Management & Operations

How European cities are providing surface transport to airports

Posted on May 8, 2019

Two-thirds of the air passenger market was within the EU in 2017.
Brussels Airport Co.
Two-thirds of the air passenger market was within the EU in 2017.Brussels Airport Co.
Air traffic in the European Union is currently at one billion passengers per year and increased over 7% from 2016 to 2017. Two-thirds of the air passenger market was within the EU.

A single market operates in air travel across the European Union. This impacts ownership as well as international travel — subject to a range of border processes. The airline market is, like in other continents, based on legacy carriers — which have had to adapt to a more competitive and global market, as well as newer, typically low cost carriers. In a European context, the largest groupings — aligned with the global air alliances are International Airlines Group (IAG) — British Airways, Iberia, Vueling, Aer Lingus, etc., and its Oneworld partners, such as Finnair; Air France /KLM, and its other SkyTeam partners such as Czech Airlines; and Lufthansa and its grouping including Austrian, Swiss, Brussels Airlines, Eurowings, and other separate Star Alliance partners, such as SAS, LOT, and Turkish.

Each of these airline groups operate typically from a main European hub with smaller bases around their original home country, and now in the rest of Europe. This includes Lufthansa from Frankfurt and Munich; Air France/KLM from Paris and Amsterdam, and IAG from London and Madrid.

Low-cost airlines have arisen in the market following the American example and typically originating from the British Isles. The two leading players are Ryanair (based in Ireland) and the largest airline in Europe by passenger numbers and EasyJet (based in the UK). A range of other low-cost players are emerging, such as Wizz Air from Hungary, Norwegian, and as part of legacy groupings, such as the airlines Eurowings and Vueling.

While much of the public policy focus for intercity passenger travel is on train travel — whether high speed or traditional, air travel remains a key part of the transport mix in addition to motorway/ highway travel by car. The geography of Europe also leads certain markets to favor air travel: such as from Britain and Ireland to many continental markets; Sweden, Norway, and Finland to the central parts of Europe; and as access to southeastern markets in the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey. There are also substantial north-south travel flows from northern countries to Mediterranean and mid-Atlantic visitor destinations, such as the Canary Islands during winter and holiday periods. And of course, there is global movement connecting Europe to the other continents with the largest flows to North America and East and South Asia.

Chopin Airport in Warsaw.
Kudak
Chopin Airport in Warsaw.KudakCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Providing surface transportation

A key European public policy for urban traffic management as well as to mitigate the impact of travel versus the sustainability agenda is to interconnect the air system with local surface transport. This includes access to the city nearest the airport as well as to regional, and in many cases, long distance transport routes by rail and via the motorway network. The priority for interconnection by rail is a particular public policy focus as this encourages alternative means of access to airports versus private car travel and can remove the need for the air journey entirely via the high-speed rail network, and thus, reduce carbon emissions and other pollution.

The proportion of travel by public transport to European airports typically ranges from highs of over 60% at Kastrup (Copenhagen) and Zurich; over 50% at Arlanda (Stockholm); over 40% at Frankfurt as well as London Heathrow; but lower at many regional airports.

In the remainder of the article, a few of the examples of rail surface access to European airport hubs will be outlined. However, in a European context it is now very unusual for a major — and in many cases minor — airport not to be connected by some form of high-capacity rail service with the adjacent urban area(s). This model has been rolled out over the last 40 years and is particularly clear in the Eastern European countries that ascended to the EU since 2004. In the process of generally upgrading infrastructure, rail access to airports has been one of the typical investments such as in Warsaw, Poland; Leipzig, eastern Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; or pending in Riga, Latvia; and Bucharest, Romania.

Across Europe most of the cities that don’t offer this type of connectivity are in the process of designing and implementing these types of airport rail access schemes such as in: Dublin, Ireland; Glasgow, Scotland; or Prague, Czech Republic.

It takes only 15 minutes to travel by rail to the city’s main station.
Fraport AG
It takes only 15 minutes to travel by rail to the city’s main station.Fraport AG

Airport rail access

While the low-cost airlines sometimes see the expensive infrastructure requirements of airport rail access as an impediment to their low fares model, they still often choose to service very well connected airports, albeit sometimes while using less desirable and/or older and less expensive terminal facilities. Examples include: Milan Malpensa (EasyJet); London Gatwick (EasyJet); and Barcelona El Prat (EasyJet and Vueling). However, the search for lower-cost operations leads many of these low-cost airlines to use airports that are both remote from their nearby cities, as well as are surprisingly poorly connected — often to the frustration of their passengers who can be seduced by the low headline fares. Examples include Charleroi (Brussels South), which is 30 miles from Brussels, and even in Belgium, which is served by one of the most dense national rail networks in Europe, is not directly on the railway network; Skavsta which is 60 miles from Stockholm; Frankfurt Hahn which is in a largely rural area 75 miles from the main city it serves; or Girona — over 40 miles from Barcelona.

