Train station

Metros & Urban Rail

Making connections – A Q&A on effective public transport links among cities and airports

Hong Kong International Airport

When planning a connection for major hubs such as a capital city centre and an international airport, journey time and critical mass in patronage are likely to drive  consideration of a passenger rail connection.

Whilst capital and operating costs are higher, passenger rail provides fast, direct and efficient connections, often to the heart of the city, that are highly valued by airport users. The ability to interchange and access the wider network is also important.

Passenger rail also provides opportunities to recover input costs by driving an increase in land value which can be leveraged in developing commercial land use at stations.

Here we talk with Stuart Littlewood, Aurecon’s Metros Leader, Asia about his experience of successful airport rail connections in the region.

Why are rail connections to airports becoming more popular than previously?

The current trend is to build new airports farther away from the urban conurbations they serve, mainly for environmental reasons; so there is a need to provide fast and efficient transport systems for passengers to connect with their downtown destinations.

Also, with the rapid increase in air travel, there is the requirement to alleviate congestion on existing land transport connections. Express rail links are the preferred way of meeting these objectives.

What are the important features of a successful airport railway?

The stations must be well located at both the airport terminal and downtown ends. There has to be a balance between reducing the journey time as much as possible and providing sufficient stops to serve the major high density catchment areas.

Most passengers will still require taxi or bus connections to their final destination and these additional trips should be kept as short as possible. The fare structure also should be competitive, especially where there are well developed alternative forms of transport such as buses or taxis.

A good example of this is in Tokyo, where the cost of taking a taxi from the airport into the city is many times that of taking the train, making the Narita Express the first choice for most airline passengers.

Is the cost of building the infrastructure justified?

The capital cost of constructing any urban rail system is high, especially if there are significant elevated and underground sections.

However, this can be mitigated to a certain extent by exploiting a number of non-fare revenue methods, including property development above and adjacent to stations (very successful in Hong Kong); the siting of retail outlets in stations; and advertising on both trains and stations.

Another way to reduce the overall cost is to combine the use of the express rail infrastructure with slower, local rail networks providing a “stopping” service for commuters, as successfully done in both Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.

As with any rail system, there are enormous economic benefits, in terms of the environment, reduction of congestion on highways, and the general improvement in quality of life.

Are there any design features specific to airport railways?

There are two areas where the design of airport railways differs from urban metro systems: signage and baggage handling.

Most users of metro systems are commuters who travel the same route every day and are very familiar with the station layouts and entrances and exits. Conversely, most airport railway passengers are infrequent visitors who are often coming to the city (or even country) for the first time.

It is very important that signage on both stations and trains is clear to reduce delays in boarding and alighting, and ensure passengers reach the correct destination. Also, for outbound passengers, the rail trip is only the first part of their journey, and it is useful to have flight information displays at downtown stations. Some systems (for example Tokyo) even have real-time flight information on the trains, themselves.

Airport TerminalSimilarly, unlike urban commuters, passengers arriving by air usually have large amounts of personal luggage which must be accommodated on the train, usually in dedicated areas in each compartment, and requires larger capacity lifts in the stations.

Some systems, such as Hong Kong's and Bangkok's, allow outbound passengers to check in their baggage at the downtown railway stations, which provides for a more comfortable train journey. The bags are transported to the airport in a separate baggage car at the end of the trains and automatically transferred to the baggage handling system at the airport terminal.

The transportation of baggage on the trains also requires additional considerations, in terms of increased fire safety and security risks.

What future developments are likely for airport rail links?

Rail operators and airlines are now working closely together to develop ways of connecting air and rail journeys, not only into cities but also beyond that, into the national rail networks.

Passengers may soon be able to book air and train tickets, at the same time, with potential savings, and methods of checking through luggage and dedicated train compartments for airline passengers are being considered.

One thing is for sure: as the volume of air traffic continues to increase at a dramatic rate, there will be a continuing requirement to provide fast and efficient connections to the urban conurbations and other transport systems, and there will be a need for many more airport rail links.


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