There is a body of opinion that believes the removal of Justine Greening from the DfT to the backwater of the Department for International Development is a means by the Prime Minister and the Conservative members of the government to smooth the road ahead of a u-turn on a particular policy, namely the construction fo a third runway at Heathrow. Justine Greening was a vocal opponent of this proposal, representing as she does the constituency of Putney, which lies under the flightpath. Her successor, the somewhat unknown (up to now) Patrick McLoughlin, does not appear to have such strong opinions on the issue. One might claim that this means he will be open to the body of evidence that should be accumulated. Conspiracy theorists may say it simply means he’ll be more amenable to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (who it seems is in favour of a third runway) changing the policy. Now, I have read in parts of the conservative press by various commentators that a third runway is the panacea, the silver bullet that will do away with all of our troubles, and that to oppose and suggest anything else it is “economic illiteracy”. Hence the ever present vocal opposition to High Speed 2 (although how many of these commentators live somewhere along the proposed route of HS2 I wonder?). Now, I claim to be no expert, but is it not the case that building a third runway is not the end of the matter? By increasing Heathrow’s capacity to accept more aeroplanes, you increase the number of people coming through, and that would likely mean you would need greater capacity once the aeroplane has come to a stop, and what this would mean is the construction of Terminal 6. The problem is that Heathrow is an old site, constrained on many sides by residential areas that make expansion difficult in the extreme, which is why Boris Johnson favours a brand new, purpose built airport in the Thames Estuary along similar lines to Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong.
The government’s plan is to have an independent commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, investigate airport capacity and what can be done to expand and improve it. This is where the question of high speed rail should be taken into account, and where serious studies should be made looking at domestic and short haul flying in the UK. The argument about airport capacity is always made in terms of international travel – that Heathrow needs to retain its place as a world leading air hub to compete with both European rivals like Charles de Gaulle, Schiphol or Frankfurt, as well as those in Asia and the US. So why then is capacity at Heathrow (and other airports around London) taken up with domestic flights, and flights to destinations in Western Europe that are reachable by train? While in Edinburgh, I was asked whether, once the tram route to the airport is complete and running, whether I’d fly up from London, and my answer was a categoric “no”, for the simple reason that the United Kingdom is a country that is small enough, and well connected enough, to be able to get to most places by train in a reasonable amount of time. We already have 125mph running on most of the main routes. The electrification of the Great Western Main Line will potentially allow this to be increased to 140mph. And then there’s HS2 (which is not, as Frederick Forsyth continues to claim, simply a way to get from London to Birmingham 15 minutes faster), which will allow passengers to get to the major economic hubs in the north as fast by train as it would take to fly. Not to mention the extra capacity going begging on High Speed 1 to get to the likes of Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. The first thing for this independent review to do is see just have much of Heathrow’s existing traffic (and Gatwick’s come to that) is short or very short haul and say “where can we move this?”. Because in addition to the rail network, and the forthcoming improvements to it, there are also other locations where small, short haul flying could be transferred; Southend Airport has had a major passenger upgrade, and is directly connected to the rail network, while both Oxford and Lydd are looking to expand. Only once this evidence is gathered and studied should the question of third runways or Boris Islands be looked at.
Now that both Thameslink and Crossrail have got the go-ahead for completion in full, is it perhaps time to start thinking about them as two parts of the same network? After all, the plan is that both routes will essentially be high-frequency, mainline metro services running from the suburbs and dormitory settlements surrounding London, through the centre of the city using tunnels, and then out the other side. This bears all the hallmarks of the RER network in Paris, where underground tunnels through the centre ofthe city connect surface lines on either side of it. Even if Crossrail and Thameslink have different operators (which seems likely, given that Thameslink will remain part of the Integrated Great Northern Franchise, while Crossrail is intended to be run as a TfL operating concession, much like London Overground), there is no reason for them not to be connected at a fundamental business level. After all, ownership and operation of the RER is split between SNCF and RATP (Paris’ equivilent of TfL). Branding Crossrail/Thameslink under a single name, such as “Regional Express Network” (the English translation of Réseau Express Régional) would no doubt improve cost effectiveness and public awareness. Indeed, why not go further than that? There are already routes in existence that run from the suburbs through the centre in tunnel. They’re called the sub-surface lines, and they form part of London Underground. Almost exactly a year ago, I posted an entry suggesting that the Metropolitan line be removed from the control of London Underground and be transferred to London Rail to operate along similar lines to London Overground. Well, why not transfer the District line over as well, and have that form part of the “Regional Express Network”? Similarly, London Overground’s routes, which are in the process of being upgraded to allow greater frequency, could also form part of the REN. Hey presto, instant integrated network. Which is probably something along the lines that Chairman Ken wanted when he was in the big chair and sought greater control over the railways in London. Of course, that was an actual power grab. Because that’s what Chairman Ken likes to do.
As you may be aware, the British and the French have something of a prickly relationship. We may have a century of the entente cordiale, but our shared history going back almost a thousand years is one of war. And yet…there are things we have in common with our Gallic neighbours. There is an argument to be made that London and Paris are Europe’s two major capitals (although I daresay Berlin might have something to say), and there are striking similarities that the railways run in both. Both London and Paris are the hubs of their respective national intercity networks; London has a total of thirteen major terminal stations that form a rough circle around the centre of the city, while Paris has seven such stations:
|London Blackfriars||Paris Austerlitz|
|London Cannon Street||Paris Bercy|
|London Charing Cross||Paris Est|
|London Euston||Paris Lyon|
|London Fenchurch Street||Paris Montparnasse|
|London King’s Cross||Paris Nord|
|London Liverpool Street||Paris Saint Lazare|
|London St Pancras|
Just like London, the stations in Paris serve different points of the compass according to where they are located geographically, forming a rough circle around the centre of the city with the Seine at the centre, just as the Thames runs through the centre of the London circle.
In addition, Transilien suburban trains to the different parts of the city and the Île-de-France region operate from the various different terminals, just like the suburban trains operated by the various TOCs in London, with some stations used more for intercity (either lignes classique or TGV) than suburban and vice versa, just like in London. Paris has its own high frequency full height (as opposed to deep tube) metro service, the RER, which links the suburbs on each side of the city via tunnels through the centre. London is currently building a system like this, Crossrail, which will be complemented by the enhanced Thameslink. However, what most people forget is that London already has an equivilent to RER, in the form of the two major sub-surface lines run by London Underground, the District and the Metropolitan – these operate full height heavy rail trains to suburban areas on the edges of Greater London using tunnels through the centre, just like the RER. There are 300 stations on the Paris Métro, and 270 on the London Underground, although the majority of the Paris network was built using the cut and cover method, where the road is opened, the tunnel constructed and then the road replaced on top; thus it follows the layout of the road network, unlike London where most of the network was built using tunnel boring machines at a much greater depth, which has allowed the connection of more disparate areas of the city.
You see – London and Paris aren’t quite as different as you think.