Is It Worthwhile Catching the Tube to Central London During a Layover at Heathrow? What Naïve Tourists Should Know

The short answer to my question, “Is it worthwhile catching the Tube to Central London during a layover at Heathrow?”, would have to be a resounding “NO!!”  This is based on a recent experience we had that has sadly tarnished London’s infamous Tube’s reputation for us.

There is no doubt about it, riding the Tube as a tourist is always memorable and synonymous with the London experience.  Navigating the plethora of colours, lines, station locations, station names and platforms is something any new tourist needs to get a swift grasp on if you want to find your way around the city efficiently.

The dated maze of subterranean train tunnels connects 270 stations via 11 lines covering 402km.  This interconnected network moves over five million passenger journeys per day.  During peak hour there are more than 540 trains in motion across the city.  This is no small logistical challenge.  So, it’s expected that the system will inevitably experience some issues.  One can only hope that it’s not on the day or hour of your critical commute, as was recently the case with us.

We landed at Heathrow Airport on Sunday, December 15th 2019, on route from Canada to South Africa for a family reunion vacation.  Forced to endure a seven-hour layover before our connecting flight, and having recently explored London in the summer, we were eager to venture back into the city to see her draped in her winter cheer.  Readied with my new Canadian passport we passed effortlessly through customs and were freed of the airport confines to make a dash into the city.

Our Air Canada flight at Heathrow

Once we found our way to the Terminal 2 train departure platforms we were faced with most impulsive tourists’ dilemma: what’s the best way to get into central London?  While options like taxis, buses, Heathrow Connect or even ride-share are all viable options, we were determined to settle for the Tube or the Heathrow Express.  After chatting with an Information Desk assistant, we figured that the pro’s for taking the Heathrow Express were primarily time savings.  Since we had time on our side, we opted for the cheaper Tube option.

The Piccadilly Line provides a direct service between central London to all five Heathrow terminals.  Now offering convenient tap service, it’s possible to use your tap-activated (contactless) credit card to start and end your journey.  Once-off commuters, like us, no longer need to buy an Oyster card or pre-purchase all-zone pricey day passes when you’re not sure ahead of time how many trips you’ll be taking or which of London’s six zones you’ll need to access.

Christmas in London: so much to see, so little time

Within moments we were on the platform and boarding our Piccadilly Line train service to central London. We climbed off at Piccadilly Circus from where we hit a local Christmas market at Leicester Square, serving up a variety of craft stalls, hot seasonal beverages and a selection of comfort kiosks.

From there we ambled towards Trafalgar Square where we found a similar market in front of the National Gallery.

Since it was nearing midday we were now eager to find a place that served up real food at reasonable prices.  We stumbled upon a street sign offering a Sunday roast at The Marquis.  By now we were happy to come in from the cool outdoors and settle down for a decent meal.  Although hearty, the meal was a little less than exciting to write home about, but did fill a gap in our stomachs.

By the time we were done with lunch we figured it was best to start retracing our steps to Heathrow.  Chasing a 5pm boarding time, we left ourselves two-and-a-half hours to return to our departure gate at Terminal 2.  After a quick selfie shot at the end of the Mall near Admiralty Arch, we made a beeline back to Piccadilly Circus Station.

It wasn’t long before a Heathrow-bound train pulled up at the platform.  Now with two hours before our boarding time, we remained very comfortable that we had ample time to cover the 35-minute and 19-station journey to Terminal 2.  That was until we got to Northfields Station, a mere seven stops (and perhaps 15 minutes) short of Heathrow, where things began to unravel fast.

An unscheduled stop in Northfields goes south, fast

After an abnormally protracted stop at Northfields Station, a voice mumbled over the train’s public address system that the service was experiencing signalling issues ahead and we would be delayed a few moments while the problem was attended to.  Within another minute or two, we were told that the train we were on was not proceeding any further but that another train would be arriving at the platform within five minutes and we should transfer to that train.  Everyone poured out onto the platform in anticipation of the next train arriving while our empty train closed its doors and remained stationary.

As scheduled, another passenger-laden Heathrow-bound train pulled up at the station.  Doors opened.  Waiting passengers from our train poised themselves to board the already full train as the public address system spluttered to life.  A semi-audible voice announced that this train, too, would not be able to go any further.  We were to await further instructions.

The emotions of the growing crowd spilling onto platform from the second train was slowly becoming charged with angst as the Heathrow-destined passengers realised that they were at risk of not making their flights.  We were very much a part of that growing multitude.  I pulled at Christa’s arm as we edged our way down the platform as yet another announcement was made, this time lacking any reassurance that we’d board any train that night: “No further trains will be departing from this station.  Please exit the station and find your own way to your destinations.  I repeat, no further trains will be departing from this station.  Please exit the station and find your own way to your onward destinations”.

That was it.  We were screwed!

