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The Davies Commission must look at National Connectivity

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It appears that the Airport Commission’s interim report of December 2013 has overlooked the national interest, and instead assessed airport expansion on the basis of local and London issues. Its terms of reference have a national focus and say that:

“The Commission should report no later than the end of 2013 on its assessment of the evidence on the nature, scale and timing of the steps needed to maintain the UK’s global hub status…” (R1)

In response the Commission has shortlisted Gatwick for expansion along with two Heathrow options. But Gatwick is inaccessible from places outside the south east of England, and there is little recognition of the need to consider hub airport capacity as a national requirement, not just a matter for London.

There is good evidence that confirms the importance of international connectivity on business location decisions and the relatively poor international connectivity of the UK outside London and the South East. However, the analysis of international connectivity and regional economies in the Airport Commission’s interim report is weak.

Probably the most recent work that looks at aviation and the economy beyond the South-East was carried out for the North of England by the Northern Way. (R2) This work concluded that:

“the North’s air connectivity is not sufficient to attract sufficient Foreign Direct Investment and to support closing the output gap between its economy and that of the South East. There is a need to improve the North’s connectivity. To do this needs a combination of all of the following:

  • Growing the number of destinations served directly from the North’s scheduled air services, including by greater use by airlines of Fifth Freedom rights
  • If at all possible, securing existing [air] links from the North to Heathrow and potentially growing these [pending high speed rail]; and
  • Enhancing links between the North and hub airports in Europe, the Middle East and North America.”(R3)

The recommendations in this Northern Way study addressed each of these three goals. Equivalent conclusions would probably apply to other areas, including South West England, Wales and Scotland.

A key issue for the Airports Commission

A key issue for the Commission should be connectivity from the UK’s regions to wherever the UK’s hub airport is located. The Commission has effectively fielded only one location for growing hub capacity – at Heathrow. Gatwick is inaccessible from the UK regions and, if eventually shortlisted, an estuary airport will require very significant new infrastructure to provide surface access connectivity to the rest of the UK.

Even with additional surface access infrastructure, Gatwick would essentially be a point to point airport and, from a regional perspective, in competition with the likes of Manchester and Birmingham. So a second runway at Gatwick is very largely a South East England issue whilst the question of a third runway at Heathrow (or possibly an estuary airport) is a national one.

High-Speed Rail at European Hub Airports

The Commission’s Interim report points out that there are limits to the comparability between Heathrow and the equivalent national hub airports in the Netherlands, France and Germany. This may be so, but the Commission should not overlook a shared characteristic of the successful and growing hubs at Schiphol, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt which is that they are all located on national/international High-Speed Rail networks. In each case, these airports have a HSR station served by a geographically diverse set of longer-distance services.

A crucial factor is that these airport HSR stations are through stations, not termini. They serve the airport as an intermediate stopping point on long-distance high-speed services, meaning that the economics of the HSR services are not dependent on the traffic that is generated by the airport alone. This is how many cities and towns across the regions of France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands have become able to enjoy direct high-speed rail services to hub airports.

Providing regional access to Britain’s hub airport

So how can high-speed rail provision, so important to the success of European hub airports, be replicated in the UK? The answer in relation to Heathrow has been set out in an earlier Greengauge 21 study from 2010. (R4)  This showed how the economics and value of the planned connections from HS2 to Heathrow can be transformed by designing the station at Heathrow to be on a through line, extending the planned spurs from HS2 south of the airport to connect with the existing national rail network. This allows a wider range of high-speed cross country services to be created (such as from Scotland, the North and the Midlands to Brighton and Southampton), just like those that serve Schiphol, Paris-CDG and Frankfurt.

Note that there is no need to make any changes to the current HS2 plans to deliver this outcome, and in particular there is no case and no reason to think of changing the route of HS2 to pass through Heathrow. Such a variation has been systematically examined by HS2 Ltd and proven not to be worthwhile.

The benefits of the enhanced rail connectivity at Heathrow are not limited to increasing the value of the hub airport to the UK regions – very important though that is. A coherent and inter-connected set of rail services at Heathrow would comprise the London Underground (Piccadilly Line) service, Heathrow Express, Crossrail, the new Western Rail Access and a new north-south rail route. Together these would form a surface transportation hub offering a rail alternative to many medium and long distance journeys that otherwise will use the M25. This is crucial to finding ways to reduce air pollution in the M3/M4/M25/Heathrow area.

The need to examine rail connectivity at Heathrow strategically rather than incrementally was endorsed in the subsequent Mawhinney Review. (R5)

In the case of Gatwick, it would be possible to provide direct access to HS2 and the major cities of the Midlands and North by means of the connections described for Heathrow. But unless a much more substantial investment in new rail connectivity was provided, with a significant extension of the southern rail link at Heathrow towards Gatwick, journey times from the regions to Gatwick would be much slower, an hour longer than for Heathrow. Other options to be considered for Gatwick would include creating better connections to HS2 at Old Oak Common, but this too would be expensive because of capacity constraints on existing lines and also would not provide the opportunity for direct services to the airport from the north, nor avoid the need to interchange en route to the airport.

If the Davies Commission wishes to add an Estuary Airport option to its short-list, it will need to find a way to provide direct access from the regions and devolved nations if the airport is to serve as a genuine national hub. An enhanced HS2 – HS1 link might provide the means to do this. Alternatively, it could be time to consider development and extension of the eastern high-speed line identified as an essential part of Greengauge 21’s national HSR plan. (R6)


(R1) Airports Commission Interim Report December 2013 §1.2

(R2) Steer Davies Gleave The Importance of Improving International Air Connectivity for the North’s Economy, Northern Way (2011)

(R3) Ibid §1.28

(R5) High Speed Rail access to Heathrow, Lord Mawhinney, report for the Secretary for State for Transport 2010

(R6) Greengauge 21,  Fast Forward, September 2009