Sunday 23rd January 2022
I recently took a ride up to Luton to check out progress on the new £225 million DART (Direct Air Rail Transit) shuttle which will link Luton Airport Parkway station on the Midland Main Line and the Airport terminal building.
Ever since Luton Airport Parkway station opened in 1999 a bespoke bus service has been shuttling up and down the one-and-a-half miles to the terminal building for the benefit of airport users taking the train.
The bus service currently runs every 15 minutes using Volvo B7L articulated buses once operated by First Bus in Bristol with cherished registration plates from the time the service was operated by First Capital Connect when they ran the Thameslink franchise.
After the franchise passed to GoVia in 2013 the bus service transferred to Go-Ahead London.
It costs £2.40 single or £3.80 for a return if paying on the bus, at Luton Airport Parkway station or at the terminal building but most passengers I saw on my travels seemed to already have a ticket either from their airline or as part of a through rail ticket.
Bizarrely passengers are overcharged when buying a through rail ticket with, for example, tickets from St Pancras to Luton Airport costing £2.50 extra for a single and £4 for a return compared to the price to Luton Airport Parkway station, which although only 10p/20p more is hard to justify. I know split ticketing is a thing, but you wouldn’t expect to have to split your ticket for this kind of journey.
I travelled on the Shuttle bus at lunch time and it was taking about a dozen passengers on every journey I saw, so in the grand scheme of arrivals and departures at the airport fifty or so passengers an hour isn’t huge, but it’s a quick and efficient way of travelling.
The queuing arrangements alongside the exit to Luton Airport Parkway station have been expanded, possibly following Covid social distancing requirements, with high profile barriers making for a rather tortuous walk to reach the bus and giving a rather rudimentary impression.
Meanwhile at the departure stand at the airport terminal there’s one long shelter to accommodate everyone waiting but again with rather basic signage.
So I don’t think many will miss these arrangements when they’re swept aside in a few months as the new ‘high-tech’ DART Parkway shuttle gets going.
Like the shuttle between Gatwick Airport’s rail station and North Terminal, it will be driverless on twin tracks which leave from alongside the opposite side of Luton Airport Parkway station ….
…. to the current access and then passing over the A1081 airport access road before diving into a tunnel under the runway and bringing passengers right to the terminal.
It will be a great improvement on the current arrangements with just a four minute journey time (the current bus takes about ten) and enable the Airport to boast of a “seamless journey” time to and from London of just half an hour, especially if you strike lucky and connect spot on with East Midland Railways’ half-hourly non-stop electric train service to St Pancras as part of it’s timetable to Corby. The more frequent Thameslink trains take a little longer.
The rail station has received an upgrade with a new footbridge, two new lifts and three new escalators connecting directly to a new dedicated terminal building for the shuttle trains alongside it.
Those into shuttle type links at airports will be excited to know “DART will be an automated ‘cable liner’ style people mover, built by Austrian transit manufacturer Doppelmayr”. Construction has been by a joint venture by VolkerFitzpatrick and Kier Group.
Passive provision has been included in the construction for a stop mid way along the tracks to serve a mid-stay car park as well as extend to a second airport terminal if one is ever built.
One thing I’m a bit surprised to see is there’ll still be a charge to use the new DART shuttle as in most places such systems (eg Gatwick Airport) are free to use. I guess the £225 million construction cost has to be paid for somehow but it’s going to add an operational complication to ensure every passenger has an appropriate ticket or has to buy one from a machine and pass through a barrier of some kind. It means added staff requirements, whereas, at Gatwick Airport, for example, it really is a staff-less shuttle.
It’s also noteworthy that whereas the single fare is currently pitched at the same £2.40, the new return fare will increase by a £1 to £4.80 offering no discount.
The new tracks are currently in test mode and the only indication of a date for the service to start that’s been announced publicly is ‘around March’.
It’s not quite on the scale of Crossrail but it’s nice to have some other new tracks to look forward to.
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Next blog, Tuesday 25th January 2022: Cambridgeshire Guided Busway in trouble again.