‘Cable car’ shuttle brings Luton Airport within 30 minutes of central London

A £290m “cable car” shuttle that will put Luton airport within about 30 minutes of central London has been unveiled.

The Luton Dart (Direct Air-Rail Transit) takes just over three minutes to transport passengers 2.1km (1.3 miles) from Luton Parkway rail station to Luton airport – meaning they will no longer have to wait for a shuttle bus.

But it will cost £4.90 per trip for adults - more than double the price of the slower and less frequent bus - though children under five travel for free and those aged five to 15 pay half-price.

Cable car: the Dart shuttle is pulled by a cable system up the hill to Luton airport (Supplied)
Cable car: the Dart shuttle is pulled by a cable system up the hill to Luton airport (Supplied)

The fare is reportedly higher per mile than the Heathrow Express but it is still cheaper than the £6.70 zone 1 Tube fare for passengers paying cash – and also, on a per-mile basis, about a quarter of the £2.80 Oyster fare charged for the 400m trip between Covent Garden and Leicester Square.

Graham Olver, chief executive of Luton Rising, the regeneration body that has overseeing the building of the Dart, said: “Yes, it’s a short distance but it’s technologically quite difficult.

“The rise in height is about the same as the Statue of Liberty. It’s like the Suez canal - it’s value is in the connectivity.”

He added: “Yes, per mile, it looks expensive but its value is huge.”

Work began in 2018 and was delayed by the pandemic. Luton council, which owns the airport, has paid for the Dart, which aims to increase passenger demand at the airport.

There are longer term plans to build a second terminal at Luton to maximise use of the single runway. The Dart could also be expanded if required.

Council leader Hazel Simmons said she was “delighted and a little amazed” to be able to unveil the new shuttle.

“Passengers will notice a tremendous difference getting to and from the airport by rail,” she said.

The Dart shuttle station beside Luton Parkway rail station (Ross Lydall)
The Dart shuttle station beside Luton Parkway rail station (Ross Lydall)

King Charles was given a preview on a visit to Luton last December. A “soft launch” began last weekend and passengers will be able to use the connection for several hours a day ahead of the formal opening at the end of March.

Revenues from the airport, the home of EasyJet, generate about £30m a year for the council.

Luton residents can apply for half-price fares, and free travel for the borough’s pensioners.

Each driverless shuttle can carry 170 passengers in its four walk-through “cars”. There is the aspiration to increase Luton airport’s passenger numbers from 18m-19m passengers a year to 32m.

One shuttle operates backwards and forwards on each of the two parallel tracks.

Journeys from St Pancras to the terminal can be done in 32 minutes using Thameslink services – and slightly quicker using East Midlands Railway services from the same station. East Midlands Railway operates a twice-hourly express service direct to Luton Parkway station.

The shuttle bus, which costs £2.40, runs about every 10 minutes and takes 10 to 15 minutes depending on traffic, will continue to offer an alternative way of reaching the airport.

At peak time, the Dart, which is pulled up to the airport by a cable car pulley system under the carriages, will run every four minutes.

Passengers from London will be able to purchase a “through ticket” that includes the price of the Dart.

Contactless cards can be used but Oyster cards are not valid on either the rail services or the Dart.

The wider aim is to boost the Luton economy, which continues to reel from the downsizing of the Vauxhall car plant from employing 35,000 people to 4,000 people, and to reduce the number of airport passengers who arrive by car.

At present, 29 per cent of the airport’s passengers arrive by public transport. The aim is to increase this to 40 per cent.