Tuesday 14th May 2019
Exactly thirty-five years ago today British Rail began the first non-stop train service between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport marketed as Gatwick Express. Class 73 locomotives hauled Mark 2 carriages providing a 30 minute journey time.
Since 1984 GX’s history has been in three almost equal parts: the British Rail era for the first twelve years followed by National Express, awarded the first privatised franchise to run the service in April 1996, which lasted a further twelve years until 2008 when it was subsumed into the GoVia operated Southern franchise. GoVia successfully bid for the new Southern franchise the following year and in 2015 won the notorious larger GTR management contract including Thameslink and Great Northern as well as Southern and Gatwick Express.
There’s been a succession of train types over the last 35 years notably the Class 460 Junipers with their pointy nosed front ends introduced by National Express from 1999, followed by reconditioned Class 442s and, since 2016, brand new Class 387/2 trains ordered by GTR.
Gradually the bespoke offer of an exclusive Gatwick Express service has been watered down not least the sensible, yet controversial, decision in 2008 to extend peak hour journeys to Brighton to increase capacity on the Brighton Main Line including calling at most stations between Haywards Heath and the coast. This concept was extended further in 2015 when alternate journeys, running every 30 minutes, during the off-peak were also extended non-stop to Brighton replacing the previous fasts operated by Southern between Brighton, East Croydon and Victoria.
In the early days the GX offer included smartly dressed hosts meeting and greeting passengers on platforms as well as selling tickets on trains together with an onboard buffet trolley giving the impression of a premium service. First class seating, especially during the Class 442 era offered a level of luxury travel which was very much premium.
Now, the whole concept of the Gatwick Express as a premium service must be called into question. There really can be no justification for charging passengers a premium fare for a journey that’s virtually no different to the alternatives. Continuing the facade of GatEx being something special is frankly a deceitful way of fleecing visitors from abroad using Gatwick Airport. First impressions count when you’re a stranger in a new country for the first time; goodness knows what visitors think of the complex fare structure they meet at Gatwick Airport’s bank of Ticket Vending Machines or in the long queue for the ticket office and must conclude they’re being ripped off, which they are.
Anomalously the team of thirty-six On Board Supervisors allocated to GatEx only travel between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport and it seems to me their sole purpose is to enforce the First Class seating area as other than giving onboard announcements which simply replicate the pre-recorded auto ones and the occasional walk through the train, that seems to be it. If you’re heading down to Brighton from Gatwick Airport there’s no OBS to provide that so called reassurance that applies if you head north to London. If you catch a northbound Southern train from the Airport that’s originated at a station along the Coastway East or West (rather than Brighton) you’ll also have the luxury of an On Board Supervisor for your whole journey, so it’s hardly a premium differentiation.
Perhaps if the First Class section was more clearly marked such diligent checking (which doesn’t happen on Southern’s OBS-less Brighton Main Line trains anyway) wouldn’t be necessary. When the doors of a GatEx train are open, there’s no external indication you’re entering a First Class area save for the minuscule “1” sticker on the windows. Nothing appears on the doors which cover up the word “First” on the train side when open.
Then there’s the seating. Although not as dire as the Class 700s on Thameslink, they can hardly be called comfortable. Hard and upright and exactly the same whether in Standard or First Class, save for the flappy bit of papery cloth thing where you put your head – antimacassars to use the official terminology. The seats on the early Class 387 trains used by Southern are far superior than these. Another bonus until buffet trolleys were withdrawn was an on-board complimentary drink for First Class passengers; now ceased.
The tables are frustratingly slimline too, handy to be able to slip easily into the seat but no good for comfortable use once seated because of the annoying gap from seat to table. There is free (data limited) Wi-Fi and one plug socket for each pair of seats but these fineries are thankfully pretty standard now and can hardly be descibed as premium.
When the Class 387/2s were first introduced GTR boasted of their fantastic luggage space, and it’s true they do have a small luggage space at the end of each carriage by the doors but this is nowhere near adequate particularly on peak trains which arrive at Gatwick Airport from Brighton in the morning already packed with commuters, including their folded cycles, meaning seats can’t be used as back-up luggage pens.
It’s usually a complete melee on the busiest evening peak departures from Victoria as returning commuters and outbound flight travellers are mixed up as they all board together.
In the early days when the Class 442s were first extended to Brighton in the peaks the PR people said it would all work fine in the mornings as messages would be relayed on to Gatwick Airport platform staff about where the vacant seats were and boarding passengers would be guided to the best place to wait. Some hope. There’s always a huge crowd congregating around the bottom of the escalator on Gatwick Airport’s London bound Platform 4 despite the best efforts of some dispatchers to use the tannoy to cajole people to spread out along the platform.
As a sop to tourists there’s a four language translation of the “welcome to Gatwick Express” auto-announcement which plays out approaching and leaving both Gatwick Airport and Victoria stations, but it always amuses me that the critical extra message added in 2008 on trains arriving at Gatwick Airport, that “will passengers please note this train will only wait on the platform for a short while” is only played out in English! I suspect no-one has ever got round to thinking it might make sense to translate this too, rather than just the somewhat insincere welcome messages.
