Opinion

Is Crossrail Going To Obliterate The Heathrow Express?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 14 months ago
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