Suddenly there was mass panic and mayhem as the crowd began to migrate towards the only stairway exit.  Fortunately, not having to contend with any large baggage of our own, we managed to push our way through the throng in a less-than-dignified frenzy, edging our way up the stairs, through the exit turn styles and out onto the street.  All this time I frantically tried to connect my phone to some sort of roaming service in a feeble attempt to hail an Uber cab or, at the very least, figure out where we were in relation to the airport.  But, to no avail.

The crush of the rush as commuters try to escape the platform at Northfields Station and head to the streets

As we were ejected out onto the street, I spied what looked like the High Street in the distance.  Realising that it was now every commuter for themselves, I hurried Christa down the street alongside me, leaving the station crowd in a bewildered swarm behind us. 

“Can somebody please call a cab?”

We happened upon a cozy pub, The Plough Inn, where the friendly folks behind the bar listened to our story.  It didn’t take much for them to discern our escalating panic.  With no hesitation at all they called a local taxi company and arranged a pickup for us.  Our cab would arrive within 15 minutes.  It was now already 4.15pm.  With only 45 minutes until our flight boarding time, we were besides ourselves with angst, knowing we still had to get to the airport, retrieve a bag, pass through security and scurry to our gate.  This was not looking promising.

Within moments, another group of stranded train commuters arrived at the pub and requested assistance.  The obliging, friendly bar attendants willingly called the cab company, making it clear this was a separate cab request to the one they had already made for us.  By the time our cab was scheduled to arrive, the pub had made calls for a further three cabs.

It was only then that I realized the party who had arrived after us had split their group; a pair were standing inside the pub while another pair were outside.  So, when our cab arrived, the pair outside grabbed it, called their friends and headed off in our ride.  Suddenly this was turning into an ugly affair with too many stranded and desperate commuters trying to get to the same destination while the clock worked against us all.

4.35pm.  The bar attendants were now acting as gracious cab callers and arrival controllers for multiple stranded travellers who had come to request assistance.  We eventually managed to hail a cab – supposedly our replacement – and were joined by two equally desperate, elderly Swedish ladies who asked if they could share our ride with us.  Quite willing to do so, we all piled into the vehicle. 

The ride to Heathrow felt interminable.  Every red traffic light seemed to hold a grudge towards us while every available slow-moving vehicle seemed determined to block our lane.  I have no idea what route our cabby was taking but he promised it was the fastest for that hour of the evening.

“Do you accept credit card?”

Only as we were on final approach to Terminal 2 did we discover that the privately-owned local cab could not accept credit card payment.  None of us were carrying cash.  Understandably, our driver refused to let us draw cash at the airport terminal in case we disappeared into the commuting crowds.  Instead, he insisted on detouring to an ATM at a nearby fuel station.  Here, our Swedish co-passengers offered to draw cash and pay for the cab so that we could make a dash for the gate when we arrived at our destination.

We arrived at Heathrow at 5pm, the scheduled boarding time for our flight.  We still had what felt like innumerable hurdles to clear.  Would we get to our gate before it closed?

“Stop that plane!”

As I headed in one direction to retrieve my stored backpack, Christa made a beeline for the airline information counter in the other direction.  I met her at security check-in where she informed me that some other train commuters had called the airline to let them know that they were in the same dilemma as us.  The airline was aware of the Tube situation and calmed us by letting us know we still had time to get to the gate.  I could have wept with relief! 

However, there was no time to shed a tear.  Instead, I sent Christa ahead through security and passport control while I brought up the rear with all our cabin baggage that needed to be scanned and inspected.  She could hasten to the gate and let them know we were there and that I was bringing up the rear!  Once I successfully passed through the security checks and passport control I still had an agonizing 10-minute sprint to the gate.

By the time I located our departure gate it was 5.25pm.  There I found Christa sitting, red-faced and breathless.  The flight had only just started boarding.  It was the first time we were ever relieved to arrive at a gate and find our flight had been delayed!  Both sweaty and less-than-fresh-smelling we hugged and almost melted in a heap on the floor.

We had almost missed our 10-hour pre-Christmas flight to South Africa all because of a voluntary sojourn into London and an unforeseen train delay.  In all our years of fling we have never been happier to board a long-haul flight than on that Sunday evening December 15th, 2019!

Final approach to London’s Heathrow Airport … before our ordeal began.
Little did we know at this point how our day would evolve.

So, is the Tube really the best way to get from Central London to Heathrow?

Since sharing our story with London locals we’ve learnt that they don’t put much stock in the Tube reliability.  Cost-wise, at £5.90, it certainly is the best deal.  But, in the long run, it could have been a costlier ride for us had we had to pay for the cab and missed our flight.  That being said, there was no guarantee that the other commuting options would have been any more reliable or timely.

Is it best to just stay at the airport terminal and endure the long layover times?  Had we done that we wouldn’t have had a story to tell.  Perhaps, on this occasion, that would have been the more prudent option.  That’s the benefit of hindsight.

You be the judge!

Do you have a similar story to tell about the Tube?  Share you story with us in the comments below or on our contact form.  We’d love to hear and even publish them.

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