Architecture: Trains, planes and traffic jams

The new Heathrow Express rail link proves breathtakingly quick - but traffic to the train is as slow as ever.
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IF IT wasn't for the washlines and West London semis whizzing past, you'd think you were on a plane. The new Heathrow Express rail link service from from Paddington to Heathrow Central, which opens officially on 23 June, is so fast that it gets into Terminals 1, 2 and 3 in just under 15 minutes, with another five to Terminal 4. The bad news is that getting into, or out of, Paddington from the centre of London still takes at least half an hour, by cab or underground. And that's just the start of your journey.

British Airports Authority's called in corporate designers Wolff Olins to advise them and build lifesize sections of the train and the station at Heathrow to make sure it was seamless. The project has cost them pounds 450 million.

Meanwhile, Railtrack began a pounds 60 million restoration programme at Paddington with architect Nicholas Grimshaw, to make their beautiful Brunel station fit for 21st century travel. Though no-one will admit it, BAA and Railtrack are pulling in different directions, as one look at their stations and rolling stock shows. Stepping off the train at Heathrow Central is like going into a laboratory. There is the milky whiteness of back lit glass, and concrete cladding in great curves along the tunnel walls. Rob Wood, the architect Wolff Olins head hunted from the Jubilee Line team, has turned an old tunnel into a cathedral-like space to lift passengers up into the terminals as though taking off into space via escalators and lifts. No atrium on the top, however, but foundations for a seven storey hotel instead.

Rail Track has faced the challenge of turning Brunel's engineering masterpiece into a functional station for the 21st century. Increased passenger volume and high speed trains both above and below ground need more than a glorious shed. Nicholas Grimshaw, who is good at balancing the historic old with the new, has designed a mezzanine at the back of the station to house more shops and restaurants. A glass partition creates a new waiting area without too much architectural interruption. Meanwhile, everything has changed places, from WH Smith to the ticket office, and Paddington swarms with confused commuters.

When Tony Blair swooshes there on 23 June from Heathrow, he should take the nearest underground to Downing Street from Paddington to experience coming down to earth. The express aims to carry 17,000 passengers a day, or six million a year, and reckons to take 3,000 cars off the roads around Heathrow. So expect a lot of road rage around Paddington.

Test Ride

FOR THE fortnight before the opening on 23 June, you can take the Heathrow Express for half price - pounds 10 return instead of pounds 20. So I took the trip:

7.30 Catch a black cab to Paddington. A Private Eye bore of a cab driver ear bashes me on Westminster Council moving the taxi rank which causes long queues because they can't turn right out of the station. "At this hour, it'll take you 30 minutes" he says.

7.57 Arrive at Paddington station pounds 7 lighter. The place is a tip. Six check-in counters for the Heathrow Express are bright and shining, with Pepsodent smiles from staff. Trains run daily from 5.10 am until 11.40.

7.59 I ask if I can check in my bag now rather than at the airport but, unbelievably, they have no baggage handling facilities, so only passengers with hand luggage can check in at Paddington. Railtrack have built a baggage tunnel underneath the Heathrow Express platforms but it won't open until the end of next year.

8.03 At least the train is good news. Made in Spain by CAM with Siemens, its wrap-around glass and snub nosed front is more Noddy than Flipper. "The more nose you have, the more passengers you lose."says Dutchman Siep Wijsenbeek from designers Design Triangle in Newmarket. Like a very good Brie.

8.05 Stepping inside the train is like going aboard a plane: airliner shaped seats in pairs;. flat-fronted wall mounted TVs. Nothing is hidden. Even the doors between coaches are glass. But the designers get airmiles for taking out great blocks of seats in some carriages for wheelchairs.

8.07 The train doors silently close and it just flies out of the station.

8.20 The train divides with three coaches stopping at Heathrow Central for terminals 1, 2 and 3 and the front coach rolling on to Terminal 4. Stepping out into Heathrow Central is like walking inside a milk carton. The glass ceramic tiles can be removed for cleaning graffiti. On either side of the lift shaft are perforated metal screens back lit and from the front to make a theatrical veil. "Its a great gateway in to Heathrow, let down a bit by Paddington," says Kevin Murray, a town planning consultant from Glasgow. But he thinks Stansted is a good alternative because the planes land on time. "What you make up for in time on the ground here, you lose in the air in a stacking pattern over Heathrow."

8. 35 At the gate of the International Departure lounge. Just 28 minutes from Central London to a passport control. It takes me an hour from Camden to Canary Wharf to get to work at The Independent.