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I'm the new Gatwick Express - fly me!

On Monday May 14 the Southern Region launches a Victoria-Gatwick Airport operation that is certainly the equal of, and in some respects superior to, any of the rail-link
services as yet on offer between Continental cities and their airports.

None surpasses the "Gatwick Express" push-pull shuttle's frequency: every 15min from 05.30 to 23.00 each way seven days a week by the dedicated Class 488 train-sets (plus an hourly EMU service through the night) on a standard journey time of 30min between Victoria and Airport. It's equalled by the Netherlands Railways to and from Amsterdam Schiphol and by the Swiss Federal to and from Zurich Airport. But neither of those Continental operations employs coaching stock specifically refurnished to cater for air travellers' baggage, besides which the Dutch service at present terminates at a station on the rim of Amsterdam's centre (a rail connection to Amsterdam Central station is under way, but won't be commissioned until 1986 at the earliest); and some of Zurich's trains are Inter-Cities making an intermediate call. That's an asset, of course, if you're travelling to a distant station on their route; but there is
the penalty that you may find yourself and your baggage battling for space in an already well-filled train.

With one notable exception - the sleek, once-prototype Inter-City German Federal Class 403 EMU on Lufthansa charter, staffed by Lufthansa and garbed in the airline's livery, now run between Dusseldorf, Cologne, Bonn and Frankfurt as a money-saving substitute for feeder flights - Continental airport rail links are generally served by standard commuter rolling stock. One should add, however, that the German Federal has lately begun to re-route a few Inter-cities via its Frankfurt Airport loop from the main Ilne into the city, superimposing them on the basic service Rhine-Main S-Bahn network commuter EMUs and push-pulls.

Train-set tool of the Gatwick Rail-Air Link, the Class 488, is a nine-car set comprising driving baggage car trailer, one first and seven seconds, all reliveried in the APT-style colour scheme now promoted as BR's future standard Inter-City livery (though Southern men impress on you that their Rail-Link is a London & South-East Business Sector, not an Inter-City Sector showpiece). Power for each set is a Class 73 electro-diesel repainted in the latest diesel locomotive fashion, with outsize numerals and BR emblem.

The driving trailer baggage cars are conversions from Class 414 (2-HAP) motor coaches, executed at Eastleigh, which also undertook remodelling of the train-sets' firsts. The seconds were refurbished at Derby. The Class 488 firsts and seconds are all air-conditioned MkllFs displaced from the LMR's Midland main line by HSTs. The total stock assigned to the Gatwick Airport Rail-Air Link is 67 seconds, 10 firsts and 10 driving trailer baggage cars, so that it provides for nine complete 488 sets with four seconds and one each of the other two vehicle types spare. The 488s will be maintained overnight at the modernised Stewarts Lane depot.

The principal internal modification to the Mkllfs for their new role is seating reduction to make room for baggage. In the seconds, space is down to 56 seats, partly because each seating bay has been slightly opened out for extra leg room, partly through the useful insertion of four metal luggage stands at intervals between seat backs on each side of the central gangway. Seating in each first has been cut back to 41, again as a result of provision for luggage, but also through removal of a seat to secure space for a disabled traveller's wheelchair.

Notices in the cars are in four languages, one of them Chinese at the special request of the British Airports Authority. Why Chinese rather than Japanese? Ask BAA. Maybe their economist seers know something about the global business future the rest of us don't) The 488 sets have public address and BR are thinking about using this for dissemination of pre-recorded multi-lingual announcements: Continental railways, one feels, would have taken this obvious step as a matter of course, and not still be mulling it over with their refurbished train-sets ready for commissioning.

On SR no doubt, the faltering over what is such a basically obvious passenger aid in these days of global jetting, comes down to cash shortage. That's certainly the reason for the initial limitation of ideal passenger handling arrangements at Victoria to customers of British Caledonian and the airlines it covers for check-in and baggage disposal at Gatwick Airport.

Travel BCal and you check-in your baggage, not at the Airport, but at their desks in the ground -level Rail-Air Link offices at the approach to Victoria's Platform 14; then the airline's staff loads it into the train baggage van and ferries it from train to your flight at Gatwick. But some £9 million has to be found to finish the planned development of accommodation on the "raft" above the present Victoria Rail-Air Link facilities before there is the wherewithal to relieve every airline's passengers of bother with their luggage before they get on a 488.

Nevertheless, there's a good deal to admire in the Victoria iayout. The Rail-Air Link has its own ticket office near the Platform and close by its own waiting lounge. From either you go straight to the Link's island platform without having to fumble for ticket inspection: all checks are on the train.

From the Rail-Air Link's reserved island platform at Gatwick Airport there's escalator as well as lift transport up to a handsomely spacious new concourse linking BR's premises with the Airport terminal. If you're an incoming air traveller, you don't have to wait till you've reached BR's Travel Centre in this area to buy your rail ticket a counter retailing Rail-Air Link tickets has been conveniently installed in the baggage reclaim area, so that some of the tedious wait there can be put to useful purpose.

One conspicuous flaw in the Gatwick arrangements is that you can't take an Airport luggage trolley from train to handover desk or from baggage reclaim to train. You can at Zurich, in particular, where they have trolleys with an ingenious underframe device that clips them securely to escalator steps. BAA says they've studied the Zurich design and found its escalator grip unreliable, though I've heard no such gripe from Switzerland.

