Are these the world’s worst airports for transport links?

Plane Talk: Bristol, Dublin, Budapest and Prague are all on my ‘must try harder’ list

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 22 November 2023 08:07
<p>Dart start: The Direct Air-Rail Transit at Luton airport opened in 2023 </p>

Dart start: The Direct Air-Rail Transit at Luton airport opened in 2023

You say you want an aviation revolution? Well, had that question been posed in the mid-1930s, the answer would have been found 27 miles south of London – at a brand-new airport, Gatwick. The hub was built right next to the main railway line, halfway between the capital and Brighton.

Surface connectivity has served the UK’s second airport well over the decades. Links have come and gone: the Sussex Scot no longer connects Gatwick with Edinburgh and Glasgow (easyJet has taken the traffic), while Kent no longer has a direct train to the airport. But the repertoire of routes remains impressive.

Northbound, there are 15 trains each off-peak hour to London with some services continuing to Cambridge, Peterborough and Bedford. A link to Reading provides easy connections to the west of England. Southbound, Gatwick has direct trains to Brighton, the rest of the south coast and Southampton.

Gatwick is now much easier to use, after a £250m rejuvenation of its rail station. It has the biggest range of rail options among UK airports, with Manchester second. Birmingham, Luton (with the new Dart shuttle link), Southampton and Stansted are not far behind. Heathrow’s access by rail has been transformed by the Elizabeth line.

But if those are good – where is it bad?

Among the remaining top 10, Edinburgh has a tram line while Glasgow is a brisk 20-minute walk from Paisley Gilmour Street station. Bristol and Belfast international have the poorest surface connections. Both are accessible only by bus, and so poor is Bristol’s connectivity that last month a serious road accident near the airport led to departures being suspended as staff and passengers struggled to reach the terminal.

Just 206 air miles northwest of Bristol, Dublin airport is presently a bus-only zone – though the exciting MetroLink project, modelled on the driverless Copenhagen Metro, will eventually see fast, high-frequency airport-city transport.

Copenhagen airport has a Metro as well as an intercity main line to the Danish capital and Malmo in Sweden. The three big western-European hubs – Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris CDG – all have excellent intercity and local rail links.

In contrast, eastern Europe is lagging behind. Budapest and Prague have Metro stations tantalisingly close to their international airports, but dedicated followers of public transport have to choose between a local bus to the Metro terminus or a more expensive direct bus to the city centre – not so good when you simply want to opt into the Metro system to your final destination. I was told that the Czech capital authorities wanted to extend to Prague airport, but the taxi drivers’ lobby won out. It shows.

Worldwide, the US is The Land That Public Transport forgot – or, more accurately, the country that discarded mass transit. New York JFK to Manhattan remains an obstacle course, as does LAX to downtown Los Angeles. Honourable mentions to San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston (which has a free bus link into the city’s MBTA network) and Chicago, but few others.

Australia really should know better, but doesn’t. Leaving aside the New South Wales rail strike which wiped out Sydney airport services on the day tourism to Australia reopened last year, the NSW city does reasonably well with fast trains to the centre. Brisbane, too, has a four-trains-an-hour service. But the other two main gateways are bus-only locations: Perth and Melbourne. The latter, which by some measures is the biggest city in Australia now, may have a rail link in the early 2030s. Considering it has been under discussion since the 1960s, that is a poor show. Lucky taxi drivers in the Victorian state capital.

Elsewhere in the world, Africa’s and Latin America’s airports are notable by their absence of rail links – though in the 1990s I once caught a scheduled steam train to Asuncion airport in Paraguay.

The great railway nation of India, too, does pretty poorly. China is better, though the world’s fastest railway – a magnetic levitation line from Shanghai’s Pudong international airport – reaches an ignominious conclusion at Longyang Road station. Imagine Gatwick to London trains going no further than Balham in the south of the capital, and you get the idea. Further nominations for the gallery of aviation shame for poor surface links are gladly accepted.

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