Terminal velocity

Heathrow Express has to be good. Quite apart from the 450m investment by BAA in the fast rail link from London’s Paddington station to Heathrow Airport, it will be launched next week by Prime Minister Tony Blair with an underlying pledge to remove 3000 airport-related car and taxi journeys from busy west London roads.

A travel time of 15 minutes on a service running at 15-minute intervals from 5.10am to 11.40pm daily is attractive, especially when you “land” at the right airport terminal from central London. Throw in check-in facilities at Paddington, dedicated trains and airport stations and BAA could be on to a winner.

Indeed, the airport operator is banking on six million passengers over the next 12 months for its wholly-owned subsidiary and sees the service as helping Heathrow maintain its position as the world’s biggest international airport. The only deterrent to a wholesale switch by travellers from the Piccadilly Line is the 10 single fare compared with the 3.20 Tube ticket.

The launch next Tuesday ends a four-year journey for Wolff Olins, brought on board by the BAA/British Rail Board joint venture in 1994 to devise a concept for the whole service.

Until then, the design had been approached in a piecemeal way. Minale Tattersfield had gone a long way down the line on a scheme for the two airport stations – Heathrow Central Terminals 1, 2 & 3 and Heathrow Terminal 4 – Design Triangle was working on train interiors and Newcastle architect Couves had designed all non-public facilities, such as the control rooms. And at Paddington Station, architect Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners was planning the upgrade of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great masterpiece, BAA architect Gebler Tooth working with Grimshaw’s team to integrate the Heathrow Express “terminal”at platform 6.

The service was “a blank sheet of paper” for Heathrow Express design manager Joanna O’Driscoll when she joined airport operator BAA three years ago, having previously worked with Wolff Olins. With 120 designers and other suppliers, it appears to have been one of the best bits of teamwork in the transport business, with the support of Heathrow Express chairman Rod Hoare.

According to Wolff Olins chairman Brian Boylan, “We had to establish what the brand was and then find a way to express it consistently.” The opening debate, taking in the service, the overall brand and the design, was “is this to be a premium world-class service or Heathrow’s Gatwick Express?”

Research across the UK, Europe and North America showed the world-class option to be the best. The 15-minute non-stop journey with easy access to the airport and central London was the big selling point. Also on the wish-list were easy ticketing systems, a check-in at Paddington and information available on trains.

From then on, working hand-in-hand with O’Driscoll and her team, Wolff Olins’ job was to position the service and deliver strategies for the identity, the stations and trains and a promotional campaign.

The main themes identified for the rail service were that it is a brand new, dedicated service, that it’s quicker than the alternatives and that its own terminals and ticketing mean it is more efficient and easier to use. It was perceived as a superior service, unlike either airlines or the Tube.

For the past few months, travellers have been able to sample the service courtesy of the interim FastTrain service. This was introduced in January this year when the trains were ready but the stations had been delayed for six months after a tunnel collapse on site in 1994. FastTrain took 25-30 minutes, with a transfer from train to dedicated coach at the makeshift Heathrow Junction station.

Even though its life was short, FastTrain had much to commend it, notably the design of the trains which have been given the Heathrow Express livery for next week’s launch. Boylan says the same attention to detail on the trains runs throughout the full service. With largely business travellers expected, that will be all-important. Why else would a 15-minute service need a first-class section?


The design of the two Heathrow stations – Heathrow Central Terminals 1, 2 & 3 and Heathrow Terminal 4 – started four years ago, when Wolff Olins was brought in by BAA and British Airways to audit Minale Tattersfield’s earlier scheme. Newcastle architect Couves was already on board to handle technical aspects of the non-public spaces.

Mintat’s designs ‘had a clear underlying vision’, says Wolff Olins architect Rob Wood, but they were not in line with the overall strategy for Heathrow Express. Wolff Olins chairman Brian Boylan is bolder – he says Mintat had done a very good piece of work, but the design ‘had been value-engineered almost out of it’.

Wolff Olins’ concept for station interiors has been to strip the tunnel bare and install a simple, efficient skin of glass-reinforced concrete panels. These are clad to above-head height with translucent glazing to add to the overall impression of lightness. The same simplicity features in the wood seating, designed by Terence Woodgate for SCP.

Wood and others in the team had previously worked on London Underground’s Jubilee Line and were aware of the pitfalls of installing more expensive claddings such as vitreous enamel and running electrics and other services behind them. Money saved on cladding was spent on product design for elements such as the suspended boom system over the platforms and light fittings. Wolff Olins handled this, working with lighting consultant Miles Pinniger on a lighting scheme that would give character to the stations.

