Gatwick Express: the missing link?

So many trains depart from Gatwick to London that an expensive and confusing express service is no longer required  

Record breaker: the launch of the UK’s first dedicated air-rail link in 1984
Record breaker: the launch of the UK’s first dedicated air-rail link in 1984

One of Britain’s most recognised train services disappeared more than six months ago – and hardly anyone noticed.

The Gatwick Express was suspended on the last day of March. It was a wise decision: hardly any passengers were using the Sussex airport, and running a dedicated nonstop train between central London and Gatwick was pointless.

The heavily branded bright red rolling stock continues to trundle around southeast England, and last month I was able to take brief advantage of its impressively good wifi on a short hop along the south coast from Bexhill to Hastings.

Gatwick developed precisely because of the London-Brighton main line. The original 1936 “Beehive” terminal (which you can still glimpse from trains south of the modern airport) was built with its very own tunnel to the old Gatwick station.

But until the Gatwick Express was launched in 1984, the link to London was literally clunky. Four carriages would be waiting on platform 2 for the four-coach train from Bognor Regis to pull in behind it, whereupon station staff would connect the two and the combo would rumble off to Redhill, East Croydon, Clapham Junction and Victoria.

A rail revolution was a rare thing in the 1980s, but the Gatwick Express transformed access to the airport. No longer need anyone with a plane to catch fret about timetables: four times an hour – at 00, 15, 30 and 45 minutes past – a nonstop train would leave Victoria station and be scheduled to arrive half-an-hour later.

It became a premium product and soon achieved a premium price, with a fare of almost £20 one way for a journey of 27 miles. But as rail passenger numbers increased, so did pressure on “paths” – the train equivalent of slots – on the main line to the coast.

By the time the Gatwick Express was suspended, its previous clockface service had ended, and half the trains were, in fact, a London-Brighton service that paused at the airport station.

Steve MacCallaugh, general manager of the Gatwick Express, assures me that the nonstop link will return as soon as the airline passengers do.

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“We will be bringing back the service but with such low numbers coming through the airport the 14 Southern and Thameslink trains every hour into London are more than sufficient to meet demand at the moment. 

“We are in contact with the airport every week, tracking passenger numbers; meanwhile, we’re able to use our Gatwick Express people and trains to assist our customers on Southern.”

Since Gatwick airport this week announced it will introduce a £5 drop-off fee, the need for a dedicated rail link is greater than ever.

Or is it?

In fact, there are so many trains from Gatwick to London that I believe the age of the Express is over. The line north from the airport has trains departing every few minutes. Once a link achieves a “metro”-level frequency like this, there is no need for a special (ie expensive, and potentially confusing) option.

Instead, passengers just need to know that Southern goes to London Victoria and Thameslink goes to London Bridge, Blackfriars and right through the heart of the capital to St Pancras.

Indeed, for the vast majority of airline passengers, Thameslink is the better service, offering direct links with no need to lug bags onto the Tube. Once Crossrail is finally running through the centre, the Farringdon intersection will open up dozens more destinations with a single change of trains.

Thanks to the prescience of 1930s airport planners, Gatwick is way ahead of airports elsewhere in the UK, and much of the world, in its rail connections to the city it serves.

The Gatwick Express has evidently not yet reached the end of the line, but I will not be surprised when it does.

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