The route less travelled

Atkins | 15 Sep 2010 | Comments

How do you accommodate a growing demand for air travel with the need to reduce carbon emissions? In part, by convincing millions of travellers each year to choose a more environmentally friendly travel option on the way to and from the airport. For Arlanda Express in Stockholm, it’s been a steady learning curve, and service, sustainability and signage have been key parts of the equation.

“One of the main drivers for most transport projects in Sweden is the environment,” says Paul Hollingsworth, director of the Atkins rail consulting business. “Arlanda Airport, north of Stockholm, is reaching its peak capacity and, by default, this is an environmental issue – there’s pressure to expand, but not at the expense of the environment.”

Arlanda is the largest airport in Sweden, handling over 16 million passengers in 2009 – even with the economic downturn – and on track to do the same again in 2010. It has three runways, four passenger terminals and like every airport serving a major metropolitan area, it is faced with the ongoing challenge of meeting the growing travel demands of the local population.

Over the years, the airport has made efforts to limit its impact on the environment, from using biofuels for heating and water from a nearby lake for cooling purposes to charging airlines take-off fees based on the environmental performance of the aircraft. However, based nearly 40km north of Stockholm, the airport could not ignore the impact caused by passengers moving to and from the airport every day.

“Arlanda is the airport you’re mostly likely to use when you come to or fly out of Stockholm,” says Per Thorstenson, CEO of A-Train AB, owners and operators of Arlanda Express, a high-speed rail service that offers a direct link between the airport and Stockholm. “Arlanda Airport is state-owned and has been running for nearly 45 years, albeit to varying degrees of capacity. There was always a desire to run some kind of a train shuttle between Stockholm city and the airport, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the government finally decided to make this happen.

“The decision to introduce an express rail shuttle was taken at the same time as the airport was given permission to build a third runway and increase landing capacity. At the time, it was believed that the train shuttle would help reduce CO2 emissions on the ground as people shifted from the motorways to the train. To some extent, this would mitigate the environmental impact of the airport’s growth.”

“It was an interesting commercial response to growing legislation and regulation,” says Hollingsworth. “If it could be demonstrated that increased electric train use would cut down on the number of carbon-emitting coaches, taxis and cars on the roads, then the advantage would be two-fold.

“The first would be to the airport, giving it more capacity in terms of the number of passengers the service could bring to the airport, and then to Arlanda Express itself in terms of patronage.”

On paper, it seemed an interesting and relatively straightforward strategy, and yet its success didn’t arise quite the way some had expected – which is where the learning curve really began.

What works, what doesn’t

Atkins was originally engaged to conduct due diligence by the bank acquiring A-Train AB and its Arlanda Express. The relationship has continued over the years with the various lending bodies that have come on board.

“We review the books every six months – railway operation, capital costs, management, safety, infrastructure,” says Hollingsworth. “We then report all of this information to the current syndicate of lenders.

“We don’t just make the report and walk away, we try to help if there’s a problem. And, when a major change occurs, we assess the impact of that on the service. For example, if someone else wanted to run a service over the line, would it interfere with working patterns? Would that interfere with the potential for Arlanda Express in the future? When it comes to encouraging more people to the service, we’re very interested, as are the people funding the service.”

“We asked passengers early on why they decided to use the Arlanda Express,” says Thorstenson.“When asked, on an individual basis, their reasons for choosing the service, most passengers pointed to speed and reliability and punctuality, ahead of the environmental issue.

“At the same time, it’s very common for Swedish companies to have quite specific travel policies, especially in larger organisations. And many Swedish companies have an environmental aspect written into their travel policy, so that, while individuals may not be entirely focused on the environment, many companies specify the travel options available to employees.”

As such, Arlanda Express enjoyed success in some quarters, but found that getting individuals to change their transport habits involved more than creating an express rail service with solid environmental credentials. The fact that the service produces fewer emissions – and as such is generally less damaging to the environment – makes a difference, but this doesn’t necessarily drive people from their cars and onto the Express.

“We discovered that the commercial and the environmental sides of things are overlapping enormously right now,” explains Thorstenson. “This can have a major impact on the success or failure of a service like ours.

“For example, the Arlanda Express train shuttle was launched around the same time as the Flytoget Airport Express Train in Oslo, which offers a very similar service. The Flytoget service became a success faster than Arlanda Express, but why? Are the Norwegians more environmentally conscious than the Swedes? No – their operations had more passengers and bigger market share because they had opened a new airport. And when you travel to and from a new airport, you consider the various travel options with a more open mind.

