diamond geezer

 Friday, May 03, 2019

Only the rich, the rushed or the under-informed take the Heathrow Express.

Time to
Zone 1
Heathrow Express£25£2215 mins
TfL Rail (Crossrail)£10.20£10.1030 mins
Piccadilly line£5.10£3.1040 mins

Not surprisingly a battle's on to take your money, and contactless has stepped this up a gear.

Previously whether you took Heathrow Express or TfL Rail, you made your decision before you reached the platform. You bought your £20-something or £10-ish ticket, headed through the barriers and boarded your train, so the battleground was the point of sale. But since February anyone travelling from Heathrow on a card, not a ticket, doesn't need to make their decision until they're down on the platform, and that can be an expensive choice.

A quick note on the infrastructure before we continue.

At each of Heathrow's terminals, the tube station and the Heathrow Express station are entirely separate. TfL Rail trains run from the Heathrow Express stations. Currently TfL Rail trains only run from Terminal 4 and Terminals 2&3, but Crossrail will run from Terminal 5 too. Heathrow Express trains run every 15 minutes from Terminal 5 to Terminals 2&3, then non-stop to Paddington. TfL Rail trains run every 30 minutes from Terminal 4 to Terminals 2&3, then stop five times on the way to Paddington. Additional shuttles run between Terminal 4 and Terminals 2&3 in the gaps. Travel between terminals at Heathrow is free.

The management of Heathrow Express would definitely prefer you to buy a ticket, and lock in your choice, rather than wandering down to the platform using Oyster or contactless. Sales kiosks and ticket machines are everywhere, whereas mention of the new card trick is minimal.

• At Terminal 5, pictured, a bank of ticket machines has a prominent position in the Arrivals hall. Signage gives equal prominence to TfL Rail and Heathrow Express. The tube map posted up nearby hasn't been updated since January 2016, so doesn't show the TfL Rail link to Paddington.
• At Terminal 4, the ticket machines are supervised by a 'helpful' member of Heathrow Express staff.
• At Terminal 3, a Heathrow Express sales kiosk has been placed within the Arrivals funnel, immediately before the exit (where taxi drivers stand holding handwritten signs).
• At Terminal 2, a bank of ticket machines has a prominent position in the Arrivals hall and is staffed by several Heathrow Express staff. The machines once sold Heathrow Connect tickets, but do not sell TfL Rail tickets.

Terminals 2 and 3 are interesting because they're linked by a very long pedestrian passageway, with the Heathrow Express and tube stations positioned somewhere inbetween. Those walking from Terminal 3 get to the Heathrow Express station first, but those walking from Terminal 2 get to the tube station first. There's always a risk passengers will take the first train they reach, which perhaps explains why Terminal 2 is packed with Heathrow Express ticket machines and Terminal 3 isn't. Staff also attend kiosks outside the entrances to both stations. "Anyone else for the fast train to London?"

But what if you slip through the net and decide to use contactless? At the point of passing through the ticket barriers you could still be about to use either TfL Rail or Heathrow Express services, because payment won't be taken until the other end of your journey, and at Paddington the trains use different platforms with different barriers. It's therefore in Heathrow Express's interest to nudge you onto one of their trains if they possibly can.

During a typical hour at Heathrow Terminals 2&3, departures for Paddington run like this.
xx03  Heathrow Express
xx18  Heathrow Express
xx28  TfL Rail
xx33  Heathrow Express
xx48  Heathrow Express
xx58  TfL Rail
Most of the time the next train out is a Heathrow Express train, so staff don't need to worry. But for two ten-minute periods every hour the next train out is a TfL Rail train, and this presents a window of risk. I didn't hear anybody telling outright lies like Alastair did when he passed through, but I did observe an intriguing, and carefully choreographed, charade.

At the start of the ten minute 'danger period' the member of staff on the platform announced "The next train to arrive will be your TfL Rail stopping service". This was repeated several times until the stopping train arrived, accompanied by "This is not the Heathrow Express service" and "Heathrow Express passengers remain on the platform". Fair enough, if you've paid £12 extra you don't want to get on the wrong train. But anyone paying by contactless, especially anyone with a poor grasp of English, might well be encouraged to wait.

During the preceding ten minute period a pair of Heathrow Express staff also worked their way down the platform speaking to every group of passengers in turn. "Hello Sir, are you taking TfL Rail or the Heathrow Express service?" There's a good reason for asking, which is that TfL Rail trains stop at the far end of the platform so you might need to move down, but it's also a useful opportunity for staff to firm up travel choices. I said I was travelling by TfL Rail and was directed to Zone A. I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd said I was undecided.

No such routine is undertaken at Terminal 5, nor is it needed. No TfL Rail trains serve Terminal 5, only the Heathrow Express, so staff can generally rely on unfamiliar passengers staying aboard and not getting out at Terminals 2&3 to change to the cheaper service. Terminal 4 is the complete opposite, served only by TfL Rail and not by Heathrow Express. Every contactless passenger who gets off the shuttle at Terminals 2&3 and can be cajoled onto the Heathrow Express is a financial win.

I saw no evidence of direct nudging, and all the announcements I heard were scrupulously worded to ensure they provided useful information. But Alastair's experience on Tuesday evening was very different, indeed verging on the fraudulent, suggesting that not all the platform staff are as well behaved as those I observed. At best, the entire set-up is ripe for confusion.

Things can only get more cut-throat when Crossrail starts up properly and trains start running through central London, because only a fool would pay £12 extra for a service terminating at Paddington... but that's one to watch whenever it eventually happens.

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