Another runway in the south east is at least 15 years away. Heathrow and Gatwick are already full. So what is the government doing to plug the gap and make best use of the airports with spare capacity? As of yet, nothing.
The debate on Heathrow and Gatwick has provoked such strong reactions that it has overshadowed any other issue regarding airport capacity in the UK.
The decision to expand seems to be the government’s sole focus, and therefore while its indecision rages on and Heathrow and Gatwick already full, what happens to the capacity problem until the new runways are up and running?
It may not be well publicised, but there are airports around the UK with spare capacity. But as in the case of Stansted, the government is so preoccupied with the runway debate that it is missing vital opportunities to make full use of this over the next 15 years.
And it’s all about timing.
One of the issues is railway connectivity to London. This plays a large part in both the passenger’s decision to fly to and from an airport, and an airline’s decision to invest in new routes which could open up new investment and significant growth in the surrounding areas.
Stansted airport is served by a line into London which it shares with commuters. Ten years ago, it took 41 minutes to get from London to the airport, today it takes 47.
“This is a service that has got more expensive and slower over time,” says Stansted Airport managing director Andrew Harrison. “It’s perverse that train links to London airports are improving to the ones that are full and not improving for the ones that have spare capacity and can take the strain and help maintain London in a competitive market.”
Stansted believes that a series of simple measures could unlock its potential and make significant improvements to this, if, and only if the government acts now.
With little room in Network Rail’s control period 5 (CP5) for more work, measures need to be put in place to get the changes needed put into the next cycle of the rail industry’s delivery plan.
But the question is, will it fill with the right routes to meet the government’s aspirations for growth?
Four-tracking the line between London and Broxbourne is one of the main improvements which would make a major difference, but a cheaper - and more immediate - package of rail improvements would also make significant impacts to the journey time. Examples of which would see rail strengthening works to allow trains to accelerate or decelerate faster, changes to level crossings, and more passing points to allow faster trains to overtake the slower ones.
“We would like to see a package of rail improvements which might cost a couple of hundred million pounds, but this is relatively small,” he says. “But nevertheless it’s the starting point for improving journey times, add those to four tracking and Crossrail 2, the cumulative effects together are very powerful.”
Other simpler changes such as introducing Wi-Fi on the trains and improving the timetable with the new franchise owners so that journeys which don’t compromise commuters can be speeded up, could also make a big difference.
The Cambridge connection is also an important consideration to throw into the mix. With an annual turnover of £13bn, Europe’s largest cluster of high profile technology firms have made their home in the university town. And it is this which Harrison thinks we should be capitalising on.
Add those to four tracking and Crossrail 2, the cumulative effects together are very powerful
Connecting this hub to the rest of the world makes sense in his eyes, however at the moment poor connectivity blights its chances of attracting the best routes serving the most useful areas for the people.
“There is a capacity crunch coming so it will fill over time,” he said. “But the question is, will it fill with the right routes to meet the government’s aspirations for growth?”
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And there are some very real economic benefits to shaving time off the journey. Harrison says that London to Stansted is the highest yielding journey on that line and is worth around £35M alone. Improving the perception that Stansted is a ‘London airport’ by reducing the journey time will attract airlines and passengers alike.
He would also like the government lift duties, a so called ‘duty holiday’ to the new routes will encourage airlines to take a punt on the smaller airports which have spare capacity rather than taking the routes to other European hubs. This he says, would make it harder to attract new businesses to the UK.
There is no doubt that the decision to build a new runway is complex and full of potential political suicides, but the government needs decouple the decision to expand and do something for the here and now.