Greengauge 21 welcomes the ending of uncertainty on Government’s preference for where additional runway capacity should be located. In opting for the third runway at Heathrow, it has stressed how this airport is better placed than Gatwick to deliver benefits across the nation as a whole, and not just for the south east. This is true, but not by virtue of the plan to use the additional capacity created to operate more domestic air services – these could just as easily be added to an expanded Gatwick.
What’s been missed is the unique opportunity at Heathrow to use existing and planned rail links to provide a wide set of direct rail services to the airport from across a much wider catchment.
We know from the success of direct rail services to Manchester Airport (from widespread locations such as Scotland, the Northeast, Yorkshire, the whole of the North West – and soon from North Wales too) that these services have huge appeal and are a commercial success. And looking at Heathrow’s international competitors we also see the success of direct rail services (including high-speed rail) from widespread locations to world hub airports such as Amsterdam’s Schiphol, CDG Paris and Frankfurt.
An expanded Heathrow surely merits the equivalent. The new western rail access should be upgraded so that it can provide an hourly direct service to Heathrow from each of Cornwall/Devon and Somerset; from South Wales and Bristol; from the West Midlands and Oxford; and from the East Midlands using the new Bicester – Milton Keynes east-west rail link. A southern link (also mentioned by the Secretary of State for Transport in announcing the third runway) should not be restricted to the airport’s immediate catchment, much though it might help those under the flight-path to have the chance to access the airport themselves more easily. Instead it should be designed to connect the major travel generators in Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex to the airport.
Taking these ready opportunities with Crossrail’s connections from Heathrow to London’s West End, the City, Docklands and north Kent/Essex, it is clear that regardless of the debate around the value of Heathrow as an air hub, it is time to recognise Heathrow’s role as a rail hub. This isn’t just a rail network nicety. It means that the case for creating the necessary infrastructure is not something to insist on the airport owner alone providing, because the rich mix of M25-style rail journeys and benefits that a rail hub will bring come regardless of whether Heathrow gets a third runway. The funding mix needs to reflect this point. And planning should not be delayed, because it is important that development plans for the airport’s third runway do not inhibit the rational development of surface transport west of London, which if it is to succeed, will rely on a hub rail facility at Heathrow.
The Government statement on Heathrow’s third runway has made clear that the final decision will include conditions which will require the airport to meet both local air quality and road traffic congestion limits. The detail of those conditions will be one of the matters covered in the consultation on the National Policy Statement, and also in the subsequent consideration of the detailed planning applications. If Government wants to give itself a good chance to negotiate the planning hurdles ahead, it would do well to initiate a strategic examination of the scope to develop the rail network at Heathrow in the way described. In the past, incremental decisions on rail links as conditions of serial planning consents have created an inefficient rail infrastructure at Heathrow that is unable to contribute to the needs of the surrounding sub-region. The habit needs to be broken.