Most Heathrow Express services from Paddington will depart from one platform from December 15, potentially increasing queue times at ticket barriers for some months.
The reduction from two platforms (6 and 7) to one (platform 7) will remain in force until the opening of the new subterranean Elizabeth Line station at Paddington, which may take over a year. Both platforms will still be used on weekends and from 2100 till midnight on weekdays.
At the World Travel Market in London, Heathrow Express Head of Commercial Chris Crauford told Business Traveller that while they wouldn’t have chosen the move to a single platform, it was for the “greater good of the rail industry”.
At the same time, Great Western Railway’s new timetable will come into effect on December 15, adding additional services from Paddington to the west country.
With Crossrail (the other name for the Elizabeth Line) running overground services to Heathrow, capacity at Paddington will be “hugely constrained” until it moves underground, Crauford said.
“At the moment there will always be a train waiting for you at Platform 6 or Platform 7, and we see that as a really great proposition,” he said.
“Whatever time you get there you can sit on your train, relax, you’re at Heathrow essentially. Now for a period of time, it will be just one platform.
“We are conscious that the gate lines are there, and we know this could make that situation worse because of shorter turnarounds. So we are working to make those better and have been doing pedestrian flow analysis and looking at options such as extra staff at Paddington.”
Queues had already been appearing due to passengers now being required to pass through ticket barriers.
Crauford said that while Heathrow Express would like to see people able to walk straight onto the train and have their ticket inspected, this had also been impacted by Crossrail.
The services share a line out of Heathrow, and so Transport for London – which runs Crossrail – required barriers to be put in so that people could tap in and out using Oyster, which costs £10.50 for a single to the airport.
But there are positives to the change, Crauford added, giving people the choice to not queue for a ticket and just use contactless or their Carnet card.
However, tapping in and out with a payment card charges the maximum single journey fare of £22 for off-peak and £25 for peak.
Heathrow Express says it is now looking to promote the availability of lower fares.
It recently extended its lowest advance fare of £5.50 to anytime on weekdays, when booked 90 days in advance. Advance fares are also available for £7.50, £10.00, £12.50, £15.00 or £16.50.
From early next year, the lower fares should be more readily available and also available for longer based on demand. This will be helped by a newly-relaunched website and app.
“Our strategy is to make [lower fares] so simple that it’s our customers’ go-to option,” Crauford said.
“Our new IT platform allows us to link up to an airline, a travel agency, Booking.com, an aggregator… they can access our booking system and we will appear in their booking system.
“A business traveller booking a flight with our partner could click on the Heathrow Express ticket and it’s all one transaction. Our push is to get people to engage with us and book earlier in their travelling journey – when they book flights, hotels and so on.
“We also want to make it simpler for people to book digitally, and to benefit from our dynamic pricing.
“The £5.50 fare is currently only available 90 days in advance, but with the yield management system about to be rolled out, that will become more flexible. On historically quiet weeks, that fare could be open until 30 days in advance, or 14 days.
“It’s like the airline model, basically. But the difference with us is you know what the top fare will be, it doesn’t keep increasing, so it’s a great value proposition and a lot of our marketing is around promoting that fare.”
Another change coming to the service is the arrival of new rolling stock, which will be brought in over three to four months starting in March 2020. This is being leased from Great Western Railway (GWR), a subsidiary of FirstGroup, which Heathrow Express now works in partnership with. The reason is that the Heathrow Express depot at Old Oak Common is being being demolished to make way for HS2. Instead of the government paying Heathrow Express £200 million to relocate, GWR will run the Heathrow Express operations from its Reading depot, while the government will support Heathrow’s track access agreement until 2028. Heathrow Airport will maintain commercial ownership of Heathrow Express, but GWR both owns the trains and will supply the drivers and station managers at Paddington.
Branding will remain as Heathrow Express; the biggest change for passengers will be the fleet of 12 Electrostar trains that GWR will offer.
Crauford commented: “We’ve been seeing an increase in the frequency of putting short-formation trains out because we need to do more maintenance, so it’s timely that we’re getting this new fleet of 387 trains coming in.
“We’re spending a lot of time, effort and money on modifying the trains.
“Essentially it will be the same model as you have at Gatwick Express, but what we’re doing is learning from some of the bits they missed out on when they did the modifications to their trains – we’re going to have extra luggage space, comfier seats, super-fast wifi, and retain the onboard media, flight announcements and timetabling.”
“They are the same capacity [as the current Heathrow Express rolling stock] but they will be much more reliable. They are a couple of years old, they are existing trains in the GWR fleet. The teething pains that you can get with new trains will be ironed out and we will consistently be able to offer eight carriages.”
Asked about competition from Crossrail, which when fully open will allow journeys to Heathrow in 27 minutes from Bond Street station, 35 minutes from Liverpool Street and 39 minutes from Canary Wharf, Crauford pointed out that part of the Heathrow third runway National Policy Statement that was voted on in parliament requires it to have 50 per cent of passengers arriving by public transport by 2030, so it welcomes additional services.
“My colleague likes to compare your options to water,” he added.
“You’ve got your tap water – the Piccadilly line, your Evian – that will be Crossrail, and then your Voss, that’s us.
“As long as we continue to maintain that product and that service, I believe people will continue to choose Heathrow Express. That’s why the new fleet of trains is so crucial, to differentiate us from Crossrail, as well as our speed and reliability.”