We mourn the passing of the Gatwick Express.
A casualty of untrammeled competition foisted on the railway system by a doctrinaire government. Such competition, even with regulation, means that outcomes are driven solely by financial considerations which ignore wider social costs and benefits. It results in narrow and eventually damaging commercial decisions, which mean that good and useful services are sacrificed. This is the story of the Gatwick Express.
Some time in the early 1970s British Rail came up with a brilliant idea…
By using existing track and rolling stock they would launch an express rail service between Victoria and Gatwick Airport. They were encouraged by the airlines based at Gatwick, mainly British Caledonian. At about that time London Underground was busily building the Heathrow extension to the Piccadilly Line. It was clear to everybody that railway connection to the airports had to be the way passengers would travel in the future.
The Gatwick Express was an almost instant success. Using an existing electric locomotive attached to a rake of Mark 3 mainline coaches suitably refurbished and with space and comfort appropriate for long distance travel, the push and pull service was inaugurated.
It ran every 15 minutes and took exactly 30 minutes to go from a new terminal at Victoria with easy access down escalators and its own taxi rank at one end, to Gatwick into two reserved platforms, again connected by escalators to the concourse above with direct access to the terminal. At first you could even check in for your flight at Victoria.
This was a British Rail initiative and fully supported by the British Airports Authority, which, incidentally, subsequently moved its headquarters down to Gatwick. Over the next 30 years this service became a reliable and comfortable part of traveling by air from Gatwick. There were huge developments at Victoria but these only served to improve the service. Tickets were available on the train and there were even modest refreshments during the 30 minute ride. Most of the passengers who used it were men and women traveling on business, but it also was a great comfort to foreign travelers arriving at Gatwick, unsure of how far London would be and how to get there.
The service survived the break-up of British Rail in the 1990s because the Gatwick Express was considered so important that it was kept as a separate franchise.
The old push and pull carriages and locomotives had become rather out of date and so new trains were ordered. These turned out to be of a novel design, convenient and comfortable with a huge amount of additional baggage room. The service’s unrivaled reliability continued and it had become an integral part of the airline experience traveling through Gatwick.
However, there had always been a problem with the Gatwick Express…
It used the main Brighton Line, which operates near its capacity all the time. It is principally a commuter line from the South Coast and all intervening points. At the north end the dedicated platforms lay between platforms serving suburban services to the west and the fast Brighton and South Coast expresses to the east. This meant that trains had to cross other lines on the entrance to Victoria.
London Victoria (A), East Croydon (B), Coulsdon (C), Gatwick (D), Brighton (E). View Larger Map
Then there is East Croydon, about twelve minutes down the line, which has a very complex set of junctions. To avoid disruption the Gatwick Express trains ran fast through the two platforms on the west side of the station which reduced station capacity. This also gave access to the fast lines down to Coulsdon. The Brighton line is effectively a four track line all the way.
At Coulsdon the trains enter the ‘quarry’ lines which were built well after the original alignment and provide a fast track which misses all the stations down to Horley just north of Gatwick. But to fit this line in, the builders threaded it through cuttings and tunnels over the North Downs and across the slow line. On the south side of the Downs it is therefore on the east side of the slow lines. And this means that Gatwick Express trains have to cross back over to the west side to reach the dedicated platforms at Gatwick.
These problems have never been satisfactorily addressed since the service opened. The best, but most expensive, solution would have been flying or burrowing junctions at either end of the line.
Nobody in the railways or government would look at these options because it was believed that the railway was in long-term decline.
But as time passed rail travel increased and the problem came back to haunt the operator. What is most disappointing is that both the Heathrow Express and the Stansted Express did require expensive track and bridging of comparable cost.
But the problem was not addressed in any other way: for instance some really advanced signaling , or some modest diversionary track work. After the big realignments of the 1980s at Norwood and Croydon, nothing more was done.
The consequence was a permanent squeeze on the capacity of the line and growing irritation with the airline passenger from the main operators of the line. In its time the Brighton line has passed through the hands of a number of franchises that have all disliked the Gatwick Express.
This irritation turned to triumph three years ago when the Gatwick Express separate franchise was deemed too small and inconvenient. So it was terminated and the operation was handed to the main Brighton train operator, Southern Railway. Their solution to the operations and capacity problems was to merge it with e regular Brighton service. The Transport Ministry and the regulators actively supported this.
In essence a really cheap and easy way to solve the Brighton commuter problem was to sacrifice the airline travelers.
