There was a bit in this morning’s “William Hickey” column that made me chuckle. Apparently, George Osborne is under new criticism for his transport arrangements after it emerged that his driver parked the offical car in a disabled space at the services on the way from Cardiff back to London after a visit to Wales’s capital. It seems that Gorgeous Georgie made the trip by road because he is wary of using the train following the debacle over his sitting in a first class seat on a standard class ticket. According to a Conservative Party official;
George can’t really win. If he goes back to using the trains, he’ll be heavily criticised if he travels first-class, but risks ridicule and abuse if he attempts to go in standard.
One might think that the Chancellor had something of a thin skin when it comes to criticism. Someone with a little more gumption might simply have laughed off the furore, said that in future he’d make sure he either bought a 1st class ticket or else paid the upgrade supplement willingly, and carried on using the iron road. The Hickey piece concludes by asking whether there is a mode of transport that he can use without getting in trouble. My idea immediately on reading that was a rocket powered pogo stick.
Once again, I paid note of an interesting story in the Evening Standard yesterday (all of the interesting stuff I have seen recently seems to come from there). Hounslow Council have written to Boris Johnson asking the Mayor to try and persuade Heathrow Express to integrate its fares into TfL’s fare structure, and to allow passengers to use Travelcards and Oyster on the service. The rationale for this is that it would improve traffic congestion and pollution by getting more people to travel to the airport by train. As it stands, the cheapest standard fare for the Heathrow Express is £20.00, while bringing it under TfL’s prices would reduce this to a mere £5.50. Heathrow Airport’s argument is that it is a non-stop, fast (15 minutes end to end), premium service intended primarily for air passengers, and that there are already two other rail services from London for local residents and people that work at the airport (Heathrow Connect and the Piccadilly Line), while the Mayor states that he has no control over Heathrow Express’s pricing as it falls outside his purview, being as it is an open access operator outside the framework of the National Rail network.
The argument put forward by Heathrow is entirely valid – the intention of Heathrow Express is to allow air passengers primarily to get to the airport with a minimum of fuss, as passengers can actually check-in at Paddington before they get on the train. While people that work at Heathrow can get a discount to use the service, Heathrow Connect was originally set up to offer workers and local residents a cheaper alternative to get to the airport, even if it is now being actively marketed as a cheaper alternative for passengers as well. However, Heathrow Connect is planned to be absorbed into Crossrail once it starts running its full service, which got me thinking along one thread. Although the full Crossrail through route is not due to start for another six years, the Crossrail operation will actually begin in 2015, when TfL takes over the operation of stopping services between Liverpool Street and Shenfield. In 2016, it is then planned to transfer services to Maidenhead and Heathrow from Paddington. However, given the “difficulties” with the establishment of new franchises, with the Greater Western one of those due for renewal, would not an idea be for TfL to step in now and take on Heathrow Connect directly. As it stands, there remain significantly more expensive fares on this service for the journey between Hayes & Harlington and Heathrow Central than for the rest of the route. Allowing Oyster to be used, and pulling it into the TfL price banding by immediately making it part of the Crossrail concession (like the “Shenfield Metro”) would seem to me to be a logical way of improving the rail connection straight away. Then of course there is Wandsworth Council’s proposal to resurrect in part the aborted Heathrow Airtrack scheme, to provide a connection into the nascent but currently unused west facing platforms at Heathrow Terminal 5, intended to provide an alternative connection into the airport from the south, which would likely reduce numbers of passengers using the services out of Paddington, making it easier for the local residents Hounslow wants to put on the train to actually use the train.
My philosophy when it comes to rail travel is “you pay for time”. If I need to get to Birmingham in a hurry, then I’ll fork out the exhorbitant prices that Virgin Trains charge and go from Euston. If I can take my time, then I’ll get a much cheaper ticket from Chiltern Railways and get the train from Marylebone. Similarly, there will always be people who want to go fast, and who are happy to pay a premium price, and people who aren’t quite so fussed about getting there quickly. For me, I’ll happily take the tube if I need to get to Heathrow, but I’m not going to begrudge people that want both the speed and the level of service you get on the Heathrow Express. In any case, there is a difference between Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express, which does operate through trains for commuters now in addition to its fast, non-stop service between Gatwick Airport and Victoria - Gatwick is a major stop on the Brighton Main Line, while Heathrow is a stub branch to a terminus; the only commuters to and from Heathrow are the people that actually work there. In any case, are there many local people that will want to go non-stop between Heathrow and Paddington?
