In the second of our series on alternative London airports, we travelled up one sunny morning from London to experience the airrail link at Birmingham Airport.
The Service: Virgin Trains operate 3 times per hour from London Euston to Birmingham International station, calling at Watford Junction on route. The journey took 1 hour and 10 minutes from Euston and 56 minutes from Watford Junction: this compares to a rail journey time of 49 minutes from Euston to Heathrow T5; 54 minutes to Gatwick; and 1 hour and 4 minutes to Stansted. A slower, stopping service operates up to 2 times per hour by London Midland, which may pick you up from your local station.
Journey time is not the only difference between the two services as Virgin Trains offers seat reservations, power sockets and an onboard shop. You pay for these amenities though: picking a simple fare comparison from London (it’s never that simple with UK ticketing), the cheapest walk-up Super Off-Peak Return ticket is £32.80 on Virgin Trains and £25 on London Midland; however, Advance fares are as low as £15 and £12 respectively.
The Station: Birmingham International is helpfully located on the mainline between London and Birmingham. Upon arrival, you are greeted with a fairly standard UK railway station and that is a problem: it should not be a standard UK railway station, it’s a major airport station and should provide the welcome you’d expect from such an important hub.
Passengers have to step down from the train onto platforms that are partly located underneath the station building. Unless you happen to be in the central part of the train, you alight onto an exposed platform with no shelters and only a few seats. It seems surprising that such an important station is so exposed, given that passengers on an 11 car Pendolino can have quite a long walk back to the centrally located stairs. Here too, another omission, in that there are no escalators; you can make use of the lift, but if you are worried about time you’ve no option but to shuffle up the stairs with your luggage, along with a fair number of other passengers: only when you are up on the station concourse do you see that there is in fact an escalator but it was hidden down at the rear (First Class) end of the platform.
Once up in the station concourse, the experience improves markedly: Well placed signage leads you to the “Air-Rail Link” for the 2 minute shuttle to the terminal. Having Birmingham Airport branding at this point provides timely reassurance that you’ve made it (hopefully on time!).
The “Air-Rail Link” itself is quick and smooth and offers the huge benefit of arriving only a few metres from security screening area – this really would offer a time-concious passengers a seamless journey straight into Departures. If you want to go to the check-in counters they were located downstairs.
In the opposite direction there are equally clear directions to the railway station and down to the platforms.
You definitely can’t miss the clearly identified platform entrances once you are on the station concourse.
The Experience: Birmingham International does not present itself as a world class station; it’s not until you climb up from the platforms that you see the passenger facilities you would expect at a major airport, shops, coffee, seats etc. – even those hidden escalators!
Acknowledgement must be given to the number of staff we encountered on our journey through station; though fewer staff were seen within the airport terminal, there is only a few metres between the “Air-Rail Link” and Departures so you are unlikely to get lost.
Transporting Cities’ Gauge: Our journey took us from London Euston to airport security in less than 1 hour and 20 minutes – that is quite competitive. Depending on your origin, the fast rail service to Birmingham Airport is comparable to reaching some London airports and the well located “Air-Rail Link” certainly pulls the airport and station together into a coherent interchange. Thankfully we undertook the journey on a sunny day so the lack of rain shelter didn’t affect us but in the event of rain, your trip wouldn’t get off to a good start if you had to pull your wet suitcase up the stairs.
Given the wider range of flights and long haul airlines from Birmingham, expectations are likely to be higher than those of Southampton Airport where we visited previously: on the whole these expectations were met and we can recommend the airport as a worthwhile alternative but we would like to see the quality of the platform environment enhanced so that the whole journey offers a consistent, attractive passenger experience.
Author: Liam Henderson
Update: I am pleased to append the following response received from Virgin Trains:
“We are always looking at ways to improve the customer experience at all our stations and therefore welcome Liam’s most helpful review of Birmingham International. It is always good to get feedback. Record numbers are now using the station to access both the Airport and the NEC, taking advantage of our fast and frequent services from London and the North West.
“So we share his view that Birmingham International is a realistic option for those living in London and the South East wanting to fly long haul. It is important however we make their passage from train to ultimate destination as seamless as possible and we are delighted the report highlights the role played by our staff who are key to our service delivery. We will of course take on board the findings.”