TfL Rail takes over Heathrow Connect from May – beginning of the end for Heathrow Express?

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At present, there are three main ways to get to Heathrow Airport from London (or vice versa) – Heathrow Express, Heathrow Connect and the London Underground’s Piccadilly line. Heathrow Express is owned and operated by Heathrow and is the ‘premium’ service connecting Paddington with the Airport in 15 minutes, Heathrow Connect runs a stopping service along the same route (currently a joint venture between GWR and Heathrow) taking around 30 minutes, and the Piccadilly line running from several Tube stations in the heart of London taking about an hour.

From the May timetable change, Heathrow Connect services will transfer from the joint control of Heathrow Airport & GWR to TfL (branded TfL Rail until Crossrail’s central section opens forming the Elizabeth line), and at the end of last week they announced how fares would work on the new service.

Whilst one-way fares are remaining broadly similar to those currently being charged for Heathrow Connect, the big news here is that, for the first time, Travelcards including Zone 6 will be valid on the half-hourly (every 15 minutes from December, matching the frequency of the Heathrow Express) mainline services from Paddington to Heathrow, with a journey time of just under half an hour from Paddington to Heathrow Central (T1/T3).

It also marks Contactless and Oyster fares being available to & from Heathrow on the mainline for the first time – up until now, you’ve had to buy a paper or mobile ticket if you want to travel between Hayes & Harlington and Heathrow. Oyster & Contactless will be available from May on both Heathrow Express and Heathrow Connect, though the former will be charged at the standard Heathrow Express fares.

Where this service will come into its own, though, is in December 2019 when the full Crossrail route opens. This will allow passengers from Central London and the financial district of Canary Wharf to travel direct to Heathrow in under an hour – services running every 15 minutes on bright, airy trains which will feel very much premium compared to the Piccadilly Line which is considered the most cost-effective route to the airport at present, and far more straightforward than going via Paddington and the Heathrow Express.

The interior of the Class 345 Crossrail trains that will be introduced on TfL Rail services to Heathrow from the middle of this year. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Goodbye Heathrow Express?

Crossrail will also greatly improve connections from the north and south of London to Heathrow, by adding a one-change route from stations on the Thameslink route to the airport, connecting at Farringdon, all for the price of a one-day Travelcard at the absolute most. By comparison, Heathrow Express will be at least a £20 premium in each direction with one extra change & only a marginally quicker journey time (if quicker at all) – I know which one I’d prefer. I realise a one-change route to Heathrow is possible via the Piccadilly Line at present with a change at Kings Cross, but by my estimates Crossrail will be around 15 minutes quicker, and as I mention above, on more comfortable trains.

As such, I wonder what the use-case is for Heathrow Express? There’s no doubt it’s a premium product, with plush interiors and non-stop service from London to Heathrow, and perhaps it will retain some of the business market where the train fare is paid on company expenses, or where speed is priority above everything else, but I can’t see it being sustainable with the current fare structure. Perhaps we’ll see far more in the way of promotional fares to try and entice the leisure market to stop the services just carting round a train-load of fresh air outside of peak business hours. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, but it’s going to be an interesting couple of years ahead. What do you think might happen to the Express service post-Crossrail opening? As always, would be interested to read your views.

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