A pointless diversion

The Railfuture analysis, part 2

(This blog was written before the Government announced that “further work on a link to Heathrow should now await [its] consideration of the conclusions and recommendation of the Airports Commission [the Davies Commission]” and that work on the Heathrow spur should be paused “until the Commission’s recommendations have been considered”. This doubt now hanging over the Heathrow spur, only serves to add force to the scepticism expressed in this blog about the “undue influence that Heathrow appears to be exerting upon the design of a high speed rail link to the north”.)

In my blog A different track (posted 1 Feb 2013) I took a look at the submission made by the independent rail campaign group Railfuture to the HS2 public consultation held in the spring and summer of 2011 . One matter in that submission that I reported on was that Railtrack takes the view that, “there are major conflicts inherent in the requirement to create an enhanced inter-city network, and in the additional requirement to achieve improved links to Heathrow Airport (and other regional airports)”. For that reason, in Railfuture’s alternative proposals for the enhancement of the inter-city rail network, by building a new high speed line as the first step in a national high speed network, there is no provision for a high speed link to Heathrow.

Now with due respect to those who are promoting the Heathrow Hub proposal, I think Railfuture is right in this. After all, Sir Howard Davies’ commission, which will be considering the long-term future of Heathrow, is not set to report in full until after the next general election. One of the possible recommendations of that report might just conceivably be that Heathrow has no future as the UK’s hub airport. So it seems crazy to me that considerations of how Heathrow might be served by high speed rail should have any influence at all over the choice of the best route to carry high speed services to the north of our country.

We know that HS2 Ltd has never been particularly keen on providing a direct high speed access to Heathrow. This view is clearly set out in Section 3.3 of its December 2009 document High Speed Rail London to the West Midlands and Beyond. In that document HS2 Ltd observes that, “the majority of HS2 passengers would want to go to central London rather than to Heathrow”. In May 2010, the outgoing Labour Government appeared to accept that view, but had commissioned the Rt Hon the Lord Mawhinney Kt to review the question on whether direct high speed access should be provided to Heathrow. Following the General Election, the new Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond MP, confirmed that he wished Lord Mawhinney to continue with his task, but requested that he should take account of the new Government’s aversion to the construction of a third runway at Heathrow.

In response to the primary question of whether direct high speed access should be provided to Heathrow, Lord Mawhinney’s response was:

“I have concluded and recommend that, in the early stages of a high speed rail network, there is no compelling case for a direct high speed rail link to Heathrow, and that a London-Old Oak Common interchange could provide an appropriate, good quality terminus and connection point to the airport.”

I will look at the choice of Old Oak Common as a London interchange station in my next blog, but Lord Mawhinney’s recommendation has been followed by the Coalition Government in that this interchange will provide the means that HS2 passengers will use to travel to Heathrow, at least in the interim. Only when HS2 is extended to Manchester and Leeds is it planned that Heathrow will be provided with its own high speed line, via a spur from the HS2 route.

As  I have already said, Railfuture doesn’t really want anything to do with high speed rail access to Heathrow:

“The fundamental rationale for high-speed rail is as a means of efficiently addressing high-volume flows between major population centres. However desirable the prospect of a ‘high-speed link to Heathrow’, the primary purpose of a high-speed rail branch cannot be as an airport delivery service, serving relatively small numbers of passengers relative to the much larger intercity flows. In fact the vast majority of former air passengers are attracted to the alternative rail mode because of the competitive journey times between city centres! Few of them wish to start or finish their journey at an airport; only those air passengers who were previously changing at Heathrow (‘inter-lining’) to or from a connecting domestic airline service, will be using this rail link, and only for the longest possible journeys on HS2. The relatively low levels of interlining passengers from any particular regional centre to Heathrow (of the order of 1,000 per day from major conurbations such as Birmingham or Manchester) appear inadequate to justify dedicated services.”

Railfuture does not view this as a viable business proposition:

“The Government’s own figures indicate that only 2,000 passengers per day would use the high-speed link to Heathrow; yet the proposed links entail an extra 20km of tunnelled railway and perhaps a further 10km of new distributor tunnels within the airport ‘campus’. This appears to add up to £3 billion to the cost of the HS2 proposals, and as such would appear to be unsustainable.”

This view was confirmed by the contents of a memorandum from the Chief Executive of HS2 Ltd, written in November 2011, and disclosed during December’s judicial review hearings. On day 2 of the hearings, counsel for the 51m alliance, Ms Nathalie Lieven QC, read an extract from this memorandum that revealed that, for the Heathrow spur taken alone, “… the quantified BCR, including operating costs, is likely to be less than 0.3 to 1” (refer to page 76 in the transcript for day 2).

Railfuture sees a different vision for interconnecting Heathrow:

“Railfuture believes that the aspiration for improved rail access to Heathrow would be far better achieved by means of integration of existing rail systems such as Heathrow Express, and the planned Crossrail replacement for Heathrow ‘Connect’ stopping services, with other rail schemes such as Airtrack, 2M’s Compass Point, and others proposed by BAA, and those mooted by rail campaigning groups including Railfuture for decades, with further development to comprise a regional network with much improved onward connectivity across all of mainland UK, and not least to residents of London and the greater southeast region. There are concerns, that the necessary step-change improvements to Heathrow’s surface connectivity might lead to greater pressure for a third runway and sixth terminal, to which the Government is rightly opposed.”

However, the undue influence that Heathrow appears to be exerting upon the design of a high speed rail link to the north goes further than considerations of a possible future direct high speed link. The selection of Old Oak Common as an interchange station, partly from considerations of providing a link service to Heathrow, has dictated the route out of London chosen for HS2 and I will move on to consider this aspect in my next blog.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by ChrisEaglen on February 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Cetainly the crossing of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire does not fullfil the requirement of connecting locations of population. The M1 and a more eastern route are needed for this. After london heading south London is the next and final stop is not transport planning at its best, bypassing or missing the key commuter belt to Coventry.

    Old Oak Common is again a poor location as land locked on the wset of London.


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