Saturday 11th March 2023
Whenever anyone mentions Luton Airport readers of a certain age will almost certainly be imaging the iconic TV advert from the late 1970s for Campari shot in an exotic location featuring suave, elegantly dressed, sophisticated, smooth talking Jeremy Clyde asking Lorraine Chase “were you truly wafted here from Paradise?” to which her inimitable retort was the memorable “no, Luton Airport”.
It famously inspired the 1979 hit (reaching No 22 in the charts) by Cats UK called ‘Luton Airport’ with its defining “ooo, weee, oooo” rift.
Now Luton Airport has another claim to fame. Having invested in a newly extended and refurbished terminal building, bus and coach station and car parks over the last few years its brand new autonomous DART (Direct Air Rail Transit) shuttle link from Luton Airport Parkway rail station has finally opened for business carrying its first paying passengers yesterday afternoon.
It’s been a long time coming – more time than I’d expected having blogged about its imminent arrival as long ago as 23rd January 2022 optimistically entitled “Luton AIrport’s DART almost ready for take off”.
Construction work begun almost five years ago with completion originally expected at the end of 2020. Obviously the pandemic caused some delays but early 2022 was pencilled in as the latest expected opening, hence my visit and blog to record one last ride on the shuttle bus between Luton Airport Parkway station and the airport terminal before it ceased.
That turned out to be premature for reasons that aren’t really clear but fourteen months later and Luton’s DART is finally up and running, albeit for just a few hours a day for the first couple of weeks during what’s being called a “soft launch phase” to iron out any teething problems.
As yesterday was the first day when the public could just turn up and use DART aside from recent safety trials and press previews I popped up to Luton Airport to take a ride as did a couple of dozen or so others.
Originally budgeted to cost £225 million, DART’s final price tag is believed to be close to £300 million prompting airport owners Luton Council to set up an independent inquiry to examine the reasons for the delay and overspend.
But like Edinburgh’s trams, Crossrail and all the other transport infrastructure projects that go over budget and run late it’ll soon be forgotten as passengers appreciate the hugely improved service that’s now available.
And that’ll certainly be the case with DART.
Gone will be the tortuous access from the station platforms to the shuttle bus outside the station involving no end of short escalators/stairs and a down market crash barrier controlled queuing system before a ride on an ageing articulated bus.
Now there are sparkly new escalators and lifts to whisk you from Luton Airport Parkway’s platforms up to a new footbridge …
… with access straight into the new DART terminal building that’s been built alongside the station.
You can also access DART from the station’s original footbridge and use a new ramp that takes you to the entrance to DART.
DART is also accessible via a new entrance on the other side of the station in Kimpton Road which also comes with escalators and lifts to take you up to DART’s departure platforms.
There’s a departure display as you enter letting you know when the next shuttle is departing as well as a screen showing train departures.
There’s still a lot of construction work taking place at the Kimpton Road entrance/exit and there are obviously plans to develop this area now DART has begun. I’m guessing there’ll be more hotels going here.
The new terminal is certainly expansive with lots of room to accommodate passengers passing through.
Coming from the station there are two gatelines to pass through. One is the exit from/access to the station and the other is the access/exit to/from DART.
In between the two is a large circulating area (shown above) where the lifts and escalators from the Kimpton Road exit/entrance come up …
… and oddly a small seating area ….
…. and where there are three new style ticket machines ….
…. which sell tickets both for DART (for those going to the airport) ….
…. and also act as a railway ticket vending machine (for those catching a train) with new graphics and layout.
Tickets for DART can also be purchased from a smartphone by clicking on a large QR code displayed at various points between the two gatelines….
… which when scanning takes you to a webpage and a very straight forward two click purchase.
Those three ticket machine incorporate one piece screens which display messages above the part where the actual ticket purchasing part is…
… making for a rather neat arrangement. The screens above alternate between displaying train departures….
… and other information.
I passed on the suggestion it would make sense to add Luton Airport (ie the journey on DART) to the frequently used destinations screen during the purchase rather than having to type it in and I’m sure this will be looked into – one reason why yesterday and the first couple of weeks is just a “soft launch” to iron out issues like this. Although it’s a bit surprising this wasn’t spotted in earlier trials.
Like me, most passengers probably have a through rail ticket to Luton Airport (as opposed to a ticket to Luton Airport Parkway) which previously included travel on the shuttle bus but now includes DART. However having used it to exit the station gateline it wouldn’t allow me to access through the DART gateline so I had to be let through.
