Friday, 3 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 2

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (USA) - London, England (U.K.) - Oxford, England (U.K.)

Once again, as has often been the case on The Amazing Race, the potentially decisive choice in this episode was the one that none of the teams of racers made: taking the Heathrow Express train from the airport to central London (and then changing to a taxi to the location of their next clue on Tower Bridge), rather than than taking a taxi all the way from Heathrow.

Given that several of the racers said that they had been in London before, and the pervasiveness of advertising for the Heathrow Express (“Heathrow to [central] London in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes”), it’s surprising that all of the racers chose to take taxis.

It’s actually hard to figure out in what circumstances a taxi to central London would make sense for anyone arriving at Heathrow, even if price is no object. Best case, with no traffic, a taxi would take about as long as the worst case (just missing one Heathrow Express and having to wait for the next) for the express train and then a taxi across central London to your final destination. A taxi is neither the fastest nor the cheapest way to get from or to any of the London airports except London City Airport.

Most budget-conscious travellers dismiss the Heathrow Express as grossly overpriced — which it is — and take the “Underground” or “tube”. (In the USA we would call it a “subway” despite the fact that most of the line between Heathrow and downtown is at or above ground level.) The Underground is cheap but slow, subject to unpredictable delays (although not as much so, of course, as a taxi that can get stuck in traffic) that mean you need to allow extra time to catch a departing flight, and can be quite cramped if you have luggage — there are no luggage racks.

Travel time on the London Underground between central London and LHR is comparable to travel time on the New Yorki City subway between midtown Manhattan and JFK airport on the E train. (Yes, I said the E train. The better known A train makes many more stops and takes much longer to get to or from midtown.)

What few visitors to either London or New York realize is that there is another, poorly-advertised option in each of these cities: commuter train service that connects the airports to downtown much more quickly than the subway and even in the worst case almost as fast as a cab (and often faster), for a fare that’s a fraction of the cost of a cab or the Heathrow Express.

Heathrow Connect trains follow the same route as the Heathrow Express, but make a couple of intermediate stops that add only about 10 minutes to the journey time of the express. For the equivalent of about US$7 more than the price of the Tube for a single (one-way) ticket, Heathrow Connect saves between 30 minutes and an hour.

In New York, the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) has direct trains between Penn Station and the same Jamaica station on the JFK “Airlink” people mover as the subway. Even paying the peak rush-hour LIRR fare, it’s only US$8 more than the subway, one-way, to save 30 minutes or more and have a much quieter, more comfortable ride than on the subway. This (finally) provides a decent connection between JFK and Amtrak’s main line as well as other commuter trains serving southern Connecticut, the Hudson River valley, etc.

For what it’s worth, the LIRR also has direct service between the JFK Airlink terminus and the Atlantic Terminal in downtown Brooklyn. And there’s also a new inexpensive express bus service, the Q70 Limited, that links another LIRR station at Woodside, as well as the Jackson Heights (Roosevelt Rd.) subway station, to LaGuardia Airport — the first fast or reliable mass transit service to LGA.

The only drawback to Heathrow Connect or the LIRR is that each serves only one downtown station (Paddington in London, Penn Station in Manhattan, the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn), so you may need to use a cab or the subway for the first or last few miles. But these trains still save substantial time compared to taking the subway all the way to or from the airport. Using these commuter trains is at least as fast, door to door, as taking a cab all the way, and substantially faster if traffic on the roads is bad.

The racers continued on from London to Oxford by train from Paddington station. There are direct busses between Heathrow and Oxford, which I used leaving Oxford for a flight to Berlin during a European speaking tour a few years ago. But there are no direct trains between Heathrow and anywhere outside greater London. Heathrow is like JFK and a growing number of other airports in the USA, and unlike a growing number of other European airports, in being served by local trains to and from the city, but not having any direct mainline rail services to or from places outside the metropolitan area.

That’s unfortunate because far more airlines serve JFK in the USA, and LHR in the U.K., than any other airports in those respective countries. Many people passing through these airports are actually coming from or to other cities, and could make their connections to the international gateway by train if there were better connections.

In the USA, the best airport connections to and from points served by Amtrak or regional rail north and west of New York are via the LIRR between JFK and Penn Station, as described above. For Amtrak or New Jersey Transit destinations to the south, the better alternative to JFK is sometimes Newark Airport (EWR). There’s a Newark Airport station on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor mainline, connected to the airport terminals by a monorail “people mover”. But only certain Amtrak trains, not including any of the Acela expresses, stop at the Newark Airport station.

In the U.K., the best mainline rail connections to the widest range of destinations are at Manchester Airport (MAN), which also has more flights to more destinations than any U.K. airport other than those serving greater London. If you don’t need or want to spend time in London, and you are going to anywhere in central or northern England or in Scotland, Manchester Airport is likely to be substantially more convenient than Heathrow or the other London airports.

There are other provincial U.K. airports, but none of them have anything close to Manchester’s range of scheduled airline flight frequencies and destinations. This official list is a bit misleading, because it includes seasonal and charter flights. This crowd-sourced Wikipedia list is unofficial and can’t be relied on, but is easier to parse. There are few direct flights between Manchester and the USA. But there are connections between MAN and the USA via all major continental European hubs. Significantly, there are year-round scheduled nonstop services between MAN and West and East Asian hubs for long-haul destinations including Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Hong Kong. Manchester Airport is a surprisingly good air gateway to Scotland, with direct trains to the main downtown stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh and significantly more flights to and from more places than any airport in Scotland.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 3 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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