A railway to your airport – ally or enemy?

Posted: 11 September 2006 | Andrew Sharp, Director General, International Air Rail Organisation | No comments yet

That question is already answered in most of Europe but it is still the subject of debate in North America, where rail transport is regarded as too expensive, detrimental to parking revenues and surplus to demand. The advantages, counters Andrew Sharp, outweigh the disadvantages.

That question is already answered in most of Europe but it is still the subject of debate in North America, where rail transport is regarded as too expensive, detrimental to parking revenues and surplus to demand. The advantages, counters Andrew Sharp, outweigh the disadvantages.

It was disappointing to see that recent proposals for a new airport in the US, some 50 km from its city, dismissed rail as a means of access. Evaluations only looked at light rail and commuter rail options and concluded, on the basis of North American experience, that no-one would use them. In fact, neither of those options was suitable for that kind of traffic, that kind of distance; the low use of rail to access airports in North America is mainly a result of the provision of multi-stop, low-quality suburban or metro services. There are far better ways of serving airports by rail, which would really work in that particular location. Unfortunately, these were not evaluated: it is being designed for 100% road access and 100% road access is what they’ll get.

So, it is important to recognise that there are different types of airport railway and they can do a range of different jobs.

Light rail is easiest to fit into existing infrastructure – it can cope with tight curves and steep gradients, as can be seen in Portland (Oregon). It is particularly good for employee transport – and around a third of all airport access trips are by employees. For each million passengers through an airport each year, there are usually around 1000 airport-based employees. They make around 10 trips a week, 50 weeks a year – that’s half a million employee trips for each million air passenger journeys.

The reputation of an airport depends, to a degree, on people who are relatively low paid – cleaners, retail and catering staff, baggage handlers – and they need an alternative to the expense of motoring and especially the high, up-front cost of acquiring, licensing and insuring a car in the first place. Employees who drive tend to have low car occupancy and are very reluctant to pay for parking, so they impose loads on local roads and parking facilities without helping to fund a solution.

Suburban, metro and commuter rail systems serving airports are also valuable for employees, particularly because of their in-town distribution network and fare structure. When used by air passengers, they can be the source of conflict, which may need to be managed. The conflict is between the commuter, travelling daily, knowing exactly where they are going and carrying little more than a briefcase, and the air passenger, travelling infrequently, not knowing the route or where the stations are – or indeed trivial details like how to open the door – and with a lot of luggage. Air passengers will bring bags and will need somewhere to put them; if no luggage space is provided, the bags will go on or between the seats or in the vestibules or aisles, to the annoyance of other passengers. There are solutions to these problems, they just need to be recognised and adopted.

Regional rail services to airports are valuable in terms of increasing the catchment area of the airport and its airlines. Rail has a high mode share of air passengers travelling from Leeds and York to Manchester airport – a higher share than from Manchester itself. The rail service to Geneva and Zürich airports is totally integrated with the airport, including off-airport check-in at most staffed Swiss train stations.

Continental Airlines uses Amtrak’s North-East Corridor trains from Newark Liberty International Airport station to serve places like New Haven and Stamford (Connecticut) by code-share – and these are places they have never flown to. A similar code-share to Philadelphia allowed them to withdraw the seven return flights between Newark and Philadelphia, releasing 14 slots at each airport for more valuable use than a 130-km shuttle using Embraer regional jets.

Leipzig-Halle airport uses its regional train service as a weapon in its fight for traffic with the nearby airports of Hanover and Berlin. Equidistant between the three is the city of Magdeburg, with an hourly train service to Leipzig-Halle. The airport authority has facilitated check-in at the Travel Centre of Magdeburg station each evening between 18:00 and 21:00 for people flying out next day at a cost of ?10 for each adult. People use it, like it and say that it has a real influence on their choice of airport. Why? If you check-in at the airport, you have to be there 2 hours before the flight: if you’ve checked-in at the station the night before, it’s one hour. A lot of passengers are on leisure trips, sometimes departing at anti-social hours, and the extra hour and the hands-free travel is valuable.

An airport station on the national or international high speed network is even more valuable for expanding the catchment area and offers even more potential for code-sharing. There are good examples at Frankfurt, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Amsterdam.

In 1998, Frankfurt airport (Fraport), German Rail (DB) and Lufthansa entered into a Strategy of Cooperation to enhance intermodality at Frankfurt airport. This included integrated air-rail ticketing and through baggage check initially between Frankfurt and Saarbrucken, but now between Frankfurt and both Stuttgart and Cologne (Köln). Passengers travelling between New York and Köln, for example, fly to Frankfurt, where they change from plane to a Lufthansa reserved car on the train. Their bags are transferred by airport staff to a special, sealed compartment on the same train, to be picked up by the passenger at Köln station (where they have to be taken through German Customs).

