The proposal to plug Heathrow into Britain’s high-speed rail network needs cross-party support to succeed, says Arup director Mark Bostock. Ed Owen reports.
When Conservative shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers announced that a Tory government would build new high-speed rail lines (see NCE 2 October), Arup’s Heathrow Hub project was mentioned as the backbone for the 20bn proposal.
This 4.5bn scheme proposes extending the High Speed 1 line, linking London to the Channel Tunnel, from St Pancras over to Heathrow airport, where a large subterranean “hub” would be built, connecting the airport to other existing lines.
It was Arup director Mark Bostock’s team that orginally argued for a high-speed rail link from St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel a decade ago. “The Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) is a precedent, as we promoted it. It is our alignment. Then there was a competition to deliver it, which was to time and budget,” he says.
But isn’t the Heathrow Hub idea just one of a number of high-speed rail schemes? “I know of ideas, not of schemes. My understanding is that [high-speed rail pressure group] Greengauge 21 has engaged consultants to look at five corridors, and Network Rail has engaged consultants to look at capacity and new lines, and will report in due course,” he replies. “The Heathrow Hub is a proposal. One element is to extend high-speed rail infrastructure, with a terminal on the Great Western Railway and the possibility of extending infrastructure northwards or westwards. This would then be what we refer to as High Speed 2,” he says.
Arup’s Hub would plug Heathrow directly into Britain’s national and international rail network. “There are possibilities for further high-speed rail schemes and we do not think there is any contradiction [between our and other high-speed rail projects],” Bostock says. Arup will shortly begin to look at possible high-speed alignments north of London. In her speech, Villiers proposed high-speed lines between London, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds to complete in about 2027. But the 4.5bn Hub project needs cross-bench support, not just the blessing of the Tories. “We had constructive dialogue with [former transport secretary] Ruth Kelly’s officials. “Here we are, the private sector, promoting a project that has significant public benefit,” says Bostock. “We can deliver it, subject to the government enabling it and giving us the various permissions.”
However, Network Rail’s inquiry into new lines is still under way, putting any government decision about the Arup scheme into limbo. With new lines not even on the drawing board, enthusiasm for high-speed rail is in some way a distraction from the real reason for the proposed Heathrow Hub. “Heathrow’s problem is accessibility. It is such a blindingly obvious position to enable high-speed trains to link up and have a fully intermodal transport hub,” says Bostock. He remains convinced of the benefits of private enterprise, and believes that the Hub should remain privately promoted.
“CTRL is an interesting one because is was refinanced and restructured. The government guaranteed the financing so London & Continental Railways became very much a government company and was constrained with what it could do,” he says. But in these cash-strapped times private money is difficult to come by and infrastructure projects often need a copper-bottomed guarantee from government to attract finance. “Yes, that is an issue,” Bostock says. “And that is why you need discussions with government. But there also has to be risk taken by the private sector to deliver this. This is what we are discussing.”
The other major parties in discussions for the Hub would be airports operator BAA and its owner, Ferrovial, which owns Heathrow airport and would inevitably stump up much of the money. “It is the regulated company, and has a regulated asset base. Therefore our proposals contain an opportunity for significant passenger processing to take place, as an integral part of the Heathrow campus. However, that would have to be done by BAA,” he says.
Yet, as the Competition Commission has indicated, BAA must break up its monopoly of London airports. The airport operator has pre-empted any final ruling by putting Gatwick up for sale and Bostock thinks the move will make the Hub idea extremely attractive to BAA. “My assessment, is that the Hub is terrific for BAA and will increase the competitiveness of Heathrow. And we - businesses in London - need a good airport to do business and bring clients to London.
But won’t the much-talked about 16bn Crossrail scheme already supply fast journeys from Heathrow to London? That is beside the point, says Bostock. The Hub would open up Heathrow to the rest of the country; not just London to Heathrow - although that is an added benefit. “We have taken that into account. Crossrail is an underground railway line, giving connectivity, which is terrific. We would hope that all Crossrail trains would stop at the Hub. “The point is straightforward. We propose 12 platforms [accessing] on to the Great Western Line. Off-peak, all trains will stop at Heathrow on the way to Paddington. That opens up the whole of the market to Heathrow to the west and southwest like never before. Those are the services we propose to provide,” he says.
While Bostock is jubilant that the Conservatives have adopted the scheme, he wants political consensus. “For CTRL, Prescott and Heseltine supported the project at the same time. We have to get people out of five-year horizons and looking at grand projects.”
Proposed services from Heathrow Hub
Heathrow to Paris in two hours, 25 minutes and further capacity for further international services. Train services from Reading to Euston, stopping at the Hub
Domestic trains stopping, including Crossrail.
Electrification from Maidenhead to Reading, and from Oxford to Basingstoke, allowing services to run directly from Southampton.
New services from Reading to the Thames Gateway, extending Javelin rail shuttle.
24km tunnel linking Heathrow to the North London Line and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and associated rail enhancements.
Removal of Ealing bottleneck, increasing rail capacity on the Great Western Railway.