GWR to operate Heathrow Express using ‘387s’

Destined for the wrecker’s ball: the Heathrow Express shed at Old Oak Common (interior view on 23 September 2013). Following the deal with GWR, a replacement depot at Langley will now no longer be needed.
Keith Fender

GREAT WESTERN Railway is to take over operation of the Heathrow Express airport link under a management contract from later this year.

The management contract will start in August 2018 and run until 2028. Heathrow Airport will continue to own the service, managing the stations at the airport and retaining the commercial aspects including marketing, ticket pricing and revenue. Should the Great Western franchise transfer away from FirstGroup it is expected the arrangements will transfer to any new operator.

GWR will introduce a dedicated fleet of Class 387 EMUs to the service, replacing the current Class 332 EMUs. This move obviates the need to build a new depot for the operation, as the current Heathrow Express site at Old Oak Common must be vacated to make way for HS2 construction. Previous plans had envisaged a new depot at Langley to service the Class 332s. Modern Railways understands the move to appoint a new operator was also prompted by Heathrow losing its battle to charge premiums to other operators using the airport branch.

The dedicated fleet of ‘387s’ for the airport link, understood to comprise unit Nos 387130-141, will be ‘specially converted’ by December 2019 to provide first class carriages, high-speed Wi-Fi, additional luggage racks and on-board entertainment.

Whilst industry sources say 19 Class 769 units (converted from Class 319 EMUs) are to be leased by GWR in order to release Turbo DMUs from Thames Valley services and help provide cover for the Heathrow ‘387s’, GWR has declined to confirm this has been agreed. GWR Managing Director Mark Hopwood told Modern Railways ‘Talk of the Class 769s is speculation and we have various options under consideration’. GWR points out that under earlier plans, which also assumed Didcot to Oxford would be electrified by 2019, a number of Class 365 EMUs were to be leased for the Thames Valley branches and Oxford services.

Informed sources say if Class 769 sets are leased they are likely to come from the ‘319/4’ series and will eventually be set up to work as ‘tri-mode’ units, enabling them to take over the Reading to Gatwick Airport service, where significant sections are third rail electrified, as well as the planned Thames Valley trains. However, they may initially work as bi-mode (diesel and 25kV overhead) only until Network Rail has completed satisfactory testing of the sets working on DC power. Philip Sherratt/Tony Miles

Airport sub-fleet planned: some Class 387s (like this one, pictured at Hayes & Harlington on 26 March 2018) will be refurbished as a Heathrow-dedicated stud.
Philip Sherratt