I wrote earlier this autumn about Seattle’s fairly new light rail system. At the other end of the spectrum in airport rail-based mass transit is the Heathrow Express. Whereas Seattle’s service is highly subsidized, and also used for local transit, the Heathrow Express (HEX) is a for-profit rail connection which operates non-stop to London’s CBD from Heathrow Airport (IATA: LHR).
HEX trains run every 15 minutes in each direction, and reservations are not required.
Access to the HEX is designed entirely around travelers’ needs. Entry to the HEX is conveniently at each terminal at LHR. Entry to the train is entirely indoors; there is no need to go outside. You can use either an escalator or lift (elevator) to get to the trains. The entry to the HEX from T5 is within steps of the BA Arrivals Lounge.
HEX Entry at T5
There is a joint train station for Terminals 1, 2 and 3, and then separate train terminals for Terminals 4 and 5. Passengers arriving or departing T4 (principally the Sky Team terminal) need to change trains at the station for T1/2/3. Passengers arriving or departing from T5 (BA’s terminal) will stop at T1/2/3, but won’t need to change trains.
Tickets should be bought before boarding the train. There are ticket booths and electronic ticket vending machines at each station. You can also buy tickets online or via your mobile device – via text message or an app (Blackberry, iPhone or Android). You can also buy tickets onboard, though there is a surcharge. (Virtual tickets need to be bought 15 minutes before the train departs – so you can’t beat the fare surcharge by buying online during the train ride itself.)
The train offers two classes of service, First and Express. First Class is configured in a 2+1 layout, Express Class in a 2+2 layout. There are usually two First class cars on each train – one in the middle and one at the head end (when heading to Paddington). First Class is much more spacious, and I’ve often been the only one in the car. Express Class is often pretty full. If you need to have a private conversation on the phone, you might consider the small upcharge for First Class.
In both classes, some seats are lined up facing the same direction, and there are a few sets of seats facing each other, with a table in between. These seats with tables are nice for working.
First Class Car
If you travel in Express Class, there are incentives to buy prior to boarding. Online is £16.50, at the station (from a person or using a vending machine) is £18.00, and onboard is £23. There is no incentive for pre-purchasing if you plan to travel in First Class, as the fare is £26, regardless of when you buy your ticket (including on-board).
If you are running late and can only buy onboard, the increment from Express Class to First Class is only £3. There are also slight discounts for round-trip purchases. Child fares, for little ones 5 through 15, are 50% of the otherwise prevailing fare, including discounted round-trip fares. Children under 5 are free. (These fares compare unfavorably to the $2.75 for the Seattle train.)
The ride from T1/2/3 is about 15 minutes, and it is a few extra minutes to go onward to T4 or T5.
You will arrive on either Platform 6 or 7 at Paddington Station, which are exclusively used by HEX. From there, you can pick up a taxi or get on the tube. Beware, however, if you arrive between 7 and 9 AM on a weekday, the queue at the cab rank could be significant. I’ve waited over half an hour to get a taxi at these peak hours. If you arrive after 9:30, you’ll generally find the queue to be manageable.
Getting to the tube from the HEX platforms requires going up and down stairs – in general, if you have large or abundant luggage, you probably will find the tube inconvenient. If you have a single roller suitcase, you’ll be fine. Something that you cannot easily lift, however, will be a problem.
Attached to Paddington is a Hilton hotel. This is a convenient spot to meet people, if you need to arrange to meet someone. While not overly fancy (or even fancy at all), there are suitable spots for breakfast or a coffee.
Sometimes I arrange for a driver to meet me at Paddington, if the tube won’t be convenient and I know there will be a long queue for taxis. I usually have the driver meet me in the Hilton Lobby.
Returning to Heathrow is also very easy. Tickets are available at the end of Platforms 6 and 7, or at kiosks located throughout the platform.
Free Wifi is available throughout the trains – even in the tunnels. I have found the connection to be fairly fast.
On board, there are luggage racks near the doors. There are also several quiet-cars, clearly marked with a “Q,” where mobile phones aren’t allowed and talking anything other than very quietly is frowned upon. Magazines and newspapers are provided onboard, free of charge, in both First and Express Classes.
Unlike Seattle’s rail connection, which is operated by a governmental authority, Heathrow Express is operated by BAA, the private company (not affiliated with BA) that operates Heathrow and several other airports in the UK. BAA is profitable entity and is owned by a number of private equity firms.
There is also a traditional Underground (subway) rail option to go from Heathrow to the CBD. I understand this costs less – though is not inexpensive – and has a number of stops.
If you are arriving at Heathrow and need to get to central London, the Heathrow Express should be part of your travel plans.
(Rolling stock photo courtesy of Wikipedia)