Later this week marks the 40th anniversary of the official opening of the Gatwick Express, but not the 40th anniversary of when it carried its first passengers – that’s next week.

That’s because although the official launch, with the dignitaries and speeches, took place on Thursday 10th May 1984, the first passengers couldn’t catch their first trains until Monday 14th May 1984. So while there are two “first days”, Gatwick Express correctly considers the day it carried passengers to be its actual anniversary, as it’s the passengers who matter, not the ribbon-cutting dignitaries.

1984 advertising campaign

When it was launched, the service was said to be the “fastest direct city centre to airport overland connection in the world”, cutting the existing journey time from 42 minutes to 30 minutes.

The Gatwick Express originates from the rather Heath Robbinson approach given by the railways when the airport opened. Although Gatwick Airport was built with a dedicated railway station, the service between the airport and central London was just the usual trains that ran along the Brighton Main Line — but as the airport got busier, they needed a better service.

This was initially provided as a bit of a bodge: increasing the number of London Victoria to Bognor Regis trains but splitting the trains at Gatwick so that some carriages could be reserved for airport passengers.

This was barely an improvement, and by the late 1970s, the Gatwick Liaison Group started lobbying for a better rail service from British Rail. Eventually, that led to the creation of the Gatwick Express, when British Rail approved a £6 million investment in the Gatwick Express Service, using refurbished Intercity carriages and British Rail Class 73 locomotives.

Airlines used the Gatwick Express as a selling aid for their flights

It was advertised as offering a 30-minute service, so it shaved about 20 percent off the old journey time. The official launch on 10th May 1984 was inaugurated by the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Mrs Sitwell, who cracked a bottle of champagne on the buffers of one of the locomotives, renamed the Gatwick Express.

Curiously, while many people attending the launch date would have assumed they were the first to see this new train service, they weren’t. Ahead of its opening, the train had been on a promotional tour around the north of England for some reason.

One newspaper described it at the time as a “supertrain”, offering services every 15 minutes from 5:30am to 11pm, with a less frequent service throughout the night.

The service launched with an ad campaign by Hedger Mitchell Star using the catchphrase, “Catch the train and you’ve caught the plane”

However, there was nearly a disaster just a year later, when on 31st May 1985, a Gatwick Express train collided with the back of a slower commuter train on the approach to Victoria Station.

The two trains collided at Battersea Park Station in the morning rush hour when both trains were signalled to Platform Five. Sixty-five people were taken to the hospital for minor injuries, and ten needed to stay overnight. Fortunately, no one died or was seriously injured in the accident.

Despite that, a year after the Gatwick Express opened, British Rail reported that it had generated revenues of more than £14 million and that passenger numbers were up by nearly 40 percent on the route.

Although aimed at airport travellers, the fares were set at the same level as normal train services when launched, so London commuters living near Gatwick quickly realised they had just had a huge reduction in journey times without having to pay more for the faster trains.

The inevitable result was that the Gatwick Express trains were packed during rush hour. That didn’t last long as just a year after the service opened, a surcharge was added to season ticket holders who wanted to commute on the express service.

The train also received royal endorsement when Queen Elizabeth II used it to get from her modest little home near Victoria Station to Gatwick Airport in March 1988 to open the airport’s refurbished terminal building.

Although British Rail created the service when the railways were privatised, National Express, a bus company, won the contract to operate the Gatwick Express, beating off a management team, another bus company, and Virgin Trains. They took over in April 1996.

A decade later, the Gatwick Express was merged into the Southern franchise, partially so that it could be used to boost capacity south of Gatwick Aiport, and Govia took over the Gatwick Express in September 2009. It’s now part of the larger Govia Thameslink Railway.

There have been other changes over the decades.

Luggage porters were introduced in 1994 but didn’t seem to last that long, a new uniform, designed by Paul Costelloe was introduced in 1999, at the same time they started selling Eurostar tickets for people flying in to the UK to travel to Europe.

The 1999 refresh was part of a £100 million upgrade to the service, which saw eight new trains ordered from Alstom, with modern facilities such as on-board fax machines for busy businessmen.

The service was nearly scrapped in 2006, when the government was concerned about capacity on the Brighton mainline and looked at whether the Gatwick Express was eating up too much space on the tracks. A fast service needs more empty track ahead of it to run fast, which means fewer slower trains can use the same railway mileage, and the Gatwick Express was taking up too much railway track. However, it was given a reprieve, and in December 2008, the Gatwick Express started using refurbished Class 442 Wessex Electrics taken from South West Trains.

These were finally replaced in 2016 with the current fleet — which uses Class 387 trains in their bright red Gatwick Express livery.

Some will belittle the rail links between central London and the big three airports as little more than overpriced tourist fleecing boondoggles. But they serve an important function – they provide reassurance.

You’ve arrived at an airport you’ve never been to, to visit a city you’ve never visited in a country you might not speak the language — and it’s reassuring to see a simple easy to understand transport link between the airport and the city centre.

People will pay a modest premium for the reassurance that they will be on a dedicated airport-to-city link and not have to squeeze onto crowded commuter trains with little space for luggage and not being entirely sure if it’s even the correct train.

When it launched in May 1984, the second-class fare was £3.30 per trip. Adjusted for inflation, that should be £10.35 today. It’ll actually cost you £20.50.

And though it started modestly, forty years later, the Gatwick Express is still going strong.

But the question – will you mark the anniversary on Friday 10th May or Tuesday 14th May?

Wine glass from the 10th May 1984 launch – author’s collection


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  1. David Harris says:

    Splitting Bognor trains was nothing new. This used to happen in the 60s. The split section left vat Gatwick to await the next up service was designated Silver Arrow and was part of a service to and from Paris and London. Of course it was used by other passengers. There were also dedicated porters who would put your luggage on the train. These were highly sought after jobs because of the tips.

  2. MilesT says:

    Of course, the Gatwick express is only quicker if your ultimate destination is in the West End. If going to the City or East or North West (including Luton Airport) the less well promoted Thameslink is often quicker overall, and usually cheaper (with hacks available to make it cheaper still if you are willing to take a bit longer)

    The Thameslink interconnection at Farringdon with the Elizabeth line has also been a game changer for travel to/from Gatwick Airport.

    And of course improvements elsewhere in the last 40 years have made access to Luton, City, and Heathrow quicker (now all much the same time as Gatwick); of the “London” airports the “slowcoaches” are Stansted and Southend.

  3. Juno says:

    The service from London Bridge still seemes to be cheaper and takes the same time, even though it stops at East Croydon. A long time since I caught it: it wasn’t configured as a traveller’s train with lots of room for luggage, but worth taking if you were in the eastern half of town.

  4. Simon Adams says:

    I still think it’s a waste of capacity, most GE trains are carrying 90% fresh air and few passengers.

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