might be the timetable. Starting from central London as early as 5.10am means that some catching morning flights have little choice but to use the Express. Crossrail's running times — including first and last trains of the day — have yet to be announced, with the timetable decided by Network Rail rather than TfL.

The Heathrow Express fares page. Choose wisely

More important to the Express' survival are all those business people, for whom time is money. Heathrow Express' first Business Travel Insights Report reveals that of the 100 million passengers it's welcomed since 1998, around 60 million were business travellers.  

Ask the average person who wasn't expensing their Heathrow Express journey what they'd change about it, and the answer will, more often than not, be 'price'.

What's Heathrow Express doing to survive?

Let's look at the 40% of Heathrow Express passengers who aren't using it for business.

Offering them a journey that's quicker than Crossrail by nine minutes probably isn't going to cut the mustard. The Crossrail fares have yet to be announced, but the price will most likely be stiff competition for Heathrow Express, a service that charges up to £32 for a single, 15-minute journey.

What's Heathrow Express doing to make its pricing more enticing? Well, quite a lot actually. As Bea Asprey from Heathrow Express tells Londonist:

We introduced advanced purchase fares online, starting at £5.50, at the start of 2016 to accompany our permanent 'kids go free' offer. We also introduced peak and off-peak pricing in line with other train companies. [In 2017] we have trialled different price points at the weekends which have traditionally been quiet, and £15 fares are available on Saturdays both online and to customers who turn up and buy a ticket on the day.

To get that £5.50 ticket (a single), you'd need to book it 90 days in advance, for a weekend day only, and it's non refundable. Not a mind-blowing deal perhaps. But it's true; visit the Heathrow Express fares page these days, and you see a veritable library of prices — 24 different ticket types by our count.

With the incoming Crossrail threat, has something rather strange happened... has Heathrow Express actually improved, by reaching out to families and leisure travellers? Certain figures would suggest so. Says Asprey:

We are currently experiencing a 9% growth in passenger numbers year-on-year.

Of course, that 9% growth is pre-Crossrail, and the real challenge will be to keep it ticking over, when the TfL competitor is running alongside Heathrow Express. Admittedly though, it's a plucky head start.

Business is busyness

As our commentator noted at the beginning, Crossrail doesn't just go to Paddington; it'll also pass through central London, the City and Canary Wharf — three key places where visitors are likely to conduct business in London.

While Heathrow Express is making a concerted — and apparently, successful — effort to woo non-business travellers, it still risks losing a wedge of its faithful 3.1 million annual business clientele.

What can it do here? Lowering the price of business fares will likely do little. The continued offer of first class desks, power points, Wi-Fi and luggage space claws back some appeal for the Heathrow Express — but these seem mere trinkets compared to the holy grail of direct travel to, say Farringdon or Canary Wharf.

What Heathrow Express has on its hands now is a precarious juggling act: business passengers in one hand, leisure in the other — all the while Crossrail threatening to trip it up.

OK, Heathrow Express is keeping the balls in the air, but seeing as Crossrail hasn't even taken the stage yet, perhaps that's not saying much.

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Last Updated 28 September 2017

Malkit

Cross rail will become the new picadilly line. Why would I want to sit with my face in someone's armpit when I have my own seat and 15 minutes of peace and relaxation, and I can book in advance for less. As Malkit Singh put it so eloquently, 'Teri mardi, teri mardi khand Mukh ge...

Anonymous Widower

I am suspicious that TfL and Bombardier are being rather conservative with their timings on Crossrail. I have taken the new Class 345 trains to Shenfield and they seem to wait for the timetable.

Currently, Shenfield Metro trains take 43 minutes with 12 stops between Shenfield and Liverpool Street. The Crossrail calculator shows it will be 40 minutes. So Crossrail will save three minutes on this hourney.

As the new generation of trains are supposed to save upwards of a minute every stop, Crossrail's proposed timing would appear to be a bit dubious.

Bear in mind that the current Class 315 train are 75 mph units and the new Class 345 trains are 90 mph trains, with better acceleration and smooth regenerative braking. The latter also have large lobbies for fast entry and exit.

I wouldn't be surprised if the real Paddington Heathrow time is a lot better than the 24 minutes quoted on the Crossrail web site.

I think it's good-bye to Heathrow Express.

You can certainly understand why Heathrow Airport were so difficult about letting Crossrail into the Airport.

CanAmSteve

I live near Paddington, so HEX is convenient for me, but I only use it about half the time. It's not very good when you have more than carry-on luggage, for example. I'm too close to the station to take a cab, but access to Paddington is so awkward (ironically as a result of Crossrail closing the western station entrances) that I dread the effort. Then, on the Heathrow end, HEX is so afraid someone might take a luggage cart onto the platform (not having bothered to invest in the double doors the T5 shuttle and newer Tube stations have) that you have to wrestle each piece of luggage through an undersized exit "corral" to get off the platform and find a cart. I cannot believe an intelligent person designed this access - and why only two connections off the platform? Anyone in the middle of the train has to double back. Maybe it was three different committees. If I have heavy luggage or if there are two of us, we always use Addison-Lee. Door to door at ground level and the overall trip will almost always be just as fast as HEX (which is often slower than advertised) and often no more expensive. I returned to Heathrow a few weeks ago and tried to buy an off-peak single on HEX using a Railcard. The seller told me they were having a "special" so they weren't accepting Railcards so it cost me a whole extra 30p. Some special. Do they just make this stuff up?

As pointed out, for anyone going beyond Paddington, taking Crossrail will be a no-brainer. Those City types (and their Canary Wharf brethren) are unlikely to get off a Crossrail train just so they can connect to HEX and preen in the luxurious HEX 1st class with all the free champagne and caviar. (What? No? Then why even does it exist?) Sadly - although Crossrail extends to Reading, they forgot that people from out in that hinterland might also want to go to Heathrow. So there is no direct Heathrow-to-Reading connection. Apparently you trundle your bags and kids off at Hayes or another sophisticated transfer station and then back on a Crossrail train. The exact same route as the HEX. Failure of imagination there - if only a connection from Heathrow to the westbound mainline could have been financed from all those billions... For a Reading to Heathrow traveller, it will be much quicker and simpler to go direct fast to Paddington on a mainline train (25 minutes - half of Crossrail time) and then *they* will jump onto the same-platforms HEX and go back in 20 minutes - total time probably half of the Crossrail shuffle.

Another HEX issue no one seems to mention is the elephant on the platforms. By that I mean the fact the private HEX hogs two perfectly good, prime platforms at a mainline UK train station that is already so busy trains are stacked two-deep on platforms every day. If HEX disappeared, two central platforms could be brought into service for commuter train capacity that is desperately needed. Speaking of that, how will Crossrail affect capacity on the mainline? It's not exactly underutilised at present - something will have to give.

williamn78

People still use the Gatwick Express despite it being only minutes faster than a 'normal' train and much more expensive.

Rik

The Crossrail timetable may be the saving grace for the Heathrow Express

The majority of all trains through central London will not go to Heathrow - many will terminate at Paddington and turn round and go back east.

It may be quicker to go to the HEX once you've been booted off your terminating cross rail train at Paddington

iaroboss

Each Crossrail train will carry 1500 people - of whom 480 will be seated. And (according to TfL forecasts) they'll be full and standing in the peak by 2030.