Making art out of rubbish

Heathrow Express has used litter left on trains to create imagery for a campaign that highlights its sustainability credentials

What links Kirstie Allsopp, discarded coffee cups and airports? The answer may not immediately spring to mind, but it is the Heathrow Express – the train link that, for the past 20 years, has delivered more than 100 million passengers between London Paddington station and the eponymous airport in just 15 minutes.

Passengers arriving at Terminal 2 have been greeted by massive photographs of artworks which tell the story of Heathrow Express’ programme of sustainability.

The photographs are of sculptures made by artist Rebecca Sutherland using waste material left on the trains – such as tickets, coffee cups and newspapers. The walk from the station platform to the terminal, which takes ten minutes, tells passengers about the number of female drivers employed by Heathrow Express, its all-electric fleet and the work it does in the community.

These tales are told in text and in the sculptures. There’s a photo of a fish and chip meal made partly from discarded drink cans (the ring pull being the fish’s eye) which is intended to highlight the work done in the community. The creative team at sustainability agency Given London was behind the project and admits that it took Allsopp’s handmade crafting projects as an inspiration.

Associate creative director Matt Wright said that the idea was to produce little vignettes into the Heathrow Express sustainability programme. ‘It’s not like a Tube advert which you can read while you are sitting on the Underground. The idea is that you interact with it in different ways – you can stand and read it all or take it in visually while passing through on the way to the terminal. It’s all about celebrating the achievement of the sustainability of the Heathrow Express,’ he explains.

But why would a train service want to promote its sustainability credentials over the last 20 years rather than, say, its reliability or cost-effectiveness? And was sustainability even discussed at the inception of the service?

Chris Crauford is Heathrow Express’ head of commercial. ‘Since day one of the Heathrow Express we have always been trying to make a difference,’ he says.
He adds that the advertisements are ‘probably our most ambitious attempt to engage passengers in our sustainability credentials and bring our brand to life in a way that goes beyond the speed, reliability and customer services we’re known for’.

There is also the question of competition, however. Heathrow Express might be quick but it is not as cheap as a trip on the Piccadilly line. And many travellers still arrive by car. A spokesman for Heathrow Express adds: ‘We’re supporting Heathrow’s aim for 50 per cent of all passengers to travel to and from the airport by public transport by 2030.’
Competition for rail passengers will heighten later this year when the Crossrail project, the Elizabeth Line, is due to open in full.

While the Elizabeth Line will take 22 minutes from Paddington to Heathrow Central, seven minutes longer than the Heathrow Express, there will be six services an hour and for those working in the City or points east it will offer a seamless, no-change journey. Thus the need, perhaps, for the Heathrow Express to sell itself from a different perspective: namely sustainability.

So let’s talk rubbish for starters. Every day, passengers discard newspapers, coffee cups and drinks cans on the trains. Those items are cleared up and sent off to Heathrow Express’ recycling plant beside the M25.

‘We are part of Heathrow Airport and so are part of the Heathrow 2.0 sustainability programme,’ adds Crauford. One of the sculptures features discarded train tickets – although Crauford says that Heathrow Express was the first train company to offer e-tickets, back in 2008.

The trains are electric (perhaps surprisingly, only 42 per cent of UK railways are electrified, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers). ‘It costs less than one cycle of the washing machine to transport one passenger,’ says Crauford. ‘And our trains also use energy recovery technology which captures energy generated when braking and puts it back into the trains’ batteries.’

It’s all about celebrating the achievement of the sustainability of the Heathrow Express

Then there’s the community programme. Paddington borders some of the most desirable parts of the capital – Maida Vale, Marylebone and to the west, Notting Hill. But it’s also got pockets of deprivation with big local authority estates including Lisson Green, plus a younger than average population, ethnic diversity and lower-than-average for the UK levels of home ownership.

In 2018, Heathrow Express gave 500 people hours to the local community. Staff, for example, helped out with gardening at a local day centre in the Edgware Road for a couple of days. And they also cooked meals for local people visiting the North Paddington Food Bank in the Harrow Road. ‘We’re very involved with the Paddington Partnership, a not-for-profit organisation,’ says Crauford. ‘We’re twinned with local school the Harris Academy in St John’s Wood. We go in there to talk to the pupils and part of that is telling them what the Heathrow Express does and introducing the idea of working for Heathrow Express as a career. And we also help out with mock interviewing to help pupils develop skills to enhance their job prospects.’

As far as careers are concerned, Heathrow Express likes recruiting locally; if train drivers live nearby, it is easier covering early starts and late finishes. One of the adverts on display depicts paper sculptures of three women drivers. Crauford says: ‘Right from the start of the Heathrow Express there has been a policy of getting a balance of recruitment for men and women.

‘Currently a third of our drivers are women – this compares with typically five per cent across train companies.’ Offering flexible rosters which fit in with childcare and other commitments has helped with recruiting women drivers, and the simplicity of the route helps too: drivers know they will not be doing runs to distant points with the possible danger of finishing work late and a long way away from home.

We’ve got a great story to tell – and this is the way we are communicating it

Heathrow Express also has a policy of promoting from within – many drivers started as platform staff. Its Gender Pay Gap report last year revealed it did not exist at Heathrow Express – at 2.91 per cent, women are on average paid slightly more than men. Reflecting the local area, there are 40 different nationalities employed by Heathrow Express.
Before changes last autumn which meant that drivers are now employed by Great Western Railways, there were 435 staff, 90 per cent of whom worked on the trains or in the stations and 72 of whom were train drivers. In the head office, the male-female ratio is 50:50. However for the top pay quartile, the male-female ratio is 60:40.

Back to the campaign: why did Heathrow Express feel the need to tell a story about all these projects and initiatives? ‘Our sustainability approach was just one great secret,’ says Crauford. ‘We wanted to show what we are doing – that’s the idea the fantastic artwork is communicating. It shows what we are as a brand. It gives people an emotional connection with Heathrow Express. We know that we’ve got a great story to tell – and this is the way we are communicating it.’

So next time you’re travelling on the Heathrow Express, watch out for the posters: they’re going to tell you a story – even if it’s not one that’s really about trains.