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An airport rail link is a service providing passenger rail transport from an airport to a nearby city; by mainline- or commuter trains, rapid transit, people mover or light rail. Direct links operate straight to the airport terminal, while other systems require an intermediate use of people mover or shuttle bus.

While popular solutions in Europe and Japan for decades, only recently have other Asian, North American and Oceanian links been constructed. Advantages for the rider include faster travel time, easy interconnection with other public transport and high comfort, while authorities have benefited from less highway and parking congestion, pollution reductions and possibilities for extra profits. Onwards connection benefit airports by reaching out to greater areas.

Mass transit

For airports built within or close to the city limits, extending mass transit systems like rapid transit or light rail to airport terminals allows full integration with other public transport in the city, and seamless transport to all parts of town. Service frequency will be high, although travel time is a drawback as the services make many intermediate stops before reaching the city center. A common solution involves building a separate people mover from a mass transit station to the airport terminal, often using automated systems, allowing faster travel time and fare discrimination, for instance Orlyval. Other systems operate as separate rapid transit lines from major mass transit terminals, such as AirTrain JFK.

Mainline rail

Dedicated railway lines to airports have become popular since the 1980s, with airport terminals for airport express, intercity and commuter trains, allowing one-seat travel to the check-in halls. This solution requires the building of new track; a cheaper option being establishing a new station of an existing line connected to the airport by people mover or shuttle bus.

Integration with intercity services has produced alliances where airlines sell connecting service by rail. Central Europe has seen integration of high-speed rail into airports, with TGV and ICE services domestically and internationally operated directed from Charles de Gaulle International Airportmarker and Frankfurt Airportmarker. Because of this many airport stations have received IATA codes.

Other airports have instead chosen to focus on an airport express train dedicated to high-speed transport from the airport to the city centre; a solution often opted for where the airport is located outside the urban area and mass transit system, but where a direct downtown service is required, such as Flytoget serving Oslo Airport, Gardermoenmarker. Other airports are served by both express trains and rapid transit, such as London Heathrow Airportmarker.

These solutions often have the drawback of lower frequencies (e.g. twice per hour).


Where the train station is not located at the airport, a shuttle system is required on the last part of the journey; either using a people mover (often automated) or a bus. While the former allows low operating costs and higher perceived quality, the latter does not require specialized infrastructure to be built; often becoming the preferred choice at smaller or low-cost airports. Because shuttles remove the one-seat advantage of a rail link, market shares are dominantly lower with these types of system, often requiring passengers intermediate waiting time while transferring and waiting for a new mode of transport.

Some airports have a system where the rail link only serves one terminal or concourse; passengers must instead use an airport circulator to reach the necessary terminal. Circulators typically also serve parking lots, and sometimes airport hotels.

Connection types

One-seat ride via main-line train

Commuter rail-type service directly from a city centre to the airport, without needing to change trains and sometimes without intermediate stops;



North America


One-seat ride via local public transport

Many cities also provide a link to their airports through their rapid transit or light rail systems, which, unlike express trains, often make numerous stops on the way to the airport. At some airports, such as O'Hare in Chicago or Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, the rapid transit train only visits one terminal or concourse; passengers must transfer to an airport circulator to reach other terminals or concourses.



North America

Rail to airport people mover

A hybrid solution adopted in some cities is a direct rail connection to an airport train station instead of to the airport itself. At the airport train station, the passenger switches to a people mover or other train that goes to the airport terminals. The same system can also serve passengers moving between different terminals and traveling between the terminals and car rental lots or parking areas.


North America

Rail to bus to airport

Another common arrangement requires the passenger to take a train (or metro) to a railway station (usually) near the airport and then switch to a bus that goes to the airport terminals.



North America

In the 1980s, New York City Transit had a service called the JFK Express (advertised as the Train To The Plane) that was unpopular and eventually cancelled. It was essentially a premium-fare subway ride to a bus that went to JFK Airportmarker. Afterwards the bus continued to run, serving Howard Beachmarker station until the opening of AirTrain JFK in 2003.



Other cities are considering airport rail link services.

See also

External links


  1. Railway Gazette International July 2008 403.

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