That apart, one has to remember, first, that BR's island platform hasn't the room to absorb scores of hurriedly discarded, carelessly parked trolleys without courting aggravation of passengers and staff (and it's costly to deploy men for non-stop redistribution of empty trolleys). Second, that problem would be far more acute at Gatwick than at Zurich, because of the greater volume both of Gatwick's air traffic overall and of its railway trade.

In terms of international travellers, Gatwick now ranks fifth in the world airport league, dealing with 38 scheduled and 40 or so charter airlines covering about 120 destinations, already processing 121/2m passengers a year and at the current rate of traffic growth on course for a throughput of 25m a year by the 1990s. No wonder SR thinks Gatwick worth its new dedicated, intensive rail service (and the progressive rerouting of more through trains from and to the Midlands, the North-West and North Humberside via the Airport, for that matter).
With the speed and comfort of its new Victoria service, moreover, BR is powerfully competitive. The half-hourly Victoria road coach shuttle certainly costs less, £2 against BR's £3.30, but takes 70min, while a taxi will probably charge £2"5 to the heart of London. The Southern Region carries around 40 per cent of Gatwick Airport's current annual total of 12 million passengers, and confidently expects to increase its share of the increasing numbers of people using the airport.

During the night, from around 23.00 until, 05.00, the Gatwick Express service will be replaced by a regular hourly service run with standard electric trains, allowing time for the new trains to be thoroughly cleaned and serviced ready for the next day.

But the Gatwick story doesn't end with the fast service to and from London. As well as the "'Gatwick Express", more than 200 other trains call at the airport station every day. These provide a direct service to the South Coast to the Midlands and North West, or connecting at Reading with InterCity services to the West Country and South Wales.

To cope with Gatwick's ever increasing number of passengers - which can total 70,000 in a single day, 30,000 of them travelling by train - the station was recently completely modernised at a cost of £10.8m.

Gatwick is almost half way between London and Brighton, on one of the busiest stretches of railway in Britain, used by nearly 2,000 trains every day. It would not have been possible to fit in the new service, with its 144 extra trains without the massive track and re-signalling scheme for this line, started in 1979 and now nearing completion.

This £120m project, codenamed "Operation New Look", has already involved remodelling the tracks into Victoria station and the construction of a rail "flyover" at Croydon - prerequisites to the introduction of Gatwick Express. Re-signalling will bring the whole of the London to Brighton line under the control of just two computer-operated, electronically controlled signalling centres - one at Clapham Junction, the other at Three Bridges. This introduces the essential ingredient of reliability into the new service.

As much attention as possible in the time available will be given to the trains at either end of their journey. But more intensive cleaning and maintenance will be done at night, at Stewarts Lane depot just outside Victoria.

Dating from the 1880s, the depot is currently being extensively modernised and re-equipped and with nine, nine-car trains in the service, each can be withdrawn in turn for more intensive cleaning and maintenance.

Among the other trains which receive this attention at the new-look Stewarts Lane depot is the recently re-vamped famous Venice-Simplon-Orient Express.

The London to Brighton main line was built in various stages between 1840 and 1845, so it is one of the oldest railways in the world. And although its progenitors could have had little idea of the transport requirements of a century and a half later (certainly not of the 'Gatwick Express!') they planned - whether by accident or design, who can say - on such a scale that the basic system can still meet present demands. Provided, of course, that the necessary capital investment can take place - as is happening at the moment - to renew equipment that is life expired and install signalling equipment and track design to ensure maximum efficiency.

The stretch of the Bright line over which the trains now provide the round-the-clock Gatwick Airport service had its beginning back in 1841 - on July 12, to be precise - with the opening of the line between Norwood Junction and Haywoods Heath, via Redhill and the old Gatwick Racecourse station.

London Bridge was the metropolitan terminal in those days. The portion of Victoria station now used by the Gatwick trains was opened by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway on August 25, 1862.

The link between the railway and Gatwick Airport goes back almost to the airports busiest days, and the present station is not the first to be named 'Gatwick Airport'.

The original station, located about 1,000 metres south of the present one, opened on September 20, 1935 and was called Tinsley Green for Gatwick Airport'.

In May 1978 Southern Region begin a regular 15 minute interval service between Victoria and Gatwick, with a journey time of 40 minutes. Twelve four-car main line electric units were modified to provide more room for luggage and the service given its own brand name. 'Rapid City Link', chosen by the joint British Airport Authority-British Rail-British Caledonian Promotion Group.

Each of the units had fluorescent plastic strips fixed above the doors the entire length of the unit bearing the name 'Rapid City Link' with train and plane symbols and the words 'Gatwick' and 'London'. The units were attached and detached from Brighton, Bognor Regis and Horsham services at Gatwick Airport station. They are now to be replaced by the new Gatwick Express service.

With the airport's annual passenger total, having soared to three million by f1978, the resources of the station, not much altered since it opened, were becoming increasingly stretched. So the first modest start was made on what was to be extensive rebuilding, recently completed at a cost of £10m.

Gatwick remains the only airport in the United Kingdom where the railway station is an integral part of the airport complex. It is used by 40 different airlines, flying to 120 destinations at home and abroad, and only Heathrow, J. F. Kennedy (New York), Frankfurt, and Charles de Gaulle (Paris) handle more passengers.

  • The feature was originally published in RAIL 31, in April 1984


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