Global AirRail – Toronto 2015

I attended the Global AirRail conference in Toronto last week hoping to get some insight into how the airrail operators approach a balance between business constraints and passenger experience. The starting point for the conference was an introduction to the new UP Express to Pearson Airport (read my review): whether or not it raises the city’s reputation, the impressive passenger growth at the airport means that a rail link is becoming essential: with many different types of passenger taking the local bus to the nearby subway station, I can’t help thinking that the service is going to attract a range of passenger types, not just premium business travellers; if I am arriving into an unfamiliar city I am happy to pay for the certainty that a train offers, and am less sensitive to the ticket cost when abroad – I wonder how long it will be before the service shifts focus to UP capacity.

Meaningful Engagement

Almost universally amongst other airrail links present was promotion of 3 key benefits:

  1. Speed
  2. Convenience
  3. Journey time reliability

Competitive pricing was not much discussed. We were told how Gautrain actively engages with potential customers by replying to tweets from drivers stuck in traffic. In this respect, UP Express’ advertising around Toronto is promoting the right message.

Meaningful engagement with current and potential passengers helps to build the airrail link’s profile – Edinburgh Trams have engaged hard to recover the system’s reputation since opening, making the tram the obvious link between airport and city centre.

The operator of Stansted Express service relies upon its growing customer database, collected through the sales channel, to promote the service and communicate appropriately with passengers.

Partners in Transport

UP Express presented what it called an ‘ecosystem of partners’ whereby customer services and facilities were provided by experts in the field. For a passenger, this has a benefit of expanding the airrail service to include extra services such as Wi-Fi, city centre check-in desks or increased journey options – Canada’s VIA Rail offer an UP Express add-on and also work with the airline industry to permit ticket sales that cover the journey through to the final station.

It’s surprising how few airlines offer this add on as a standard practice (Aer Lingus is the only airline that offers passengers a Heathrow Express ticket as part of the sale). I know they are not all as generous as my experience on SkyWork Airlines; however, when you book a flight to a city, it’s generally because you want to travel to that city, whereas most airlines seem to think that their service ends at the arrivals hall. Many presentations showed that these add-ons are available with current ticketing platforms but airlines don’t offer them, meaning the passenger is left with a series of separate bookings for one trip.

For an airrail operator, through ticket sales enhance the convenience aspect of their service but the industry need to convince airlines that these partnerships will reflect well on the airline.

We heard from the promoters of the Lava Express in Iceland who are already considering a partnership with Icelandair to promote the possible airrail link for stop-over passengers – in 2023.

Host Airports

The interaction point between airline and train is subject to the competitive ground access industries and the airport’s business interests. It is a reflection of this that paid advertising is used to attract passengers to the link rather than rely on terminal signage. As as result of the healthy income from airport parking, the current airport mindset is that they have little incentive to encourage passengers to use a rail link when they could be hosting their vehicle in the long-term parking garage or taking an access payment from the taxi market; however, as we’ve explored, this equation doesn’t really apply to a visitor so providing signage and simpler connections to rail is in the airport’s longer term interest both to enhance its reputation and prove that it can support air passenger growth with some consideration of environmental sustainability.

KLIA Ekspres has gained passengers and supported airport growth in the context of dominant signage on arrival at Kuala Lumpur airport.


In a congested city, any rail link to the airport has the unique advantage of predictable journey time and it’s this message which seems effective. Where there is realistic competition from other local transport, price will influence passenger growth; however, that’s when airrail operators can rely on their speed and convenience to reinforce their link’s attraction.

In the short term, airports will continue to rely on drivers and taxis for their income – in this market, it is doubly important to encourage airlines to offer through ticketing onto rail. A passenger arriving with their rail ticket already in hand will seek out the train despite poor signage.

In the longer term, policy makers and politicians faced with pressure to meet environmental targets should be linking future airport growth to increasing public transport mode shares. This has been successful in focussing the mind of some airport operators who are now enjoying the benefits of a larger passenger market.


Author: Liam Henderson