For decades, passengers transferring between Luton airport and the nearest rail station have had to endure slow and unreliable bus services, which all too often become entangled with traffic approaching the Bedfordshire airport.
A promised Direct Air-Rail Transit (Dart) was due to open in 2021, connecting the terminal with Luton Airport Parkway rail station. But the Covid pandemic and other problems led to repeated delays with the project, while the cost ballooned and is now approaching £300m.
Some passengers will be finally able to benefit from the “automated people mover” from Friday 10 March – when the 1.3-mile cable-car system will open for public use between 2 and 7pm.
Officials hope the full system will be running by the end of March, which would enable it to meet demand from holidaymakers on Easter breaks.
Departures will be dependent on demand, but as frequent as every four minutes. In addition, the cramped and awkward interchange at Luton Airport Parkway will be replaced by a spacious new entrance hall and easier links to all four station platforms.
Councillor Javeria Hussain, who is Chair of Luton Rising, the council-owned airport enterprise, told The Independent Travel Podcast: “It is a world-class passenger experience. Please use it: it is an aviation game-changer. Sustainabiility is at its heart.”
The aim is to increase the proportion of Luton’s passengers who use public transport to reach the airport from 29 per cent to 40 per cent. The other major London airports – Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted – each have rail stations running direct to the terminals.
A newly branded Luton Airport Express train from London St Pancras will run nonstop every half-hour with a journey time of just 22 minutes.
Allowing time to pass through two ticket gates and reach the Dart platform, as well as waiting and travelling time on the shuttle and two minutes to walk to the departures area, the overall time from leaving central London to the security search entrance should be around 35 minutes.
Each shuttle was manufactured in Austria – home of the Doppelmayr Cable Car company, which built the system. Each can carry up to a maximum of 170 passengers, with seats for 34 and two disabled passenger bays.
The Dart journey involves a climb of 150 feet between the station and the airport, with the driverless shuttle running at speeds of up to 30mph. The journey time is just two minutes 39 seconds, compared with around 10 minutes for the bus.
But with a one-way trip costing £4.90, the ride is more than twice as expensive as the £2.40 fare for the existing bus shuttle.
During the “soft opening” in March, the price will be the same as for the bus.
East Midlands Railway, which will provide the Luton Airport Express service as part of its normal network from London via Luton to Bedford and Corby, says at least 25 per cent of Advance tickets between the capital and the airport will be sold at £10 one way or less – including the Dart portion of the journey.
The full “walk-up” fare is £22.40 one way, which is comparable with the express rail links serving Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted from central London.
Thameslink runs direct trains to Luton Airport Parkway from Brighton, Rochester, Greenwich and several central London stations.
Luton is the fifth-busiest airport in the UK, after Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted. Its main airlines are Wizz Air, Ryanair and easyJet – which has had its headquarters at the airport since the airline was founded in 1995.