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, Europe’s third busiest, is probably one of the best examples of air-rail interconnectivity on the continent. A railway station was built directly under the main terminal, originally opening in 1978. This major hub connects with numerous local, regional, and national trains to most parts of The Netherlands, and is also connected to the Dutch high-speed line to Belgium and Paris since 2009. The ease, frequency, and speed of connection at Schiphol to leisure and business locales is quite remarkable and very effective.

Brussels Zaventem airport, which is north of the city, and while not currently a large airport hub, as a result of consolidation in the airline market, is nevertheless serving the “Capital of Europe,” NATO headquarters, and a very dense and prosperous city and national region. While served since the 1950s by a rail station connected to the city center, an expansion of the local rail infrastructure in 2005, and 2012 has allowed many more regional trains from across north and south Belgium to directly service the airport station. Ironically, it is possible to take a train service from central Amsterdam that stops at Schiphol Airport, continues south into Belgium, and stops at Zaventem before terminating at the main railway station in the city. Work is also proceeding on regional tram routes direct to the airport terminal.

Frankfurt Airport is the forth busiest in Europe. It is the main hub for Lufthansa, and thus, Germany — even though Frankfurt and its region is not Germany’s largest or even second largest city. Connectivity is critical to the airport’s role for the region, nation, larger European market, and global connectivity. The airport was connected to the regional S-Bahn network in 1972. It takes only 15 minutes to travel by rail to the city’s main station. Subsequently, as the national high-speed rail network was developed in Germany, a second railway station was built adjacent to the first and opened in 1999. Thus, it is possible to easily get to the airport from a wide range of locations across northwestern Europe in a model similar to Amsterdam and Brussels.

Following suit

Other cities are following the above established model of providing a mix of rail-based public transport for local markets, dedicated rail service to a central city hub, and where possible connecting the principal city airport directly to the national high-speed/long-distance train network. These undertakings typically take many years and phases of investment to achieve as substantial engineering needs to be performed. Another example is in Barcelona El Prat, where local national rail service has been joined by a local heavy rail metro/subway extension, and work is now underway on a dedicated line to the city’s main rail hub.

Paris, France is an interesting case study. The larger of the city’s two main airports — Charles de Gaulle — has been connected to the national rail system since 1994 with a major TGV high-speed train station between the main terminals. The station is located on the high-speed rail bypass for the Paris urban area and provides good connections from northern and southeastern France, as well as Belgium and The Netherlands, directly to the airport. The local commuter railway RER system also reaches the airport directly from the city, albeit via a relatively slow and low quality route. The French government is in the process of upgrading the connectivity options to the airport by also including a faster non-stop railway service from the city’s Gare de L’Est station before the 2024 Olympic Summer Games.

Frankfurt Airport is the forth busiest in Europe.
Fraport AG
Frankfurt Airport is the forth busiest in Europe.Fraport AG

Local trams

Porto, Portugal and Edinburgh, Scotland are two examples of medium-sized cities with smaller, but regionally important airports that have invested significantly in surface public transport connectivity to their airports, but used modern local tram technology. In Edinburgh’s case, particularly, there was and still is much debate about how the airport can still be connected directly to the national rail network. However, a lower cost regional tram system has been built in both cities and airport accessibility achieved as part of these schemes. While these are not the highest capacity or the fastest services — and in many cases dedicated buses — would and still do provide faster city center connections. The delivery and expectation of quality rail service to the airport user was nevertheless an attractive proposition for both cities to maintain their competitive positions.

This year saw the opening of a new greenfield and replacement airport for the city of Istanbul and as the main gateway to Turkey. The new airport will likely in the coming years become one of the busiest in the world due to its size, Turkey’s population, its location at a global travel crossroads, and the ambition of Turkish Airlines. This has been a huge project and involves the effective closure of the congested Ataturk airport near the city center. The new Istanbul airport became fully operation on April 6, 2019. However, counter to many of the trends outlined in this article, the airport has opened without rail access. Work is continuing to extend the local public transport rail network to the somewhat remote new airport site north of the city on the Black Sea coast and there is no direct higher-speed rail connection to the other main population centers of Turkey or the wider region. Will this lack of access by quality and high-capacity public transport hamper the immediate ambitions of the city and airport authorities? While Turkey is generally spending heavily on public transport for its cities, as well as a high-speed rail connections between them, this is an obvious counterpoint to the trends so far being seen elsewhere in Europe.

Moving toward connectivity

There is an expectation in the European mind-set of quality interconnectivity of airports into the wider public transport system. This speeds movement as well as improves the ability of travelers to have a choice of travel modes and be able to choose public transport to access air travel. It also suppresses air travel for shorter distance trips. Cities see this airport connectivity as a competitive advantage for the local leisure and business markets. This outcome has taken many decades of gradual investment in infrastructure. Some of these services depend on massive amount of engineering, while others are delivered much more simply, but are nevertheless effective in terms of providing a good degree of mobility.

As the air market evolves in Europe, as well as globally, and airlines and air travelers demand new types of services and at new price points, this interconnectivity could sometimes be seen as an optional and expensive extra. Nevertheless, even the more low-cost airports are slowly but surely moving toward a more comprehensive interconnected surface hub model. This fulfils many of the needs of the modern, convenient, and sustainable European airport.

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