So what about the thorny issue of that premium fare; the one that means you theoretically save 2 minutes on your journey between the Airport and Victoria, with GatEx trains timetabled to take 29 minutes and some Southern trains scheduled at 31 minutes.
The Airport to Victoria Standard Class single is £19.90 (£31.70 including antimacassar – aka First Class). A return ticket offers a miserly £2 saving coming in at £37.80 (£61.40 with antimacassar). Another miserly saving, this time just 10p, is available if you use Oyster Pay As You Go or Contactless at £19.80. Travelling off peak instead of peak on GatEx? Tough pal; there’s no discount. The same price applies all day in the land of premium travel that is Gatwick Express.
Alternatively if you don’t mind a more comfortable seat and take two minutes more for your journey, take a Southern train and pay £3.20 less in the peak (£16.70) with a ticket or £4.80 less with Pay As You Go (£15.10).
Travel after 0900 using Pay As You Go and save £11.40. Yes, the off-peak fare on a green train with comfy seats and taking two minutes longer to Victoria is just £8.50 compared to £19.80 on a red train with Pay As You Go.
But why not head to London Bridge on a grey Thameslink train instead? For sure the seats are narrow and very uncomfortable but there really is plenty of room for luggage in the wide aisles and door vestibules and it only costs £11 peak and £9.70 off peak (or £8.50 PAYG).
And if you find this all a tad confusing, remember at certain times of the day GTR run Gatwick Express branded trains on Southern train diagrams so although your cheaper ticket will say “Not Gatwick Exp” you can use Gatwick Express when the Company chooses to run a train called Gatwick Express at their convenience, including the onboard announcements confirming it is indeed Gatwick Express, as opposed to the station signs which say it’s Southern – a regular occurence in the evenings as shown below…
……or when engineering works send Southern trains to London Bridge, which turn out to be Gatwick Express trains.
On the other hand try using a GatEx train when a Southern one might have been cancelled. No chance with the eagle eyed barrier staff at the GatEx platforms 13 and 14 at Victoria where any ticket which doesn’t work the barrier is rudely snatched out of your hand for forensic examination – even when it’s a legitimate cross-London “any permitted” ticket which I frequently use on my travels to and from the north. I find these barrier staff rival Blackpool North for their unfriendly customer service.
Passengers would find it hard to believe the array of train options from Gatwick Airport are all controlled by the one DfT and all contracted to the one train company. You’re bombarded with rival messages in the station ticket office area promoting both Gatwick Express and Thameslink as the best way to get to London. As you can see from the photos below, none of them mention price, nor where in London they go to. And Southern doesn’t get a look in.
The same misleading banner advertising can be found on Victoria Station’s concourse too. A huge prominent promotional back-lit poster is suspended from the roof to show Gatwick Airport bound passengers to platforms 13 and 14 where in the off peak you can catch the (PAYG) £19.80 “direct” red train; there’s not a word about the green trains which leave more frequently with more comfortable seats (and still run “direct” albeit with two stops) from platforms 15 to 19 just a little further past the escalator and costs less than half price at £8.50 a ride. If a similar practice was used to persuade us to take up pension protection it would be deemed misselling and there’d be an Inquiry. As it is the Government and DfT are not only complicit but direct this financial fare rip off. It’s utterly scandalous.
All the more so at Gatwick Airport where regular tannoy announcements play out encouraging passengers to avoid the long queues for tickets and simply tap in and tap out at Victoria but I’ve NEVER heard that extra bit of vital price differential information which could potentially save a wasted £11.30 explaining to passengers the need to catch a Southern train for the cheapest ride. Scandalous.
And don’t forget, if you stay on that red train departing Victoria’s platforms 13 or 14 and travel all the way to Brighton the fare is miraculously the same as if you’d caught the green train from platforms 15 to 19. No premium for Brighton travellers!
Just as bizarre as all that is the current marketing campaign at stations on the Brighton Main Line south of Gatwick Airport to promote travel to the airport on Thameslink, whereas Southern runs at the same frequency and is marginally quicker. These adverts have also been appearing in local newspapers. Why does the DfT allow this nonsense to continue? What a complete waste of marketing spend to only promote half the trains providing the service.
The same is true for the social media ads for Gatwick Express which were bombarding my Twitter timeline recently. What use are they to me when the train I need, aside from the peak, to get to Gatwick Airport is any train except Gatwick Express?
An inevitable consequence of these ridiculous price differences is that passengers who get to know the score obviously take the Southern train option, especially in the off-peak when savings are huge, and crowd out those trains while GatEx trains have lots of spare space. It’s extremely frustrating for Clapham Junction passengers seeing half empty (or less) red trains crawl through Platform 13 heading to the Airport without stopping while they have to cram into a packed green one behind.
It’s time to call a halt to all this nonsense which is a legacy of over twenty years ago when three separate franchises were competing for the lucrative airport market – the original GoVia Thameslink; the Connex South Central franchise and the National Express operated Gatwick Express. We’ve moved on from those days and it’s now time to end the facade that is the so called premium service that isn’t Gatwick Express. End the fare rip off.
Happy 35th birthday though!
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.