We’ve had a significant day today in the history of High Speed 2, as the High Court delivered verdicts in the numerous judicial reviews brought by various groups and bodies that have banded together in opposition to the project, for various reasons. I don’t propose to go into any significant detail about the different things that Mr Justice Ouseley ruled on, as you can look at the summaries as they’ve been published on the DfT website. The significant point to be made is that, of the ten different areas the judge had to rule on, he found in favour of the government in nine of them. Only in the ruling regarding the fairness of the consultation process over compensation payments did he rule against the government. Naturally, both sides are claiming “a great victory”, although I do find it a little hard to understand how the anti HS2 brigades can justify their relative good humour over this, as none of what the judge has said today will stop the construction. Hell, it won’t, as it stands, even delay the construction, given that, as far as compensation for property that has to be removed because it stands along the route goes, we’re still in the discussion phase as to how it will work, and the government has plenty of time to re-run the consultation, following the advice the judge has given in his ruling about what was wrong with it last time. Ofcourse it’s important that the government gets this right, but given that we’re still five years from shovels on the ground, I feel fairly sure that they will come up with a package that is acceptable to those that are affected. For those who are fundamentally opposed of course, the fact that they have lost in the action they themselves have brought is not the end of the war, merely a setback. In an interview with BBC News, Richard Houghton, speaking for the HS2 Action Alliance (a group that seems to have an inordinate number of different websites, so many in fact that I can’t decide which to link to – I’ll leave you to decide that dear reader), warns us all “not to believe the spin coming out of the DfT”, because of course his group doesn’t spin at all; according to his colleague Hilary Wharf, a director of HS2AA, the judgement is:
…a huge victory for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are blighted by HS2.
Not spinning the one victory they got out of today for all they’re worth there then. Richard Westcott, the BBC’s transport correspondent, made the suggestion that all the antis can do is to undertake The Birds strategy – keep pecking and pecking until the government gets fed up or decides that HS2 isn’t worth the hassle. The problem with this strategy is that HS2 is now embedded as major policy for both the Conservatives and Labour, meaning that dropping it will be politically very damaging. And once it gets to the stage of being shovel ready, then it can’t be dropped, because that would be suicidal. There will be appeals, certainly. Indeed, the 51m group of local authorities have been given leave to appeal on two counts. But the government will press ahead with HS2. And it will be built.
While I may come down hard on the Daily Express for the often total bollocks it has a tendency to print sometimes, particularly from some of its columnists, I will say that, on some matters, Frederick Forsyth does write things that strike a chord with me, especially when he comments either on foreign affairs, intelligence matters or the armed forces, all of which in his two careers as a journalist and a thriller writer he has had experience of and researched extensively. However, when he writes about things he seems to know little of, it is fair that he tends to fall into the same trap of all the other columnists that try commenting on important national matters with their opinion and little else to fall back on. Obviously, the main headline from his column on the 8th February was enough to first attract my attention, and then, upon reading the piece, my ire.
On the fast track to a total disaster
Mr Forsyth has been vocal in his opposition to High Speed 2, putting forward many arguments as to why it should not be built, mainly regurgitating the same old stories that the “No2HS2″ grouping tend to put forward as the significant reasons not to go ahead with it. This particular piece came out the week that the government announced its planned route for Phase 2, the “Y” branches to Leeds and Manchester. The last line of the opening paragraph is an indication of where Mr Forsyth’s interests lie:
Often there are pieces about Mr Forsyth’s country living, so it isn’t a stretch to think that he may well live along the route of Phase 1, which is why he is as aggressive in his writing as he is. According to the piece from the newspaper, the government are mounting a “wild propaganda campaign that no one seems to be questioning”, except him of course. The problem is, his questioning appears to be taking entirely the wrong course – he questions the government’s claim that HS2 will create 100,000 jobs, suggesting that at most it will create 2,000. But here he is looking at the workforce that will be involved in actually building the line itself. True, but there will then be the jobs created in the supplying of materials to build the line, and supplying the equipment that will build the line. There will be significantly more than the 2,000 he suggests in actually building HS2. Then he somewhat sarcastically mentions the government’s enterprise zones – these are areas the government has designated for greater investment through improved planning rules and infrastructure. Forsyth points out that the trains intended for HS2 won’t stop at any of them and “certainly won’t carry freight”. True and true, but freight will be carried on the existing network, and one of the major points for building the line is to provide capacity. By taking a large number of fast, intercity trains off the West Coast Main Line, then there will be more space for both the slower, interurban and commuter trains that carry the workers into the centres of London, Birmingham and Manchester, and there will be more space for the slow, heavy freight trains, a significant number of which use the WCML for some part of their journey. He then points out that on his train journey into Marylebone (35 minutes) all the “hard-nosed businessmen” are tapping away on their laptops/tablets/mobile devices, which evidently means that businessmen don’t need to travel anymore. So why do they still insist on doing that? Mr Forsyth points to the experience the Dutch have had with HSL Zuid, suggesting that everyone prefers using the existing rail network, which runs parallel for part of the route with trains “at half the price”. I’ve had a look at the Nederlandse Spoorwegen website and done a search for a return journey from Amsterdam to Rotterdam; using a regular NS Intercity service costs €28.00, while using the Fyra service costs €32.60. The additional cost is due to the supplement for using the high speed line, similar to the one Southeastern puts on its high speed services. Mr Forsyth also makes a comment that East Coast can “only fill a third of its seats” and is “losing fortunes”, things he suggests are “hard nosed facts”, before stating that he has simply “read this” somewhere, not stating where.
