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Planes or trains?

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At a Transport Times conference on 26th January, Sir David Rowlands, chairman of Gatwick Airport, suggested that it is “nonsense to suggest that building a high-speed network means there is no need for more runway capacity in the south-east.”

With more demand for flight paths than the combined runways at Heathrow and Gatwick can accommodate today, even a highly attractive high-speed rail alternative may not lead to fewer flights at these two airports. But there will be a substantial shift in the flight mix, allowing the airports to make up lost ground in offering longer haul destinations while high-speed rail replaces energy inefficient short-haul flights.

That’s a change worth having on two counts:

  1. It will reduce carbon emissions overall, with fewer feeder flights from the UK to Amsterdam Schiphol, Paris Charles De Gaulle and Frankfurt.
  2. It will improve Britain’s global connectivity.

At the moment, domestic flights are being squeezed out of Heathrow. Every year sees another connection lost between Heathrow and the North – Leeds-Bradford and Teesside are the most recent to be cut off. Over time this is leaving the North of England with progressively poorer connections to the country’s main international gateway. Not good for an attempt to re-balance the economy.

The development of Britain’s HSR network will progressively reduce the demand for the domestic air travel.  HS2 Ltd’s cautious estimates show that HS2 – the first stage of a national HSR network – could reduce air passenger trips by 10,000 per day.

Yes, the high demand for slots at Heathrow and Gatwick mean any freed airport capacity is likely to be used up quickly. Sir David Rowlands’ shareholders can be reassured. But the nation cannot afford existing congestion – in this case, at airports – to be an impediment to tackling the poor state of the nation’s transport system.