At Heathrow Central, the lift shafts are clad with a perforated metal skin to create a ‘light wall’. This will provide a backdrop for projections by Scott Burgess at next week’s launch event, which is being created by Caribiner, and will continue to feature installations, including projections by Dick Straker.

‘Refinement and detail were absolutely critical,’ says Wood. With this in mind, full-size prototypes were created of many of the elements. Wolff Olins detailed everything, says Boylan, but did not produce the working drawings. Couves designed the control rooms and other functional elements and made sure Wolff Olins’ designs complied with regulations.

Signage at the airport stations follows the BAA standard of black and yellow where the services interface. Wolff Olins worked on the signing strategy and product design. Boylan explains the rationale: ‘Like the architecture, you only get a sign when you have to.’

At Paddington station things are rather different and, apart from check-in desks on the platforms, the service fits in with the masterplan by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, which is being carried out by architect Troughton McAslan.


Client:Heathrow Express, wholly-owned subsidiary of BAA

Overall concept and identity: Wolff Olins

Non-public architecture:Couves

Paddington interface:Gebler Tooth

Technical input on trains: Design Triangle

FastTrain identity and down-the-line graphics:

Glazer Design Associates

Launch event:



Heathrow Express chose Spanish firm Caf, from Saragossa, to design and build the trains. Wolff Olins stepped in to reconfigure the company’s standard rolling stock to suit the image of the service, working closely with UK train design specialist Design Triangle. According to Brian Boylan, the result reflects airline thinking to make the transition easier for passengers.

Caf’s standard carriage has two entrances on either side and ‘plug’ doors. The biggest change to the metallic blue Heathrow Express trains is the nose. Whereas a pointed shape suggests high speed over a long distance and a flat snub nose symbolises urban travel, explains Boylan, Heathrow Express has a ‘crash helmet’ effect, with wraparound glass visor and a continuous glass ‘ribbon’ along the train doors. The result, he says, is that the train looks fast yet gives the impression the destination isn’t far.

Interior changes to what Boylan describes as ‘like Bulgarian State railway trains’ included luggage and facilities racks and seats. A central ceiling feature handles lighting, heating and air-conditioning, which are filtered into carriages through louvres. Spacious loos have been added which include wheelchair capacity.

Because the lighting emanates from the ceiling and not from the carriage sides, as is usual, overhead luggage racks are glass. So too are the roomy luggage stacks that face the doors and are visible to all passengers.

Lightweight seating faces towards the doors, so passengers can keep an eye on their luggage, and in First Class, designed by Heathrow Express, there are four seats around tables.

Research showed that passengers wanted a sense of privacy when travelling, so seats have been designed to reinforce the sense of personal space. Seat backs are separated and angled so passengers can see through the train and a short arm can be brought down between seats.


A change in scheduling in 1994 has meant the graphics for the project have run on two parallel tracks: the main Heathrow Express identity which was created by Wolff Olins, though implemented in some instances by others, and Glazer Design Associates’ branding for the interim FastTrain service.

Wolff Olins decided that it wanted a symbol for the main service. ‘We wanted to be very modern and for Express to become a brand,’ says Boylan. The resulting X marque appears on trains, stationery, literature, merchandising and other promotional items.

Wolff Olins designer Adam Throup explains that there has been a deliberate departure from ‘go faster’ train graphics. Like the stations, it’s ‘modern and stripped down… It’s radically different and speaks for itself.’ The navy and lilac colourway is also a move away from traditional railway liveries.

This simplicity is reflected in the directness of the ads, created by TBWA GGT Simons Palmer for Heathrow Express. Wolff Olins lost the pitch for the ads, but it did create the on-screen graphics for the network, on the trains and on touch-screen ticketing machines. West London consultancy Crown is working on the website.

FastTrain was introduced in January as an interim service, because the rolling stock was ready, but the tunnel collapse three years previously meant the airport terminals were not. Journey times of about half an hour involved transferring from the train at the makeshift Heathrow Junction to dedicated coaches onwards to the airport and vice versa.

The identity by Glazer, which also created the ads for the FastTrain service, follows similar lines to the Heathrow Express branding, with a direct, modern image. According to Heathrow Express design manager Joanna O’Driscoll, FastTrain had ‘a microscopically small budget’, but had to be handled carefully to make it marketable. ‘But it had a limited life, so we didn’t want to build up too much equity,’ she says.

Glazer’s involvement follows work to launch the Heathrow Express concept in 1996.

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