Simon Calder: Famous for 15 minutes - and punitive fares
The man who pays his way
Saturday 24 October 2009
Twenty-three pounds: the reward for four hours' work at the National Minimum Wage, and this week worth a measly $35 – just enough to elevate you from street level on New York's Fifth Avenue to the 102nd-floor Observatory of the Empire State Building, a vertical distance of nearly a quarter of a mile to the top of Manhattan's tallest building. From here you can peer down on the world as distilled into a jagged, overcrowded and astonishing island. Or, from Monday, 2 November, you could spend the same amount on a 15-minute British train ride: by a country mile the most expensive rail trip per mile in the world, and just about to get even pricier.
The culprit is the Heathrow Express, which runs between Paddington station in London and Britain's biggest airport, with the slogan "famous for 15 minutes". Evidently the precious commodities of time and convenience have held their value, which is presumably why the train company thinks it can get away with an increase of nearly 20 per cent in the price of a "walk-on" ticket, from £19.50 to £23. True, this includes a £5 premium for buying on the train, rather than from a machine or the ticket office, but the Gatwick Express manages to charge the same fare regardless of when and how you pay for the journey. The £23 tariff on the Heathrow Express looks more like a fine than a fare.
"I've travelled a lot on the likes of Arlanda Express in Stockholm," says Oliver Gilbert from Cambridge, "and it's not a fraction of this cost." To be fair, the standard price on Sweden's premier airport link is £21 each way, though this includes travelling at up to 125mph, on a 25-mile journey. Mr Gilbert wants to know "Why is the Heathrow Express so expensive? Who regulates the service?"
The high fare reflects the lack of appealing alternatives. The last two occasions on which I have hailed a black cab from central London to Heathrow have not been great successes; one was a "distress purchase" because the £30 minicab I had booked failed to show up, and I ended up paying twice as much; and on the other journey the taxi driver got lost, which is quite a feat when you are on the M4 heading west from Chiswick.
And who regulates the Heathrow Express prices? Nobody. Because the section from the Great Western line to Heathrow was built by BAA in the good old days when half a billion pounds was small change, it is beyond the scope of the rail regulators. One short-term solution is available: judge how many Heathrow Express trips you are likely to make, and buy a stock of "e-tickets" now; they are valid for up to six months. Or just allow a bit more time, and take the Tube.
The Piccadilly Line gets you from central London to Heathrow, on a good day, in under an hour, for £4 (increasing in January to £4.50). But today and tomorrow, as with what seems like every weekend, five Tube lines are partially closed – including the Piccadilly to the airport. The good news is that you can travel on the Heathrow Express instead, waving a £4 Underground ticket. So, if you are going to or from the airport this weekend, you can try out the fast train for less than a quarter of the normal fare.
ppp Other extremely expensive rail links to airports are available: the Oslo Airport Express has a one-way fare, at present exchange rates, of £23, but that is for twice the distance – and you can get a £3 discount by using a ticket machine rather than the booking office. Or try turning up in fatigues: soldiers travel at half price. Back in New York, this is also the best strategy at the Empire State Building: "Military personnel are admitted free when in full uniform".
Sleep your way to (or from) Scotland
While the Heathrow Express is the priciest train operator in Britain, the most generous is arguably First ScotRail. The best long-term deal in the business is on the Caledonian Sleeper services that link London Euston with Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Fort William and Glasgow. For a Bargain Berth (details available at bit.ly/scotrain ) you pay a maximum of £49, about the price of a night in a budget hotel. Book well in advance, and as well as a decent sleep, plus a breakfast of sorts, you get transported 400 miles or more, and are guaranteed to wake up somewhere wonderful. You can't say that about the Heathrow Express. Single travellers are expected to share a cabin with someone of the same gender. Test bookings over the next three months show the most common fare is £39, though you might get lucky and find something at the lowest fare of £19. Or you could put that towards a ticket on the Heathrow Express.
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