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Airport development and rail networks should go hand in hand

No-one ever thought that the work of the Airports Commission would be easy. Tasked with developing options to deliver new runway capacity and secure the future of a UK aviation hub (whether located at Heathrow or elsewhere), it has had to face up to a plethora of conflicting priorities and competing proposals.

An expanded Stansted or a new Thames Estuary airport might offer the desired four runways, but only with huge controversy, disruption, expense, and the very serious drawback of being on the wrong side of London for most of the UK regional hinterland. It’s also possible that the international businesses currently clustered around Heathrow will decide to relocate abroad, to either Paris or Frankfurt.

This consideration appears to have dominated the deliberations of the Airports Commission. It has looked favourably upon the option of a second runway at Gatwick, apparently achievable without undue environmental impact or adverse effect upon the Heathrow “cluster”. But Heathrow and Gatwick as two independent airports cannot constitute an efficient aviation hub, and a third runway at Heathrow still looks the most likely outcome. 

There’s a distinct sense of recent history repeating itself, with only the location of the proposed new runway having changed. There will be the same vehement local opposition to the destruction of communities and new flightpath intrusion, and the expansionists seem no more likely to succeed this time. There’s also the same nagging doubt that in the game of “runway poker”, a three-runway Heathrow with no further option to expand will always lose out to its more spaciously-sited continental rivals.

And while the Airport Commission wrestles with the near-impossible task of developing an expanded airport hub for London, the wider plot is being lost. Few have recognised that; whatever hub solution emerges, it must serve the entire country; and to do so, efficient surface access links must be created.

Currently, such links are dire, to put it mildly. Direct rail links only exist to central London; for all journeys to the UK’s industrial heartlands, an inconvenient Tube transfer to the northern main lines is required. This poor international connectivity is a major contributor to the north-south divide that has long afflicted the UK economy.

High Speed 2 (HS2) was supposed to solve this particular problem, with a convenient branch from its new line through the Chilterns to connect Heathrow to its UK hinterland. But HS2’s two-track stem lacks the capacity to offer regional services to both central London and Heathrow, and HS2’s few stations are inconveniently located for most regional communities.No proposals have yet emerged for HS2’s Heathrow station, and only two regional services per hour are proposed, serving four parkway stations and two poorly-connected terminals in the Midlands and the North.

There is a much smarter strategy. For one, the existing/planned schemes (Heathrow Express, Airtrack, Western Access and new “northern orbital arm”) could be integrated into the through-running ‘Compass Point’ Network, efficiently linking Heathrow to national rail network. Most centres would be a single change of trains from Heathrow, with several cities on a single line of route, and requiring only four hourly trains to connect all major cities. The trains could continue on the new high speed line from Heathrow to Gatwick, where an extra runway (when required) could be built, and then Gatwick achieves the same improved national rail access as Heathrow. In addition, the operation of dedicated passenger transfer/luggage/cargo shuttles along the same high speed line allows multi-site hub operation.

High Speed UK enables all the benefits of expanded airport operation, but without the pain of demolished homes and communities, and with vastly improved direct access to 22 cities in the UK regions. This highlights the imperative for a national transport plan to integrate rail network and airport development. 

See Colin’s 2001 paper Rails around London: In search of the Railway M25, proposing development of Heathrow’s rail links, including a direct link to Gatwick.

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