Business Travel: The Heathrow Express will be along next year. But for now ...

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The Independent Online
Getting from Britain's biggest city to Europe's busiest airport has never been easy. From June, the Heathrow Express should simplify matters. In the meantime, says Simon Calder, the competitors for least- bad way to Heathrow are many and various.

So you think you know your airport codes, from ABZ (Aberdeen) via LHR (Heathrow) to ZAG (Zagreb)? OK, then, identify QQP.

The trick in this question is that QQP is not an airport at all, but a railway station - Paddington, London W2, to be precise. But from next June, the code will begin to appear on air tickets. The shortest "flight" possible from Heathrow airport should be the 15-minute connection to central London. Within a year of the start-up, through check-in of baggage will be a reality, and QQP to YYZ (Paddington to Toronto) should be a cinch.

The Heathrow Express link is basically a case of Britain's biggest airport catching up with the rest of the Europe. From Gatwick and Manchester to Frankfurt and Zurich, high-speed rail links are de rigueur for any self- respecting airport.

Heathrow's owner, BAA, has set itself the ambitious task of 50 per cent of passengers arriving at the airport by public transport.

Starting next summer, trains will run from Paddington station to the airport four times an hour from dawn until late. The trip to the central area (Terminals One, Two and Three) should take a flat 15 minutes, with Terminal Four five minutes further on. If your airline has not included QQP on your itinerary, you can pay for the trip on board - or pay in several currencies, including the euro, at ticket machines.

The Heathrow Express was due for completion this year, but because of tunnelling problems at the airport it is not now planned to open until June 1998. A stop-gap scheme is expected to be introduced before the end of the year: the Heathrow Fast Train. This will involve a train from Paddington to a new station, Heathrow Junction, and a bus from there to the terminals. The scheduled journey time is 30 minutes, and the fare will be pounds 5. When the Heathrow Express finally begins, the trip length should be halved and the fare will probably double.

In the meantime, all the other options have been considered for the most comprehensive survey so far of airport links. I have spent the year sampling alternative ways to cover the 15 miles from the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo to Heathrow. To maintain a level runway, I set a rule to avoid peak travel times. Stress factors are rated out of a maximum 10.

It hasn't been fun, it hasn't been clever, but it has been instructive.

Airbus

What could be better than being picked up right outside the airport terminal by a big red bus? Answer: being picked up right outside the airport terminal by a big red bus that goes straight to London, rather than cruising around the rest of the airport first.

Airbus A1 is an extra-luxurious double-decker that collects passengers from outside the arrivals hall and deposits them at Victoria station. Unfortunately, if you board at Terminal Two then you will see a lot of Heathrow - including a little-known coach station around the back of Terminal Three - before passing Terminal Two about 15 minutes after you left it.

Once on the motorway, though, you can expect a smooth, fast trip into London. To reach Waterloo, you will need to jump into a cab.

Fare: pounds 6 bus fare plus pounds 4 cab fare. Time: 60 minutes. Stress factor: 5.

Taxi

Whether you start at Waterloo or Heathrow, you can expect a queue. But a cab is a reliable, if expensive, link.

Fare: pounds 38 including a 10 per cent tip. Time: 40 minutes. Stress factor: 2.

Thames Trains

Take the Bakerloo Line northbound from Waterloo to discover the existing fast(-ish) link from Paddington station. Hop on a "Thames Turbo" to Hayes & Harlington, step up from the station and climb aboard the bus to Heathrow Central. This journey sounds messy, but if the connections work it can be swifter than the Tube.

Fare: pounds 5.10. Time: 60 minutes (though if you just miss the train or the bus it could be a quarter-hour longer). Stress factor: 3 (though this could double if the connections falter).

South West Trains

If your destination is Terminal Four and you are travelling light, this is the ideal link. A train from Waterloo to Feltham takes less than 30 minutes, and the airport is a half-hour hike from there. I felt more relaxed arriving by this route than by any other.

Fare: pounds 3.20. Time: 60 minutes. Stress factor: 1.

Bicycle

Cycling from Waterloo station to Heathrow airport, you head more or less due west. This happens to be counter to the prevailing winds. But a bike removes all potential problems with public transport and traffic congestion. All goes fine until the last half-mile, which is through the tunnel beneath the northern runway. Until three years ago, this was a dedicated cycle/pedestrian route; then it was opened up to cars, which chase the unfortunate cyclist - as in the film Duel - through the tunnel.

Fare: nil. Time: 80 minutes. Stress factor: 1 until the tunnel, then 9.

Hitch-hiking

This has genuinely been a quest to cover all the options. Starting to thumb from outside Waterloo station is not a sensible prospect. So I took the tube to Turnham Green, walked down to Chiswick High Road and out to the start of the M4. Even with a sign reading "Heathrow Please - flight at 10.45", it took three lifts to reach the airport. Not recommended, except as a bet.

Fare: pounds 1.80. Time: 120 minutes. Stress factor: 7.

Night bus

The cheapest public transport option is also the smoothest - once you have dragged yourself out of bed. Start walking across Hungerford Bridge at around 4.15am. The 4.35am departure of bus N97 from Trafalgar Square, with its curious cargo of clubbers, cleaners and airport personnel, trundles around west London before winding up at Heathrow's central bus station.

Fare: pounds 1.20. Time: 90 minutes. Stress factor: 8 upon waking up; 1 for the journey itself.

Stretched limousine

After an overnight flight from San Francisco, I couldn't quite figure out what my friends Harriet and Jonathan were doing turning up at dawn at Heathrow. When the 40-ft limousine turned up at the kerbside, and half-a-dozen other pals popped out, I realised this was not your ordinary airport transfer. The Moet was first to be cracked open, followed shortly by a particularly robust Stolichnaya. What better way to end a honeymoon?

Fare: too polite to ask. Time: who cares. Stress factor: nil, though it is surprising the gestures one gets from less well-endowed road users.

Tube

It had to happen. For each of the above experiments, I allowed plenty of time to catch the flight. For what should have been the easiest of the lot, I trusted in the schedules.

The task was simple: my flight was just before noon, so I had to arrive at Heathrow at 11.10am. Leaving Waterloo at 10am would, I was assured, provide plenty of time.

It was all going remarkably well until just past Earl's Court, when the train began to stop between stations for no apparent reason. At Acton Town, the Piccadilly Line equivalent of purgatory, it paused for 15 minutes while two other trains came and went; nobody told we poor passengers that crossing the platform might enhance our chances of catching our flights.

Eventually the train arrived at 11.30am. When the doors slid open, the scene resembled an Olympic sprint final as everyone rushed for their flight. In the race to Terminal One, I trailed in a poor third behind a sprightly Aer Lingus stewardess and a red-faced German businessman.

The flight had already closed.

With competitors like the Piccadilly Line, the Heathrow Express need have no fear about its chances of success.

Fare: pounds 3.20. Time: 90 minutes. Stress factor: 10.

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