Luton Airport’s DART almost ready for take off

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.

Artist’s impression

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.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.

Next blog, Tuesday 25th January 2022: Cambridgeshire Guided Busway in trouble again.

18 thoughts on “Luton Airport’s DART almost ready for take off

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  1. Very interesting. Perhaps for £255million we could have had (electric) buses every minute for several years, plus decent shelters, proper signage, maybe even toilets… Also, perhaps, a special bus lane which ran over the rail tracks, enabling a really quick transfer at the station (and less hassle for people with luggage). How would one interest an ‘Army of Advisers’ in a scheme like that?

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  2. I wold assume most people will buy a through rail ticket and for those that buy a ticket at the rail station there will be a a ticket machine and automatic gates so will probably only need one person to man the gates given the likely passenger numbers

    Lyon air traffic tends to be very seasonal and Covid is affecting it as well at present. I would assume in the summer passenger numbers would be much higher it may also attract passengers away from the National Express and Greenline service. Train is very much quicker and the fares are mostly lower

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  3. Gatwick’s shuttle is an internal shuttle between the two airport terminals, so it’s reasonable for it to be free. Luton’s DART isn’t an internal airport shuttle, it’s a public transport link to somewhere nowhere near the airport, so why would you expect it to be free?

    The nearest equivalent I can think of to the Luton DART in terms of distance and purpose is the Duesseldorf Airport danglebahn, which also runs to a railway station that purports to serve the airport but which in reality is nowhere near; the danglebahn is chargeable, too.
    (Birmingham’s no-longer-a-maglev is a hop, skip and a jump over the roads separating airport and station; whilst it’s free now I recall that being theoretically chargeable at one time, although I doubt anyone ever paid)

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  4. Whilst Gatwick is a reasonable comparator, surely Birmingham is better, as there it is also Airport Terminal to remote non-airport station?

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    1. The same Doppelmayr cable system is used at Birmingham, described there as ” the free ‘Air-Rail Link’ monorail system”. Monorail it technically isn’t, but it does appear to be free.

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      1. Do we know that through rail tickets will still be available via the new rail link, as it will no longer be run by the same operator? That board directing people to the bus at Parkway is a bit ludicrous in saying “to London Luton Airport”, having got that far you hardly need to be reminded that it’s considered a London airport, and in any case the station is not called London Luton Airport Parkway. Mind you it appears that St Pancras does not officially have London in it’s name, being simply called St Pancras International (logically of course London Bridge also ought to have another London added!)

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    1. Not sure why this is worse than very many other stations, many of which don’t have a taxi rank at all. I could not see the logic of taking a taxi to the Airport, but I guess the nearby Capability Green business park and some local areas are nearer to Parkway than the main Luton station, so do need taxi availability. However I do agree there is little room there, and indeed any rail replacement bus services tend to stop on the road on the eastern side, a bit of a walk from the station.

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  5. On Luton Airport Parkway station, no doubt the are structural engineering reasons I’m not privy to, but it seems a shame that the new escalators are facing away from the centre of the platforms.

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  6. Thames Link Franchise at Risk

    The Thameslink franschise is due for renewal and it is struigglinmg to overcome accounting itregularites and GoAhead has delayed irs account for the second time leaving littl time to agree a new frnchise

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  7. You quote the cost as both £225 million and £255 million. Either way, how many years of completely free bus travel do you think that might have paid for?

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  8. Still no news of an opening date. Test running started before Christmas. The implication seem to be they have run into major problems. There have been reports in the media of the trains coming off the rails . Whilst no exact opening date had been given March had been quoted as when it will open so there is still time

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  9. If I am right I remember that the Luton Busway was going to go all the way to the airport, which stopped at Kimpton Road where it rejoins the main road. This would have been so much better than this overpriced Mono Rail. The other plus would been much easier access not only people using the airport but for the people who work at the airport. On the topic of Luton Airport Parkway station which is a very bad design who builds a airport station where you have to climb stairs with there luggage, only to go go back down again surly this should have ramps for passengers to walk down to and up from the bus stop. Where money could have been spent to improve Luton station. Instead of this badly designed Parkway Station.

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  10. Well. the Luton Dart fiasco continues. It is managing to outdo the Elizabeth line

    As with the Elizabeth Line no explanation as to why the huge delay to opening the line. It is as well a short and simple point to point link

    No specific date has been given. It has now moved another year out with a statement saying a date will be given in early 2023

    https://m.luton.gov.uk/Page/Show/news/Pages/Opening-announcement-for-Luton-DART-to-be-made-in-early-2023.aspx

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