“When you launch this type of an operation at an airport that has been running for a very long time, as was the case with Arlanda Express, you have to change some very fundamental habits,” says Thorstenson. “It’s always more difficult to achieve maximum market share at an old airport. This was not fully understood when Arlanda Express was launched. Many people believed the service would reach maximum market share faster than it actually did, but people had grown accustomed to taxis or buses or private cars. Getting them to make the shift to rail required more of an effort.”

Getting the message

Part of the challenge with this degree of model for the page shift – from one form of transportation to another – is that the service itself was not the only player. There were commercial considerations involved for the airport itself.

“There can be a bit of reluctance on the part of airports to promote these kinds of services, because airports themselves earn substantial sums from car parks,” says Hollingsworth. “If you introduce an airport express rail service, car parking revenue tends to goes down. That can be a major hurdle to overcome.

“Having said that, if you provide a high quality service to a sufficient number of people, they tend to vote with their boots and go by train. And when transport planners do their job – conducting preference surveys and assessing the ideal end points for such a service – you can find the answer you’re looking for.”

According to Thorstenson, the team behind the Arlanda Express learned fairly quickly that they needed to work closely with everyone in the travel supply chain, in order to encourage and retain this level of model shift across the board.

“Historically, flying has not been the most environmentally friendly option, though things are being done within the industry to address this fact,” he says. “Newer, more energy-efficient planes are being brought into service and flown in more efficient ways. But the industry needs to take responsibility for the ground transportation aspect of the journey, before the wheels even touch the ground at Heathrow or Arlanda or wherever. If an airline and an airport promote an environmentally-friendly ground transport option, that can make a real difference.”

Thorstenson cites the example of Heathrow – “one of the best airports in the world in terms of getting people from the airplane to the Heathrow Express rail service,” he says.

“Passengers leave the airplane, collect their bags, walk through customs and find themselves at the Heathrow Express,” he says. “You won’t always see this kind of effort being made to promote the service at other airports around the world where there’s a train shuttle. This was the situation in Stockholm for many years – the Arlanda Express was not promoted as much as it should have been because it was effectively in competition with car parks. Today, this is not a problem, but airports need to take more responsibility at an earlier stage.”

It’s a question of recognising the environmental impact of an entire journey, not just elements of that journey.

“If you plan to fly to Stockholm, a battle is fought over what mode of transportation you decide to use before and after the flight – though you probably wouldn’t realise it was happening,” says Thorstenson. “If you choose to book your flight online, you might decide to book the hotel along with your tickets, as well as your transport from the airport to that hotel. If there is an easy way to buy Arlanda Express tickets on the site, then that is an opportunity to win over a customer. And if you do buy that ticket, you’re not likely to change your mind when you arrive in Stockholm and jump into a taxi instead.

“On the other hand, if you don’t commit to any transport in particular, deciding instead to wait until you arrive, that’s the second front. It begins as soon as you arrive at Arlanda Airport – how are you going to get to downtown Stockholm? Suddenly, simple things like signs take on tremendous importance. Often, you only start to think about your next move as you’re waiting for your bags to arrive. If the express rail service is not clear and evident, you’re not necessarily going to look for a train shuttle.”

It’s not just a matter of clear signs and a commitment from the airlines that will make the difference. It’s all part of a bigger commitment to a low carbon future. And Thorstenson points out that, sometimes, it requires fairly sweeping changes in order to get people to make the change.

“For example, look at the environmental fee approach, such as was introduced in Stockholm and London – though it is known as a ‘congestion charge’ in the UK. This is a big statement of intent on the part of local governments,” he says. “These have changed people’s travelling habits quite profoundly. And there are plans to implement a similar environmental fee to enter the area surrounding Arlanda Airport with a car. This will prompt even more people to take a more environmentally-friendly form of travel.”

Is that kind of impetus the most effective, as opposed to relying on private enterprise to come up with the answers?

“I believe that having a business case for taking an environmentally conscious approach is essential and will become even more important in years to come,” says Thorstenson. “The long term plan for both the airport and the Swedish Government is to get the millions of people who currently drive to Arlanda not only to use the Arlanda Express, but to use more trains in general. For the Government, this move is intended to reduce CO2 emissions. But for the public, factors like convenience and value for money are just as important.

“Ten years from now, the environmentally conscious approach will be just as important, if not more so,” he says. “I hope that the lessons we’re learning on Arlanda Express will inform other similar efforts in future.”

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