After all the main customers of Southern Rail are the commuters. They fill the fair box every day. Airline passengers only come now and again, mostly just once a year. Looked at from the point of view of the rail operator, they just do not matter. It made perfect business sense. Look after your main market and give whatever cheap and shoddy service you can provide for the rest. The problem of insufficient pathways for all the Brighton and South coast traffic is solved and the airline passengers will have to ride on whatever is left over.
Once Southern Railway got hold of the Gatwick express it was decided, after almost no consultation, to ‘integrate’ the operation into the general timetable of London to Brighton fast and slow services.
The special trains were to be scrapped and instead the Express was to be allocated normal fast and semi-fast stock used by the London and Brighton commuters. A number of the services are now operated all the way through to Brighton and the poor airline passengers have no idea or warning when this may happen. The result is a mess.
One of the key advantages of a dedicated service had been that the dwell times at the two termini were always at least 7 minutes and therefore gave passengers plenty of time to board the train. In fact it also meant that there was nearly always a train waiting at the platform at either end of service.
With the end of the Gatwick Express, airline passengers now have a miserable experience.
No longer are the trains specially suited to their needs with wide doors and open vestibules and plenty of room for luggage. They now have to squeeze through narrow doors and search for the very few racks for luggage much of which piles up in the corridors. There is no dedicated luggage car. Added to the confusion at arrival and departure the trains only stop at Gatwick for a few minutes on the way from Brighton and the South Coast.
The worst aspect of the replacement service is that the trains now have to be shared with the Brighton commuters.
This means the trains are often full by the time they get to Gatwick and even fuller leaving Victoria. There is a permanent crush for space even though the trains are now eight cars long. Airline passengers have to stagger on board with luggage only to find all the seats taken. There are inadequate luggage racks and so it piles in the passageways.
There are now a variety of train configurations and no consistency about First Class accommodation. This was always at the London end and since it costs over £50 now it is an insult to such passengers who wish to travel in greater comfort and have to wander up and down the platform looking for the few first-class compartments.
The service is unreliable, as one would expect for a London commuter train. I have used it six times since the axe dropped and it has only been on time once. It has either slowed or stopped every time. Airline travel is stressful enough without this sort of insecurity.
At the London end it looks as if the special terminal with easy access from taxis and its own car park has gone for ever. I cannot believe that this incompetent railway management would abandon the special taxi rank and make us all go to the front of the station. Maybe they want us to go by Underground?
At the Gatwick end the service is now about to be moved from Platforms 1 and 2 ,which have all the facilities for luggage and easy access to the terminal, and relocated to 5 and 6 which are narrow platforms have no special facilities and are forty yards further from the terminal.
The service is inconvenient. Pay on board has been abandoned because Southern Trains cannot trust their commuters, so ticket barriers have been erected at both ends.
This means one has to allow an extra ten minutes leaving London to find a machine that works and if not, a person to sell a ticket. It also means that there is no easy way to get to the taxis on arrival at London except through the main station. It also means confusion and congestion at Gatwick while unfamiliar foreign travelers try to get tickets for London.
We now have a Gatwick Express service that uses unsuitable trains, is inconvenient of access and control, is entirely unreliable and is not dedicated to stress-free journeys for airline passengers.
It is now really part of the South London commuter operation with a sketchy and slow service at weekends when Gatwick is busy. To cap it all the service for airline passengers is now one of the most expensive per mile in the whole of Britain.
All this has happened in order to improve operations on Southern’s main services. So a perfectly profitable and sensible service, which entirely met the needs of its particular clientele, has been done away with on the grounds that the resources could be better used moving commuters and to allow Southern to make savings which merely enhance its profits. At the same time the rotten service can still make a profit.
It is quite clear that this is a case of simply not caring. Southern Rail management doesn’t care about airline passengers, and why should they, their market is the commuters and airline passengers are an inconvenient irritation. This miserable local service has been foisted on airline passengers at the very time. Gatwick has been wrestled away from the BAA, made independent and is now undergoing the most extensive facelift. The railway service linking it to London is a miserable shadow of what it used to be. As long as the Gatwick Express belonged to British Rail as part of an integrated railway system it was sensible and safe. Now it is yet another casualty of the reckless and stupid destruction of British Rail.
There is an underlying reason for all this. It is that competition in any form will never produce satisfactory transport solutions.
Railways and airlines are systems which deliver a singular travel experience to every individual traveler. Therefore they can never be run competitively but must always be operated under strict integration and regulation if they are to provide useful, economic and safe services. Above all without such a framework the huge capital investment needed for the infrastructure will never be forthcoming.
Southern may write Gatwick Express on the side of its trains and run them from Victoria to Gatwick, but the Gatwick Express is dead; a casualty of the ridiculous railway organization, which cannot even deliver a reliable and useful service for travelers through a major international gateway.
About Richard Graham