I met up with Linsey Sweet DARTs General Manager during my visit and she confirmed that’s another issue that’ll be looked at as it hadn’t happened in the pre-opening trials. Linsey has done a modal switch to her new role having previously worked with Arriva overseeing its Luton operations. She certainly seemed to be enjoying the first few hours of public use of her new domain.
The very first DART for public use arrived into the two platform terminal at 14:18 and an excited crowd of first footers and bemused airline passengers as well as a motley collection of proud DART staff boarded for the inaugural journey.
The dual track is an impressive engineering achievement crossing over the A1081 (M1 access road) and taking different levels and contours all in its stride.
The journey to the airport terminal building takes 3 minutes and 20 seconds with the shuttle entering into a tunnel for the final 20 seconds.
At the airport end of the line there’s lots of space for passenger circulation between the two platforms ….
…. with two escalators (one up, one down) …
…. and two lifts to reach ground level ….
…. and the short walk to the terminal building.
You get an interesting view of the train in the platform at this end of the line from the top of the escalator….
…. including its roof.
(You also get an interesting view of the “gubbins” as the shuttle enters the platform at the station end of the line.)
For those arriving off an aeroplane at the airport terminal wanting tickets there are two ticket machines similar to those at the rail station end by the entrance to the DART terminal.
These are sited alongside the gateline…
… and a helpful display showing train departures from Luton Airport Parkway station at the other end of the line. There’s another one in the circulating area by the shuttle platforms….
… and perch benches for passengers to lean against waiting for the next shuttle which won’t be far away – the two shuttles seem to be departing about every six or seven minutes yesterday but there’s one in the platform for about half that time. I noticed one of the ticket machines showed departures every 10 minutes.
The shuttle itself has bench type seats inside….
…. and a marked space for a wheelchair at either end but otherwise they’re really made for passengers to stand for the short journey duration.
There are also screens by the doors which display information….
…. including departures from the airport and station (depending on direction).
There’s also a screen at the station end of the line showing departures from the airport.
The provision of information throughout really is exemplary….
… as is the amount of space that’s been incorporated into the terminals – especially at the station end of the line. The area around where the two shuttle platforms are is huge.
Each shuttle has four small ‘articulated sections’ and I noticed the terminal platforms at both ends have been made long enough for shuttles to be doubled up in length in the future.
It definitely feels like a future proofed piece of infrastructure.
Aside from the overspend on costs and delays to opening the most controversial aspect of DART is what’s regarded as its high fare for the relatively short ride. During this initial “soft launch” phase when it’s only operating for a few hours each day DART is charging the same as the bus, £2.40 single and £3.80 return – but as I’d done – many passengers buy a through ticket with their rail ticket.
The new DART fare will be £4.90 single which has been slated in the media as a rip off.
But in the context of your overall journey from home – via train or coach – to the airport – and via aeroplane – to your holiday destination – will passengers mind paying it? I doubt it. The travel experience is far superior than the bus offered and when you hear how many people DART employs – Linsey was describing to me all the roles including a significant number of engineers (looking after the “gubbins”) and ‘ground staff’ (looking after all those gatelines) and all working shifts too it all adds up to 70 or more to say nothing of that £290 million capital cost that has to be recouped, you realise that a fiver might not be so unreasonable.
It was noticeable how once the first footers had taken their inaugural rides yesterday afternoon many passengers jetting off on holiday were trying out the new arrangements and seemed very pleased with the result.
Mind you, they had paid the £2.40 introductory fare.
To highlight the new improved connectivity between central London and the airport, East Midlands Railways have branded their half hourly service to Corby as the Luton Airport Express. It does the Luton Airport Parkway non stop journey to St Pancras in 22 minutes which with a slick shuttle connection means the airport terminal building is within half an hour of London.
Watch out Gatwick – you’ve got a rival.
Blogging timetable: TThS with very occasional extra Sunday specials including tomorrow …. on my favourite subject … DRT.
We were probably on the same shuttle Roger. It is impressive and a complete change from the Luton Airport I used in the mid sixties to fly out to Italy on a Clarksons holiday. In those days it was a case of a BR DMU to Luton station and a United Counties 31 bus. The terminal building in those days was little more than a large shed.
Given the whole thing is highly automated 70 plus staff sound a bit excessive. Once it is bedded in they may find they do not need as many
I did take part in the test and I believe they never actually did test the machines, they gave us tickets at each end instead.