All three stakeholders recognised that there would be costs and benefits to each of them. In a courageous and far-sighted decision, they agreed that it would be too difficult to calculate what legitimately fell to each of them, so split all of the costs three ways. The main element of cost was the baggage handling system at Frankfurt airport, which had to be extended to serve the high speed train station.

The system at Paris Charles de Gaulle is more wide-ranging but less comprehensive. About a dozen airlines code-share with French Railways (SNCF) to about a dozen destinations in France; not all code-share to all of the possible destinations for commercial and competitive reasons.

Air France withdrew all of its Paris – Brussels flights in March 2000 in favour of a code-share with Thalys, the international high speed train operator. They had found that all of the city-to-city traffic was using the train anyway, so their flights were only carrying interlining passengers. This, of course, is an uneconomic operation because the high costs of landing and take-off have to be spread over relatively few passenger kilometres. The code-share covers travel between Brussels Midi station and Paris Charles de Gaulle airport station, where passengers can interline between train and plane. Air France are reluctant to admit that their passengers actually prefer the train – they leave from central Brussels, they get more leg-room, better on-train service, better views and shorter check-in.

The final type of passenger rail service to airports is the Airport Express, a dedicated, high speed, limited stop or non-stop service between airport and city. There are around 14 of these around the world and they are an excellent welcome to the city and the country.

Airport Express Oslo carries 32% – 42% of the airport’s terminating passengers (the higher percentage is in winter, when people are reluctant to use the roads).

About half of the outbound passengers on Airport Express Hong Kong have checked in at one of the two downtown stations.

BAA, the then owner of Heathrow airport, financed Heathrow Express and has found it a worth-while investment. It helps to make the case for planning permission for expansion; it shows that the airport has a real interest in promoting sustainable transport to and from the airport. It has also been consistently profitable at operating cost level; it has made a profit since its first full year of operation.

Heathrow Express was used recently by the UK government as a test-bed for a security system for public transport. For six weeks, airport-style screening equipment was in use on the Heathrow Express platforms at Paddington and passengers were randomly selected for checks. Because the trials were successful, the equipment is now being used on other parts of the rail network, where, it is understood, its main value is in separating young people from dangerous knives!

More generally, passengers arriving at an airport by public transport pose less of a security threat than those arriving by other means. This allows security staff to concentrate on real threats. For one thing, the physical amounts of explosives they can carry are much less. For another, they are under far more surveillance on the public transport system as they buy tickets and travel.

On those systems where in-town check-in is possible, baggage screening facilities see fewer peaks – bags arrive early as some passengers check-in for evening flights when they leave their hotels in the morning. The passengers are happy because they have the day hands-free, while the airport has more time to screen the baggage.

One objection sometimes raised is that, if passengers use public transport, car parking revenues will be damaged. This may be true, but you can earn more from retail and commercial operations than from car parking, as many airports world-wide have demonstrated.

Trains can bring cargo to airports too.

Most airports have major development plans: building materials and demolition debris is heavy, bulky and low-value and ideal for transport by rail.

Aviation fuel can be brought in by rail far more safely than by road. For medium-sized airports, volumes are such that rail (with relatively low fixed and variable costs and relatively high flexibility) is more economic and cost-effective than either road (low fixed cost, high variable cost, high flexibility) or pipeline (high fixed cost, low variable cost, no flexibility).

Air cargo is more difficult, but much short-haul air cargo actually never leaves the ground. Rail can be an efficient alternative to the truck and this is about to be tried at one major cargo airport in Europe.

People sometimes ask what the minimum size an airport has to be to justify a train service. There isn’t an easy answer – it depends on geography. How easy is it to connect the airport to the rail system – by a spur, a loop, an automated people mover or a bus shuttle?

I hope that this article has demonstrated to you that airports and railways can be valuable allies. If you have a rail connection, you need to consider how best to use it to your commercial advantage and if you have not, you need to see how you can get one. My organisation is poised to help!

Andrew Sharp

Andrew Sharp has over 30 years experience in the transportation industry – mainly the rail industry in the UK. He is currently Director-General of the International Air Rail Organisation, a world-wide group of organisations across the air and rail industry with an interest in rail links to airports. He has undertaken consultancy work for a number of companies interested in airport rail connections, and has also been retained by Heathrow Express as a consultant.

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