Mr Forsyth should come out and say that he doesn’t want High Speed 2 running through his garden, and that that is his primary objection, rather than try to clothe it in attempted arguments that make no sense whatsoever. The fact of the matter is that High Speed 2, as with all infrastructure projects, will not in itself be profitable. The idea is to improve the capacity of the railway network to enable it to move more people and more goods to get to the places that they need to be. More people than ever are using the railways, and more goods are being transported on them; the railways are bucking the trend of the financial situation we find ourselves in. Tinkering around the edges with longer trains and longer platforms on the existing network won’t solves the fundamental problem that it is full to bursting (although Mr Forsyth’s comment about East Coast suggests he’d like to junk that too). Perhaps Mr Forsyth might like to do a little reading before the next time he decides to write about this issue – I’d suggest that he looks at the testimonies of the people that live in and around High Speed 1. That too was going to be a disaster; a metal scar carving through the Garden of England, which would cause windows to smash and cows to fall over every time a train passed. Except none of that has happened. HS1 was built with its environment in mind. While not invisible, it blends in where it runs at grade, while its structures (perhaps most notably the Medway Viaduct) are the modern equivilents of Brunel’s engineering solutions on the Great Western. I have no doubt that the structures on HS2 will be even better, the 21st century equivilents of Box Tunnel. Mr Forsyth should be honest with us and admit that he is a NIMBY, and that his objections are based not on “facts” but on his own prejudices. And, if he was a journalist worth his salt, he would do some reading and have some discussions with the other side before committing pen to paper next time. Over to you Nigel Harris…
The publication of the outline work plan for Control Period 5 by Network Rail seems to have led to others jumping on the “what can we/are we going to do?” express. Actually, that’s unlikely, as undertaking planning work for the publication of a major policy document does take a while. Nevertheless, we not only have the CP5 plan for Great Britain, but now we also have the start of a public consultation by the Department for Regional Development over the future direction of the railway network in Northern Ireland. In announcing this, Danny Kennedy, the Minister in charge, said that while there was a need to carry on maintaining the network as it was, a strategic outlook was necessary to build on what has already been done:
‘Looking forward over the next 20 years, there has to be a strategic direction to determine the priority in which we should tackle new railway projects.
To do this, the DRD has set out in its consultation a range of options for the public to discuss, from vanilla (maintaining as is), through the neopolitan option of electrification, and onto the triple chocolate idea of expanding the network. Of course, the DRD has also set out with these options its cost estimates, which naturally are pretty big – it estimates that the vanilla option would cost somewhere in the region of £620m over the twenty year period from 2015-2035. That being said though, some of the improvement options, while still expensive, would likely turn into fairly cost-effective solutions in the long term. For example, the DRD estimates that electrifying the entire existing network, which is a little over 200 miles in length, would be in the region of £350m. But, we all know that electric trains cost less, both to procure and operate, are faster, have better acceleration, and require less maintenance than equivilent diesel units. Why do you think the British government has sanctioned the upcoming electrification projects? Doing this could well then encourage the Irish government to do the same, at least with certain parts of its network (perhaps most importantly the main lines to Belfast and Cork).
