Luton Council’s £243m Gamble : Have they lost the plot?

It is not very often that when a Council gets a service for free, that they decide they can do a better job at a price tag of £243m.

For years, as part of their franchise agreement with the government, Thameslink, who are the principal rail operator at Luton Airport Parkway Station are obliged to run a shuttle bus service between the airport terminal and Luton Airport Parkway.   This service is operated at no cost to the Council or its airport.    According to the Thameslink Fare Finder website, the service takes on average 6 minutes and stops directly outside the terminal in its own dedicated bus bay.

This was not good enough for Luton Borough Council (LBC) and their Council leader Hazel Simmons who decided a driverless train was a better solution at a cost of £243m.   “It’s costing a lot of money, but we cannot afford not to do it when we need to provide the sort of infrastructure expected by the modern traveller”

So what is the modern traveller getting for £243m? 

According to the Council, it will reduce the travel time to just 5 minutes compared to the existing 6 minutes with each saved second costing the Council £3.75m.  By way of comparison, Luton Council have already agreed to make savings of £3m to Children’s Social Services on a budget of £78.4m, which have been condemned by Ofsted who gave Luton its lowest possible score.

So what was the motive for blowing £243m of Council taxpayers’ money, most of whom will never use the service?

Was it to increase the airport’s existing capacity, which is 18 million passengers a year? 

This was actually reached in 2019, a full 2 years before the driverless train, called the DART, is planned to commence service, so that was not the reason.

Was it to save 60 seconds in the door to door travel times between the terminal and the station?  With the new terminal station a 2 minute walk away from the terminal, the transit time will be longer than it is now for many passengers.

Is it because the new link will operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? 

The existing shuttle buses also run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Will it save the Council money after it is opened?

The existing arrangement is at no cost to the Council but the new replacement service requires an operating agreement with the manufacture of the driverless trains that lasts for initially 5 years, plus an option of another 5 years.  This contract is believed to be valued at several millions of pounds.

The question has to be asked – why is the Council blowing £243m of Council taxpayer money when they are facing bankruptcy, for a fancy driverless train when it had a free service?

The Dart has nothing to do with providing a link with the existing terminal but everything to do with providing a service to a second terminal when it would then be needed.   With the Council funding the Dart it will help smooth a Development Consent Order application to government and take the financial burden of building the first phase of the Dart away from a future company, if it wins a contract to build and operate a 32m passenger airport.

This is a massive gamble for the Council, as the world is a different place from when the Council approved their own planning application with no proper scrutiny from Councillors.

If the Government refuses planning permission the council have thrown away almost the entire 3 year budget for Children’s Services who are already suffering under this Council.

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