Monday 3rd February 2020 – updated Wednesday 5th February 2020
First the good news. Rail passengers using Gatwick Airport will be pleased to see work finally get underway from May 2020 on the project to increase the station’s capacity.
Although an extra platform (7) was added in 2014 to reduce track congestion, particularly Gatwick Express terminating trains; passenger circulating areas and platform widths have not kept pace with significant increased use of the station. Almost a million more passenger journeys began or ended at Gatwick Airport station in 2018/19 compared to 2017/18. There’s been a 6 million increase since 2010, from around 14 million that year to today’s 20 million plus. That’s quite an increase.
This infrastructure deficiency is all set to change in the upcoming £150 million two-year rebuild programme which will see the existing concourse decluttered and redesigned as entrance only (shown on the centre left in the plan below) with a brand new larger concourse added (shown centre right) for passengers alighting from trains as well as platforms 5 and 6 widened and eight new escalators, five lifts and four staircases across four of the seven platforms.
In fact, there’s already ‘nudge’ signage to encourage passengers getting off trains to use the separate overbridge for alighting passengers – the handy exit from platforms 3 and 4 is signed erroneously as only for platform 7 with no general exit possible, whereas passengers in the know always ignore that and use the narrow staircase alongside the down escalator to access the concourse and terminal building.
Lifts also connect to the separate exit overbridge which bypasses the congested concourse and leads directly into the terminal building. After the rebuild this will be the only way into the airport as there’ll be no exit through the existing concourse.
No-one can deny Gatwick Airport station needs sorting; at busy times with many flights arriving, especially overnight flights landing around 8-9am, it’s chaotic for passengers and a nightmare for staff doing their best to sell tickets and dispatch trains.
Despite twelve ￼coach trains and staff cajoling passengers to “use the full length of the platform” over the station PA, they insist on hanging around the bottom of the escalator and overcrowding that area almost to dangerous levels, particularly on the London bound platform 4 when a GatEx train comes up from Brighton rather than a starter for London from platform 6.
It’s going to get a lot worse during the building works. In phase 1 between May 2020 and January 2021 the station will lose platforms 6 and 7 (other than very limited use of 7 for the very few non-stopping trains) meaning all southbound trains will have to use platform 5.
Then from January 2021 to May 2022 it’s platforms 5 and 6 that will be out of use in phase 2 with all southbound trains using platform 7.
To accommodate this loss of capacity two trains per hour have to be taken out of the pathing schedule and not surprisingly the decision’s been taken these will be the two GatEx trains per hour which currently use platform 6 to terminate. This will reduce the ‘premium’ 4-trains an hour Gatwick Express to just a half hourly Victoria-Gatwick-Brighton service.
There will still be six Southern trains per hour between Victoria and Gatwick Airport with two continuing half hourly to Littlehampton, two half hourly to Eastbourne and Hastings/Ore(hourly) and two half hourly to Bognor Regis and Portsmouth(hourly)/Southampton (hourly) via the Arun Valley line.
Gone are the two an hour semi-fasts to Brighton as these paths are taken by the Eastbourne/Ore trains – these (and the Littlehamptons) will no longer split/join at Haywards Heath but continue their journeys as through trains. The upside of this new arrangement (splitting/joining was introduced by Connex back in 1997) is better ‘resilience’ (train parlance) and less protracted journey times for passengers while the manoeuvre is carried out. Offsetting this will be extra station calls on the Littlehampton trains at Preston Park, Hassocks and Burgess Hill (the latter two stations currently have the to-be-withdrawn-from-May Brighton semi-fasts – now diverted to Eastbourne/Ore) which will add back journey time as well as extra time needed to get through the Gatwick rebuild congestion.
Which brings us to the not so good news. Brighton passengers will experience a halving of their off-peak service to Victoria (from four-an-hour to two-an-hour) and no service at all to Clapham Junction (currently off-peak only – the peaks were lost in 2015) which isn’t going to go down well when it becomes more widely known. There’ll also be a reduction of trains between Brighton and East Croydon by two an hour, although the four Thameslink trains will be continuing.
If Gatwick Airport station is to be expanded, these ‘temporary’ (24 months) changes are inevitable, but what is really going to enrage passengers, and rightly so, is if the DfT instruct GTR to continue the great Gatwick Express fares rip off during the rebuild.
I’ve written about this before pointing out the complete injustice of charging arriving airline passengers a premium fare of £19.90 single to use what from May will be just two red GatEx trains an hour to Victoria (and busy trains from Brighton at that) compared to an off peak PAYG fare of only £8.50 on the green Southern trains.
But it also brings the availability of the super off-peak £19.90 return fare from Brighton to London into focus. This popular extra value ticket is not valid arriving London before 10:55 nor leaving there to head south between 16:15 and 19:15 and crucially is not valid on the two-an-hour GatEx branded Brighton to Victoria trains at all, but is available on the two-an-hour Southern operated semi-fast trains (which are disappearing in May).
Bizarrely, as has been pointed out in the Comments below, the equivalent Super Off-Peak Travelcard priced at £25.30 from Brighton is classified as ‘Any Permitted’ so IS valid on Gatwick Express trains. Which begs the question why can’t the £19.90 return also be reclassified as ‘Any Permitted’? I guess because that would expose the anomaly that for the same £19.90 price on the same train, arriving passengers at Gatwick Airport are fleeced this amount for their single ride into Victoria.
From May if Brightonians only want to go to Victoria rather than wandering around London with a Travelcard and don’t want to avoid the other option of changing trains at Haywards Heath or East Croydon (using Thameslink and Southern) they will need to shell out £5.40 more and buy a Travelcard to use the direct GatEx trains even though the extra flexibility in London isn’t needed.
A standard off peak return including Gatwick Express costs £31.40.
Now is the ideal time for the DfT to end this GatEx fares rip-off and sort out these anomalies.
Knowing DfT’s track record on the ‘premium’ Gatwick Express and the disgraceful arrangements for ticket sales at the Airport station (which includes blatant overcharging still continuing) …. I’m not holding my breath.
PS As an aside from pricing and train times, May’s shuffle round will see surplus red painted GatEx trains redeployed to the Brighton and Hastings East Coastway route. That’ll brighten things up along the coast!