London Luton Airport again seeks better rail connections to build on rapid growth

London Luton Airport is one of the fastest growing airports in the UK. Passenger traffic grew by 17% in 2015, by 18.5% in 2016 and in the period Jan to Aug-2017 by over 11%.

Expansion will take the airport’s capacity from 12 million ppa to 18 mppa (a previous growth target of 30 mppa set in 2003 was abandoned) and was agreed after several years of debate, consultation, and a change of concessionaire (the airport is owned by the town council) from Abertis / AENA to AENA (51%) / Ardian (49%).

One of the reasons behind that growth, both actual and anticipated, is the vast improvement in surface access by rail.

The airport is situated approximately 40 km (25 miles) north of London – a similar distance to that of Stansted Airport – and fairly close (2.7 km/1.7 miles) to the town centre of Luton.

IMAGE – Like Stansted Airport, Luton Airport is located to the north of LondonSource: Google Maps

Traditionally a holiday charter airport, having been home to Britannia Airways and Monarch Airlines (which remain there as ‘TUI’ and ‘Monarch’), it now hosts the headquarters of easyJet, which is the pre-eminent LCC.

CHART – Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) dominate at London Luton based on departing seat capacity for the week commencing 25-Sep-2017Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG

The video below is of a television advert from the early 1980s promoting the benefits of flying from Luton. Lorraine Chase is an actress and model who found fame through the Campari adverts.

For all Lorraine Chase’s charms Luton was never going to become anything other than a charter and all-in vacation airport for a certain area to the north of London (the ‘three counties’ of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire) without much improved rail services to and from London and beyond, even though the principal north-south motorway, the M1, passes close by.

The importance of rail to the airport was exemplified during the Airports Commission’s four year project to identify the optimum location for an additional runway in southeast England. While London Luton Airport did not officially submit a proposal for Luton to be the runway location an independent proposal was submitted by a firm of architects based in London.

That proposal was to build a new four-runway hub airport at Luton. It was supported by an innovative scheme whereby the new Luton terminals would be fed directly by Thameslink (a rail line that traverses London north-south and that is heavily used in some sections but which has the capacity for greater use to enable airports to be more accessible at either side of a very large metropolitan area) and by a light rail spur linking the West Coast Mainline (London to Birmingham / Manchester / Liverpool / Glasgow) at Tring, 10 minutes away, and the East Coast Mainline (London to Leeds / Newcastle / Edinburgh) at Stevenage (7 minutes). The proposed HS2 south-north high-speed rail line would remove capacity from the existing West Coast Mainline infrastructure, allowing it to serve the airport better.

The proposal did not get past the first stage of the Commission’s study but it did kick-start a drive to improve the existing rail service, which probably suited the airport’s owners and concessionaires better. The architects’ proposal had been the only option to introduce the concept of enhanced Thameslink rail service, a north-south line through London.

CHART – easyJet and Wizz Air together account for almost three quarters of departing seat capacity for the week commencing 25-Sep-2017Source: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG

Works began on terminal redevelopment in Jan-2016 and includes, along with a complete redesign of the terminal and a new 1700-space car park, major surface transport improvements including the addition of overnight trains from London St Pancras and the introduction of Oyster (pre-payment) card service that is used throughout Greater London.

But at the heart of Luton Airport’s development is a state-of-the-art, 24-hour operational, fully automated GBP200 million mass passenger transit (MPT) system (or a ‘last mile connector’) linking the airport with Luton Airport Parkway railway station (a distance of 2.2 km/1.4 miles) and replacing the existing shuttle bus. While passenger demand continues to grow dramatically, the airport’s public transport links particularly over this short distance have increasingly become a bottleneck for passengers. London Luton Airport Ltd is funding the scheme under the Borough Council’s capital programme.

The MPT is intended to enable fast access from central London (St Pancras International, Farringdon, City Thameslink and Blackfriars stations) to Luton Airport in 30 minutes by providing a seamless transfer time of just five minutes from the rail station to the airport terminal. Planning permission was granted on 10-Jul-2017 and work could begin in late 2017 with the system ready for operation by spring 2021 to support capacity growth beyond 18 million ppa.

CHART – The majority of departing flights from London Luton Airport are to destinations within a three hour block time windowSource: CAPA – Centre for Aviation and OAG

Critically, the journey time from St Pancras station of less than 30 minutes will beat the current 50 minutes from Liverpool Street station to Stansted and will be faster than the Gatwick Express from Victoria station to Gatwick Airport.

Complementing the MPT should be an anticipated four fast trains an hour from London, delivered by a new franchise rail operating company, East Midlands. The airport management has recently called yet again on the Department for Transport and rail operators to secure this dedicated ‘airport express’ style service as part of the new franchising arrangement.

It is clear from supportive statements made by airlines that this sort of redevelopment figures highly in decisions on whether or not to expand operations. easyJet, for example, which is responsible for six million of Luton Airport’s passengers, has committed to double passenger numbers in the next 10 years, in response.

So, four decades after Lorraine Chase’s retort that she had been wafted in from Luton Airport rather than from paradise she could soon add, “And by a fast train from London”.

 Some of the text was adapted from the Air-Rail report, published in Jun-2017. Check out: Air-Rail Report: Air-Rail Developments