Rail check: Heathrow Express
Heathrow Express is the fastest mode of transport between central London and Heathrow Airport.
It takes passengers from Paddington to Heathrow Terminals 1 and 3 in a quarter of an hour every 15 minutes, with Terminal 5 taking a further four minutes. A total of 150 Heathrow Express services run every day, and it takes an average 16,000 passengers daily.
Of course, whether the Heathrow Express suits your requirements depends on a number of factors — cost, location, how much luggage you have and how quickly you need to get to the airport.
I was travelling to Heathrow from St Pancras. Often, I take the Piccadilly underground line from Kings Cross St Pancras direct to Heathrow. Not every train goes to Heathrow, however, and of those that do go, some travel to Terminals 1, 2, 3 and 5 while others go to 1, 2, 3 and 4.
So, depending on which trains are available, the journey can take between 75 and 90 minutes from St Pancras, allowing for walking time at either end.
It is not a difficult journey, however, and there is "steps free" access to the Piccadilly line at St Pancras, and at London Heathrow, so with bags it's a fairly easy, if slow, way of getting to the airport.
This particular morning I was a bit short of time, and had only a backpack since I was going for a day trip to Charles de Gaulle airport (it's not all Etihad First class), so I decided to try the Heathrow Express.
It was 0745 when I made the decision at St Pancras, and after a five-minute walk to the Hammersmith and City line, I took the underground to Paddington, followed the signs for Heathrow Express, and descended to the Heathrow Express platforms (there are two) to find a train was just departing.
I jumped straight onto the 0810 departure, thinking I was fortunate to avoid a wait.
Of course, this meant that I had to buy a ticket on board. This is allowed, but comes at a disadvantage, namely the cost — the Standard Open price. For a return journey, this is an astonishing £39 instead of £34. The prices can be seen here.
We've written about the cost before, and indeed interviewed the Heathrow Express CEO on the subject (see news, June 2013). I don't believe it is a suprise to the majority of business travellers, but for first time visitors, it probably reaffirms their preconception of London being an expensive city.
Once on board there was a TV showing Rugby Sevens — Heathrow Express was a sponsor of the tournament, along with Marriott — and a ticket inspector came round to collect my fare. Determined to make the most of my time I logged onto the "free" wifi. (Incidentally, the Heathrow Express website claims wifi doesn't currently work because it is being upgraded, so either the website needs updating, or it isn't available on every train and I was lucky).
I diembarked at Heathrow Terminal 1, 2, 3 and then waited for the Heathrow Connect service, which was shown as departing in another eight minutes.
Five minutes to go: I waited until the train had pulled out before taking this picture
There were lots of Heathrow Express staff around, and they helped a man who wanted to know which terminal Austrian Airlines flies from.
About four minutes later, the Heathrow Connect service pulled in, some passengers got off, and then I boarded.
There are some details here about the connection, via Heathrow Connect, onward to Terminal 4. I have read this page three times, and I still find it confusing — and I have done the transfer.
I think it is saying that it takes 23 minutes on the Heathrow Connect service from London Paddington to Heathrow Terminal 4, in which case it is quicker than the Heathrow Express.
Anyway, the transfer is complimentary to all passengers wanting to get between terminals.
The train arrived at the terminal a few minutes later, and I walked to the lifts and travelled up to the terminal. There are four of these elevators, but one was broken so there was a short wait. I was upstairs in Terminal 4 at 0840.
A very quick and efficient service, which ran on time, was comfortable, and managed the extra onward journey to Terminal 4 with minimum fuss, although of course it did add over ten minutes to the advertised 15-minute journey time with an eight-minute wait and then a couple of minutes further journey time.
I liked the free wifi but, of course, the main sticking point is the price. I paid £2.80 to get to Paddington, and then £39 for a standard return. My alternative was a £5 tube ticket direct (£10 return).
The difference in time was perhaps 20 minutes from St Pancras, although the time advantage will differ depending on where your journey begins.
What I find baffling is why it costs £5 more for a return ticket when it is bought on the train. It seems gratuitous. There are staff checking the tickets in any case, so there isn't any extra cost. I imagine anyone who uses the service regularly would know to pre-buy, but why would you want to charge more for the first-time user? It will hardly encourage them to return.
Would I do it again? I would to travel to terminals other than 4, but only if I had booked in advance or time to visit a ticket machine, had no luggage, and was in a rush early in the morning. Otherwise, when my journey starts at St Pancras? No.
andystock - 14/05/2014 20:04
The Heathrow Connect is a fraction of the cost and only takes around 10 mins longer. If the Heathrow Connect gets cancelled you can use the express at no extra cost.
batterytraveller - 14/05/2014 20:54
Top tip to buy on the train at the off train price is to use the heathrow express iOS/Android app to purchase tickets.
SiteAdministrator - 14/05/2014 21:12
You're kidding! That's a fantastic tip....
LondonViking - 15/05/2014 07:37
It's very expensive. Unless you compare it to the price of a black cab which would cost you twice as much as well as a finger and two toes!
rferguson - 15/05/2014 17:48
I use the Heathrow Express on average once a week and I think it is the most reliable mode of transport to Heathrow.
What annoys me though is I find on weekends the trains reduce from eight cars to four cars. When it is a four car train and one of those cars is for First Class more often than not it is standing room only. I have NEVER not a had a seat Monday-Friday when the longer trains operate - granted, if you want to be in the front of the train you may have to stand. But if you want a seat you will find one.
On the weekend services however this is not true. I often find I have to stand, often packed like a sardine, because the train is too small. And of course, the fare is not any less on the weekend.
I sometimes wonder if the Heathrow Express does this deliberately as they know passengers on a weekend are more likely to be leisure travellers only using the service once or so a year - and HEX doesn't feel the need for their loyalty unlike the regular M-F busines traveller.
SimonS1 - 15/05/2014 21:50
It's a good example of rip off Britain.
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