PARTIAL PRIVATISATION of London's Underground has forced Railtrack to delay plans for extending the Heathrow Express airport rail link by as much as four years.
HEX owner BAA now believes that the £500M extension's planned 2001 opening date could now go back until 2005.
At the moment HEX trains only run between Heathrow and Paddington. The new service will branch off the Great Western Main Line at Ealing and use existing track on the North London Line before joining the Thameslink route into St Pancras.
But Railtrack has shelved the plan now that the Government has given it exclusive negotiating rights to LU's subsurface lines.
Railtrack's preferred option now is to run trains to Heathrow directly from the City along the Circle and Metropolitan Lines via Paddington.
BAA's rail projects general manager Mike Noakes described the situation as 'frustrating' but said HEX was continuing to work with Railtrack to increase the number of passengers able to travel to Heathrow by train.
'We are still keen to promote the St Pancras option,' said Noakes. 'But 2001 is now very unlikely and we are looking at 2004/5 for other services into Heathrow via the Tube lines.'
He added that although BAA had proved a business case to run HEX trains to St Pancras, it was prepared to look at other options to meet Railtrack's needs. 'We will judge any new proposals on how many people they get off the roads,' he said.
BAA spent an estimated £40M adding an extra turning head in Heathrow's Central Terminal Area station to increase capacity of the railway to 16 trains an hour in each direction. At the moment it runs just four trains an hour each way and is looking for ways to boost demand. Extending to St Pancras was seen as a solution that worked.
But Railtrack fears it will have capacity problems on the Great Western Line if the Tube scheme and the HEX extension via north London go ahead.
A spokesman for Railtrack would only say: 'We are still in discussion with HEX over the St Pancras route and are still endeavouring to strike a deal.'
But NCE understands that Railtrack favours the commercial case for through running to Liverpool Street via the Tube and so is looking at the option as part of its discussions with London Underground.
London Underground has already confirmed that attempts to push extra trains down the Metropolitan or Circle Line between Baker Street and Liverpool Street would mean cutting existing Tube services or building new tunnels (NCE 24 June).
Negotiations between Railtrack, the DETR and LU are expected to continue at least until the end of the year. As a result BAA is preparing interim proposals to get around the delay and push more trains into the airport.
Options being considered include pressing ahead with a new HEX interchange at Hayes station to provide a quicker route into Heathrow for commuters from the west.
BAA is also continuing negotiations with Railtrack and local authorities to push ahead with new rail links north and south of Heathrow.