Good to see this new Luton airport connection is finally in operation after many delays and cost over runs (shades of HS2!). I understand that the ticket cost is the highest in the world for the length of journey. Ouch!
It will certainly make Luton airport more attractive to people in that part of London and the Home counties. Far easier to get to then Stanstead Heathrow or Gatwick and a lot quicker
IT may have an adverse impact on Mega Bus, National Express and Greenline Journeys to the airport and the Shuttle bus will be phased out in a few weeks time
Most people I would assume will buy a through ticket to the Airport rather than pay for the Dart journey separately
EMR seem to have done a good job and already rebranded their Web site,. It shows you can buy a through ticket to the Airport for £10. You have to make sure you put in Luton Airport rather than Luton though
Greenline 757 is £11.50
If you want to get to the airport reliably and quickly the train seems to be a better option
I note the ticket machines are “Card payment only”.
Is there a ticket office at each end, to take cash payments?
For those with a concessionary bus pass, free travel is available, by registering for it on their web site.
I’m surprised there are gatelines at both termini. Costs could have been reduced by just having them at one end of the route.
Does not seem to really make sense to offer Free concessionary travel on it
That link doesn’t make clear whether it is just *English* concessionary pass holders, or a wider “audience”?
Concessionary passes are only valid in the country they are issued . So English passes only
The Guardian article says “pensioners go free”. How does that work?
By registering on the website as explained by Paul H at 10:51. Once registration is accepted, you download an e-ticket to present at the gates on the day of travel.
Thanks – I hadn’t seen that before asking the question. Strictly it’s concessionary bus pass holders, not pensioners – though there’s a fair degree of overlap. Oddly DART want an upload of the bus pass rather than the serial number, but this may be to make it similar to the procedure for Luton residents.
It looks and sounds a bit like the Pisa airport shuttle, which starts from the far platform at Pisa station. That cost €2.70 in March 2019.
More tax payers money wasted on a vanity project that only really benefits London.
Luton council should be spending money on their residents and those who need it, rather than their money pit in the airport!
I think this is more of an investment by Luton Council. They make money out of the airport (pandemic years excluded), and if this brings in more passengers, that means more profit for the council = more money to spend on residents.
And at £4.90 a ride, I imagine even this will be making a profit pretty soon!
Another shocking waste of money, just like cross rail! No one living in Luton wants this
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What a faff to obtain concessionary travel each time,. And anyone without IT access and smartphones, mainly pensioners of course, will be automatically excluded. I hope this does not catch on with other operators. What was their reasoning?
Exactly what i was thinking. “If you can’t afford a smartphone then you don’t get free travel” seems a bit perverse.
Is the Gatwick link still free – between South Terminal/rail station and North Terminal? – they’ll be getting ideas …
I just had a read of your 1.4.2019 blog ‘I won’t let a software glitch beat me’ (DRT Luton airport to London). I wonder if you ever used the X11 from Gatwick to Sevenoaks and Maidstone? Excellent idea, though only 2-hourly, but completely un-publicised at Gatwick – not even which stop to wait at! No timetables up at Gatwick, though they were at the various stops en-route. Even Airport Information didn’t know where or when to catch the coach (though the service was funded by Gatwick!). Nat-Ex said ‘nothing to do with us’. Luckily, while I was wandering around the Gatwick N coach station the coach turned up. Friendly driver, on time (when he showed me the timetable), but – of course – I was the only passenger; no wonder it didn’t last long!
There is no mention of contactless through (oyster type) payments. Will these be any cheaper? Currently one can use method of payment from a Thameslink station to Luton airport which works out cheaper than getting a rail through ticket.
It would be helpful if the rail departures board makes it easy for visitors to instantly identify the southbound destinations via Central London as many may not know where Rainham, Three Bridges and Corby are.
“Will travelers mind paying” £4.90 for a 4 minute trip?
Of course we mind. But given that the bus will be withdrawn, what choice do we have? You seem to confuse our captive resignation with your fetishistic enthusiasm.
Tried to use the Luton DART service today after purchasing an eTicket two days ago. No warning about today’s strike affecting the DART link. No service! No refund. Unable to use my DART ticket on the bus link from Luton Parkway to the airport. Thameslink trains and EMR seem to be running a fairly good service though.
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Pity the shuttle doesn’t go into the actual airport terminal, or at least with a covered walkway like at LGW. That bit outside at the bus stances is also a wall of tobacco smoke. Also how often will both shuttles be in use? – LGW seems to only ever have one running at a time, it’s a long 6 minute wait if you’re unlucky!