Wednesday 3rd July 2019
Bus and coach routes serving airports have expanded greatly over the last few decades with a seemingly constant stream of new initiatives.
I wrote about the recent upgrade to First Glasgow’s route 500 between Glasgow Airport and the city centre last month while over at Edinburgh Airport, Xplore Dundee have started a new route linking Dundee and the airport, First Bus have doubled the frequency of their route 600 linking West Lothian and Lothian Buses now run four different routes serving Edinburgh itself. Down at Bristol Airport, Stagecoach introduced Falcon to and from the south west a few years ago while First improved the local service from Bristol itself.
London’s airports (aside from ‘Southend’ of course!) have also benefited from new initiatives including Stansted where competition has seen a plethora of coach options from various parts of central London. Heathrow Airport has been well served for many years but First Berkshire reckon they’ve spotted a gap in the market from Guildford which they’ve bravely filled with a brand new hourly coach service which started on Monday.
The newly branded railair RA2 service joins the long established RA1 from Reading, also operated by First Berkshire, and upgraded with swish new coaches earlier this year (reviewed in a previous blog). Indeed some of the displaced coaches from that route have found a home on this new Guildford service.
The Reading railair route, as the brand name implies, is well known for its handy connections to and from the airport for passengers travelling by GWR train from South Wales and the West Country. The same idea lies behind the new RA2 with passengers using South Western Railway trains from Portsmouth and Southsea on the Petersfield line, as well as Farnham and Aldershot now having a more convenient way to access Heathrow without the inconvenience of going into London and back out again.
The new link also provides a more convenient route for Reigate and Dorking residents using GWR’s North Downs line and changing at Guildford.
Route RA2 runs hourly from around 04:00 to 22:00. The route itself is pretty simple using the A3 and M25 with a short wiggle near Guildford town centre to serve The Chase near to the University of Surrey. Terminal 5 is served but not Terminal 4 and the route’s terminal bus stops are right alongside the exit from Guildford station and in Heathrow Airport’s central bus and coach station. Pointedly it doesn’t serve Guildford bus station.
Allowance has been made in the schedule for variable motorway traffic conditions with daytime journeys given 65 minutes increasing to 75 minutes in the peaks. The first early morning journey is given 52 minutes.
The service takes three coaches with a fairly tight ten minute turnaround at Heathrow and a more leisurely 41 minutes in Guildford.
It’s £9 for a single fare if bought in advance by app, online or as an add-on to a train ticket and £10 if paid on the coach. This is in line with the general practice of premium charging for airport fares but also exposes the comparable fare from Reading at a whopping £20 online, albeit that’s for a greater distance.
The comparable single fare on the National Express RailAir shuttle from Woking station is £10.50 single although this reduces to a more attractive £6 if booked four weeks or more in advance.
I took a ride on the 11:00 departure on the RA2 from Guildford this morning. The coach was already on stand when I arrived at 10:45 with one passenger on board and another just boarding. The driver was chatting to a high-viz wearing First Bus employee who offered me a leaflet when he saw me hovering and taking photographs.
It’s nice to see Surrey County Council have updated the ‘Bus Stand’ (sic) with an RA2 number ….
…. and there’s a standard RA2 Surrey County Council style timetable with First Bus railair promotional messages in the timetable case.
I do hope they update the grotty frames alongside though (which I’ve tweeted about for years now). The driver and his high-viz companion thought this was in hand when I mentiond it to them, which if so, really will be a step forward.
Sadly no further passengers arrived before we left spot on time with just the five of us on board (that’s including the driver and his high-viz helper). We passed the bus stop at The Chase slightly ahead of time – eight minutes running time from the station is very generous in the off peak – and I was impressed that we glided by the RHS Wisley stop on the A3 exactly on time at 11:18 as Google maps ominously showed slow going on the M25.
Most of the journey around the infamous M25 south west quadrant was consequently at a steady 40 mph but we still arrived into Terminal 5 at 11:40 compared to the scheduled arrival time of 11:53 so even in the off peak there’s plenty of slack to allow for motorway delays.
Our high-viz wearing friend alighted here as we continued around Heathrow’s western perimeter …
…. and reached Heathrow’s Central Bus and Coach Station eleven minutes ahead of time at 11:54 and the two passengers alighted with me. An overall journey time of 54 minutes – only two minutes more than that best time allowance for that first departure at 03:40!
It was an impressive ride; even though the M25 was a bit crowded traffic was at least flowing. However, that road is notorious for its gridlock and I reckon coaches will struggle to keep to time on a busy Friday afternoon and evening as well as negotiating through Guildford’s congested traffic including that section of route by the University.
The interior of the coach, despite dating from 2013/4 was very welcoming and comfortable. A lot more so than anything you get on modern trains these days. There were four tables with forward and backward facing seats and a total capacity of 44.
The coach was nice and clean with working plug sockets and WiFi which kicked in after a little time albeit with the usual requirement for an email address to be entered for access.
The key to this route’s success is getting it known among rail passengers on the Portsmouth & Southsea line via Petersfield. Portsmouth passengers already have the Woking RailAir link which has been around for a while and is well promoted, so this new service needs South Western Railway to do its bit by plugging the alternative via Guildford. Interstingly end to end journey times are comparable whether via Woking or Guildford.
South Western Railway is of course run by First Group (in conjunction with MTR Europe) so in theory this should be easy, but the industry is littered with examples of non-joined-up-ness between train and bus so I’m not holding my breath.
The attractive leaflet for the Guildford railair states you can buy a rail add-on: “click or ask for Guildford Railair add-on when making an advance purchase rail ticket or buying from a ticket vending machine or ticket office”. I tried buying an advance purchase ticket online from the SWR website but the only add-ons it offered me were a bicycle reservation or a PlusBus.Still it’s early days and there’s lots of time to get details like that sorted, and the Reading service certainly works well, although that does have a much larger catchment area and the fare is more than double the Guildford price!
A big accodale to First Berkshire for launching this new initiative and giving a brand new service a go. Good luck