Here is a short rail-related report on a recently completed trip to London.
My wife and I booked a short trip to London on a spur-of-the moment; "why not" travel impulse. The four night trip was conceived and reserved on December 4: we left on December 18. Air was via Virgin Atlantic (VS) from Newark (EWR) to London Heathrow (LHR).
AirTrain is the monorail service operating from the close-in parking lots and the Amtrak / New Jersey Transit rail station to the EWR air terminals. It has been in service for a couple of years, but since my travels almost always use Philadelphia International, this was my first chance to ride AirTrain. Apart from the monorail construction, the passenger perspective of the service is basically the same as most other modern airport people mover trains. The cars are designed primarily for standees. The cars are short and designed for tight radius track curvature. The operation is automated with no on board operator. In fact, it is amazingly similar to the AirTrain at San Francisco except for using a monorail rather than a guideway.
We left home (Cherry Hill NJ) at 4:45am, headed up the Turnpike, arrived at Newark Airport just before 6am and parked in lot P3. Given the early hour, we got a spot very close to the AirTrain station. After a quick walk to the station and an escalator ride we reached the platform level. The AirTrain stations follow the new style of being fully enclosed with glass elevator-like doors opening in tandem with the train doors. A Terminal-bound train arrived quickly.
We boarded the front car and took the quick, one stop ride to Terminal B. The front car affords a nice view of the nighttime trip. The one and only intermediate stop between P3 and Terminal B was (drum roll please), Terminal A. After departing Terminal A we turned to the left and our Virgin Atlantic aircraft (AB 340-311 "Lady in Red") was easily visible at the gate. Lady in Red is a very impressive aircraft and AirTrain gave us a great nighttime view of the plane and the fueling and other preparatory work underway. I have not yet outgrown the excitement of impending travel (and, at my age, I suspect I never will) and the view of that plane was thrilling. Seeing your aircraft waiting to depart is also a nice indication that things might just go well. In this case, they did.
There are two rail options for the trip from London Heathrow Airport (LHR) to Central London. The Heathrow Express, a dedicated conventional rail airport train, operates from LHR to Paddington Station in Central London. The trains run every 15 minutes, complete the trip in about 15 minutes, and are specifically designed with ample luggage storage for luggage toting international travelers. But, the Heathrow Express is not cheap. At current exchange rates, the trip to Paddington is about $25 one way or $45 round trip. And, unless you are staying near Paddington, you still have to get to your hotel. That means either a Tube (subway) ride or a cab.
The other option is the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground. We were staying at a hotel located half a block from the Green Park station of the Piccadilly Line. So, we took the "Tube". One way cost is about $7 and the trip takes about 40 minutes.
The Piccadilly Line, serving 44 miles and 52 stations, is one of 12 lines that make up the London Underground. The service is a subway train, nothing more or less. There are small areas near the doors set aside for luggage, but carrying any substantial number of bags would be a hassle. Also, the Piccadilly Line can get packed during peak hours, so timing is also an issue. But, our short stay and our very frugal packing habit meant we had only two small carry-on bags. That combined with our arrival of 8:00pm on a Saturday night made using the Tube seem like a good option. It was.
The walk from LHR Terminal 3 arrivals area to the Tube station is through a series of underground passages with ample moving walkways. The station is common for Terminals 1, 2 and 3 (a separate station serves Terminal 4). We purchased our magnetic coded tickets from the coin vending machine (with change left over from a previous UK trip) and quickly caught a waiting train for Central London. The trains operate every seven minutes even in off hours (the service operates from about 5am to midnight). The train left about 3 minutes after we were seated.
Although a service of the London "Underground", much of the western part of the route is an at-grade, open railway . It was nighttime, but it was still great to see the homes and cars that are distinctly England (just a few short hours after being on the Jersey Turnpike). After about twenty five minutes, the train heads into the tunnel section just past Barrons Court station. The underground portion of the Piccadilly Line is a true "Tube" line in small, circular bored tunnels. To clear the small diameter tunnels the "Tube Stock" rail cars are sized and shaped to just clear the tunnel walls. The floors are so low (just 2 feet above the rail) that the wheels extend above the floor level and are hidden behind the longitudinal bench seating. The top of the walls of the cars and leaf doors curve severely inward to match the circular tunnel shape. The seats are cushioned cloth and are very comfortable.
The train filled as we moved east and by the time we reached our destination at Green Park the train was standing room only but not a crush load. Green Park, in the Mayfair section of London, is a typical Tube station meaning very deep with long escalators not unlike the Washington Metro. It is a junction station between the Piccadilly, Victoria, and Jubilee lines (a convenience factor in our hotel selection). After a quick, rainy half block walk we arrived at our hotel. The total time from Heathrow Terminal 3 arrivals to check-in at our hotel was under an hour. Aircraft gate arrival to hotel, including immigration and customs, was less than two hours. It is pretty tough to beat that for $7 each.
Returning to LHR on Wednesday (12/22) was mid-day. We had some concerns about crowding, but luck was on our side and the first train through was standing but not terribly crowded. Just two stops toward Heathrow is Knightsbridge, the stop for Harrod's Department Store. A good crowd departed here (three days before Christmas) and we had seats the rest of the way to the airport. Now, in daylight, the at grade portion was more interesting. You get a nice view of the neighborhoods businesses along the route. Even a golf course is passed en route. Proximity to the airport was soon evident with a steady line of aircraft on final approach. For the last few miles we were back in tunnel. Following the Terminal 4 stop we took the loop back around to the Terminal 1, 2, 3 station.
After arriving back in Newark on our return trip, we cleared immigration and customs very quickly (what a nice facility EWR has for incoming international clearance) and, once again, AirTrain was efficient in returning us to the parking lot and our car (with a final view of the aircraft that brought up back, B747-400 "Ruby Tuesday"). AirTrain is a very effective transportation system for EWR. It certainly cost a fortune to build, and had some teething pains, but there is no question that it is better than the bus shuttles run by Philadelphia International for the remote lots.
A quick air aspect: we took the early morning daytime flight from Newark to London: leave 8:20am EST, arrive 8:00pm London Time. This is a GREAT flight to avoid the dreaded eastbound jet lag. Most flights to the UK leave early evening and arrive early morning. This gets you to London short of sleep and often before your hotel room is ready. The select group of morning flights reverses that. By necessity, you get up early to catch the flight (good for adjusting to London time); you get to London in the evening; transfer to your hotel (where your room is ready and waiting), grab a late dinner, relax for an hour or two, and turn in for the night about midnight or 1 am. The next morning, presto: you are acclimated to London time. Worked like a charm.
Want more info on the air portion? Go to my air report at: Airliners.net.