Luton DART inquiry set to investigate project delays as it nears £70m overspend

Luton DARTLuton DART
Luton DART
Work started on the 1.4-mile Luton DART system almost five years ago

An independent inquiry is set to examine the reasons delaying the Luton direct air-rail transit (DART) operating, while the project nears a £70m overspend.

The driverless shuttle service between London Luton Airport and Luton Airport Parkway railway station was initially forecast to cost £225m and was due to open in 2021.

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But the pandemic and a number of organisational problems have put back the schedule, with a definite opening date still to be announced and the final price predicted to be close to £300m.

Work started on the 1.4-mile Luton DART system almost five years ago, and it was intended to be completed by the end of 2020.

As well as contending with lockdowns, delays have included ticketing issues, a missing fire hydrant for the railway station, and reorganising a failure to install six telephone connections ordered for lifts and help points.

The first passenger trials were held last week, involving 120 volunteers carrying an empty suitcase who participated in customer service and health and safety scenarios.

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Confirmation of the investigation into what went wrong was welcomed by the Liberal Democrat group on Luton Borough Council.

“Comments from local residents prove Liberal Democrats were right to call for an inquiry into the reasons for the project running two years late and heading for a £70m overspend on the original budget,” said group leader and Barnfield councillor David Franks.

“We’re really pleased the council has accepted the position is so serious that only an independent inquiry can satisfy taxpayers’ demands for a full explanation of what went wrong.

“People were very angry when we told them the £225m rapid passenger transport system to the airport terminal building was not only two years late, but heading for a final cost of around £300m.

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“We were told the DART system would be carrying airport passengers and their luggage from the railway station to the terminal by the spring of 2021.

“We’re now well into 2023 and still they can’t provide a start date. There’s little doubt the system will be a major asset for the council owned airport company, if and when it finally gets going.”

Luton Rising, the trading name for the council’s airport company London Luton Airport Limited, has acknowledged costs “may exceed £290m”.

A spokesman said: “The Luton DART is a game-changing development for the town to deliver a world-class, sustainable and seamless transfer for rail passengers.

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“It’s future-proofed to secure the ongoing success of our airport and the vital funding we provide for front line services, as well as the voluntary and community organisations which support people’s lives across Luton.

“A detailed project programme is in place as we continue to work towards opening by Easter, outlining all remaining activities to finish the construction and prepare for operation.

“As with all our major infrastructure schemes, Luton Rising and the council will review its success and any lessons learned following completion.”

DART programme director Ruud Haket said last month: “There are a number of construction issues which need finishing, and elements around contracts and the readiness of the organisation.”