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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

Luton Dart: ‘the most expensive train in Britain’ opens for business

Luton Dart
At £4.90 for the 1,999-metre trip, the Luton Dart appears to have ousted the notorious Heathrow Express transfer service as the most expensive by distance. Photograph: Luton Rising

Seven years in the making, Luton airport’s long-anticipated light rail link finally opens to passengers next week – a swift connection that has, somewhat unfairly, been billed as the most expensive train in Britain.

As airport bosses promised, the gleaming new £290m Dart shuttle from train to airport is a significant upgrade: accessed straight out of Luton Parkway railway station and replacing the bus that was needed between trains and the airport terminal. It brings the airport to within about a half hour’s total journey from central London on the fastest trains.

But at £4.90 for the 1,999 metre (1.25 miles) trip, the Luton Dart is pricey even by the standards of British rail fares (which increase by 5.9% this weekend). It appears to have ousted the notorious Heathrow Express transfer service as the most expensive by distance.

A flight from Luton to Palma this month on easyJet, at £56 return, comes in at roughly a hundredth of the Dart’s price a mile. Even the Orient Express from London to Venice – sleeping in a private cabin with steward service and sumptuous dining and fine wine included for the £4,500 ticket – only works out roughly double the price on mileage.

So are they making a killing on the Luton Dart? Graham Olver, the chief executive of Luton Rising, the council-owned company that runs the airport, argues not. “If you’re savvy, it’s £47.50 return for a family from central London. Blue badges holders, pensioners and airport workers go free.”

Olver urged a focus not on the cost but the value of the scheme: “We’re a massive social enterprise with a £2bn asset.”

According to East Midlands Railway, some advance tickets on the Luton Airport Express from London St Pancras, and including the Dart shuttle, will cost as little as £47.50 return for a family of four – substantially cheaper than other airport rail transfers from the capital.

Local residents will get a 50% discount, bringing the cost into line with the soon to be retired bus service.

Technically, the shuttle is not a train but a cable car, designed to cope with the rapid 40m ascent up the hillside to the airport. It is made and operated by the Doppelmayr Cable Car company, the same firm behind Boris Johnson’s £60m folly, a cable car over the Thames at docklands (distance o.6 miles, price £6).

The ride itself, tested by the Guardian in a preview trip on Friday, is a smooth 2 minutes 39 seconds, arcing gracefully upwards and curving over the A1081, on a bridge decorated with an ornamental crest emphasising this spectacular addition to the Luton skyline. The Dart dips underground to reach the airport, where passengers emerge from under an eye-catching canopy roof in yellow steel – “not gold-plated”, a spokesperson emphasises.

The fares will allow the Dart to break even, Olver said, with the cost of financing its construction as well as operations. It is part of an upgrade in infrastructure, including a possible second terminal, that could let Luton airport grow from 18 million to 33 million passengers a year.

Most importantly, as Olver and the leader of Luton borough council, Hazel Simmons, point out, any airport profits go to vital local services. Simmons said: “Our airport exists solely to support the town and people in it … I’m amazed and delighted that we have been able to bring something like this to Luton airport.”

The airport has funnelled £180m to the local community over the past 25 years. Each passenger earns Luton 53p.

How does the Dart compare?

Luton Dart £4.90 for 1.25 miles – £3.95 a mile

Heathrow Express £25 (£32 first) for 16.5 miles – £1.52 a mile (£1.94 in first class)

London Euston-Manchester Piccadilly £184 anytime single (£255 first) on Avanti for 161 miles – £1.14 (£1.58) a mile

Or if you really want to spend more …

London Underground’s Piccadilly Line, from Covent Garden to Leicester Square, is the shortest zone 1 stop at 250m. A single costs £2.50 – or £6.30 for a cash fare in peak time. If you insisted on using cash and travelling only the shortest stop, you could hit £40 a mile. (You can also do a single journey with Oyster on the longest hop, West Ruislip to Epping, 34.1 miles for £3.50 on the Central line or – changing trains to avoiding Zone 1 – £1.90, or £0.06 a mile.)

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