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Cable-hauled people-mover comes to Luton Airport

FTL members enjoyed a behind the scenes visit to Luton DART (Direct Air-Rail Transit) generously hosted by Linsey Sweet DART’s General Manager on 8th November.

DART (opened 27th March) links Luton Airport Parkway station with the Airport Terminal, which is about 40 metres higher above sea-level than the Midland main line. DART consists of two cable-hauled automated people-movers (gradients ruled out conventional rail technology) and about 2 km of dual, segregated tracks with bridges and tunnels. The journey time is four minutes.

DART operates 24 hours a day although only one or other people-mover runs during the small hours of the night carrying mostly airport workers and responding to demand. DART carried its millionth passenger during August 2023 and was expected to carry its two millionth before Christmas 2023. It replaces the shuttle buses, which took much longer to access, board, travel and alight from and suffered from road congestion. Total scheduled journey time from St Pancras International via East Midlands Railway and DART to the airport is now 32 minutes.

DART is entirely step-free and gap-free. It cost £300m. and was funded by Luton Borough Council who own the airport (through a company called Luton Rising), receiving airport profits, with plans to expand which include a second terminal.

DART’s lower terminus is built on land once owned by Vauxhall Motors and integrated with Luton Airport Parkway station (opened 1999) which appears to have been designed with DART in mind, but we were assured it wasn’t.  There are two lines of ticket barriers between the railway platforms and the DART platforms: one line to check train tickets, another to check DART tickets. Through tickets via DART can be bought at National Rail ticket offices or online if you specify “Luton Airport” (as opposed to ‘Luton Airport Parkway’) as your destination station. 

The full fare DART element costs £4.90, about twice as much as the erstwhile shuttle bus fare. Holders of Freedom Passes can travel for free on DART, but the ticket barriers are not clever enough to give entry by simply tapping the Freedom Passes (as one could on the shuttle buses): you have to create in advance an online account, specify the date and time of travel and download a free QR coded ticket which the DART gates can read. DART is not compensated for accepting Freedom Passes as bus companies are.

There are three platforms at the lower DART terminus: one island platform between the two tracks for boarding passengers and a side platform outside both tracks for alighting passengers.

The platforms being more than twice as long as the current vehicles confirmed plans for airport expansion. There are vehicle doors and platform-edge doors and no member of staff is required to travel on the vehicles. The control room seemed to be staffed, equipped, and operated like many railway control rooms

The vehicles run on rubber tyres (filled with nitrogen) with horizontal guidewheels and steel guiderails. Each haulage cable is underneath the vehicle at track level; the two tracks and cable systems are independent. However, when both people-movers are in operation, departures from opposite terminals are slightly staggered, so that both systems do not demand maximum traction power simultaneously (the first few metres after leaving the upper station are uphill). DART has plans to use solar power whenever possible.

DART’s contractor is Doppelmayr Cable Car, whose equipment is commonly found at ski resorts.

DART’s upper terminus and maintenance facility are mostly underground and have only one island platform for reasons of space, but it is not integrated with the existing airport terminal: a walk of about 200 metres alongside the bus station is required. The footway is covered but did not appear pleasant on the windy, rainy day of our visit. The upper station is aligned so that the underground DART tracks can be extended to the proposed location of the second airport terminal.

The surface elements of DART’s upper terminus are adjacent to the car park having to be demolished (and many cars written off) following a fire on 10th October causing DART to close for 12 days while safety checks were carried out. During that closure, buses once again conveyed passengers between Luton Airport Parkway station and the airport terminal.  

Between DART’s upper and lower termini there are some intermediate platforms, but these are for emergency evacuation purposes only: a fully-fledged intermediate station was being considered at one time but is now unlikely to go ahead.

Exactly how DART will be operated, if it is extended to a second terminal, does not appear to have been decided. A few options are under consideration for extending either or both people-movers to the second terminal.

During the DART visit, FTL member Christian Wolmar interviewed General Manager Linsey Sweet for his Calling All Stations podcast series 2 episode 7. The interview can be heard towards the end.

We all thank Linsey Sweet for the comprehensive briefing and tour she gave us of DART and for her generous hospitality. 

Neil Roth

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