In 2008, Brian Guckian, a transport consultant from Dublin, laid out a proposal for a major expansion of the Northern Ireland network, which involved the restoration of the line from Derry to Portadown, with branches to Armagh and Enniskillen, plus a new cross-border line from Derry to Donegal, and reopening the extant but unused line between Lisburn and Antrim to serve Belfast International Airport. The DRD looks at some of these ideas as well – there is a proposal for the line from Portadown to Omagh and Enniskillen, and another for a line from Derry to Letterkenny and Sligo. Both of these are seen as phenomenally expensive, as they would essentially be the construction of brand new main lines. There may potentially be justification for a new southern route that runs to the major towns in the west of Northern Ireland to be built in stages, depending that is on the public will. A cross-border line would need the cooperation of the Irish government (which essentially means Iarnród Éireann), and, given expanding the rail network to the north-west ‘has not (been) identified as an investment priority’, seems unlikely. However, the DRD consultation also includes the proposal to restore service along the Antrim line to serve the airport. This has been budgeted around the £50m mark, which covers restoring the existing line, creating an airport spur and procuring additional trains. The comment from the DRD on this proposal is that “‘it is highly unlikely’ that a rail link would be ‘more regular or cost-effective’ than buses”, which to me sounds as if they’ve already made up their mind. This is in spite of the fact that airports in Great Britain that look to expand and improve state that a dedicated rail connection in some form or another is a must. We’ve had the addition of Southend Airport station, while Glasgow Airport and numerous major businesses remain committed to getting the GARL back on the agenda. Surely the best way of finding out the “cost-effectiveness” of serving Belfast Airport by train, which would also bring numerous communities on that side of Belfast itself back onto the railway, removing cars from the roads, would be to study airports of similar size and passenger number, including those with and without rail links, to see just how popular/useful/used they actually are.
The saga of the procurement of rolling stock for the Thameslink Programme has taken yet another turn now that the DfT has announced it is putting into operation the purchase of up to 216 vehicles, completely separate from the overall rolling stock programme, so that the cascade of the currently operated Class 319 units can begin as scheduled, owing to the fact that the deal with Siemens has still not been completed. The DfT has partnered up with Southern to announce this, as the current Southern franchise is due to be amalgamated with the Thameslink one after 2015. Presumably this means in that case that Southern are taking the lead on the procurement, which could well end up being good news for Bombardier, given that the majority of Southern’s fleet is formed of Class 377s. We’ve already seen the introduction of the 23 Class 377/5s, procured through Southern, used on the Thameslink route. I would imagine that the DfT (who must have some half decent ideas sometimes, surely) would be looking to ensure a degree of uniformity to ensure costs are kept down, which presumably should mean a follow-on order of 377s (or at the very least Electrostars) to form this latest batch, made up of a concrete order of 116 plus options for 100 more. This would then provide an almost like for like replacement fleet, allowing the 319s to move to their planned Thames Valley and North-West destinations. As regards Bombardier, they already have the order for 130 new Class 377 vehicles for Southern, which has now had a further 40 vehicles added to it. Now, an old colleague of mine gave me a piece of sage advice that I usually try to live be – “never assume”. However, given that the Class 378 is a roaring success, and assuming that they fit the loading gauge of the tunnels (which I’d imagine they would), is it a fair assumption that Merseyrail will order something similar when it comes to their fleet replacement? Assuming a like for like replacement that could be 170 vehicles which, combined with the Southern and potential Thameslink orders, would add up to short-medium term security for Derby going into the Crossrail bidding. And frankly, isn’t that what it’s all about?
“Give us bread and circuses” is the cry, or so it seems. In last week’s Sunday Express was a poll suggesting a large majority of the public now want to see the railways re-nationalised, something that must be music to the ears of Spud and his cronies. Not only this, but it also seems that the Labour Party is considering making this official policy for the next election. So this of course should be enough to warn people off it anyway. But there are lots of things that I do think people should consider when it comes to the idea of nationalisation that it feels like aren’t out there. Like first of all the fact that there are European regulations on the liberalisation of rail transport to consider. Were the railways jusr simply nationalised, how would that impact on open access operators? But that’s by the wayside.
One of the major moans that the unions have is the fact that the franchise system in the UK allows what they describe as the “nationalised railway companies” in other European companies to procure UK franchises, while rail operations are “closed” to British operators. First of all, I’m sure Deutsche Bahn would object to being called a nationalised railway company, as it isn’t. It is an Aktiengesellschaft, which in Germany is the general equivilent of a plc, a company whose shares can be publically traded on a stock market. So even though the German government owns 100% of the shares, it can at any time sell any amount of the company’s shares. But also is the claim that operators in other countries have monopolies over their networks, when again that isn’t true. It is certainly the case in some countries that operations across all sectors are run by nationalised organs, with the one that I most often think of now being Iarnród Éireann. IÉ is a subsidiary whose shares are 100% owned by a statutory corporation, and is thus a truly nationalised operator. And those of you that are regular readers will know how I feel about the way IÉ runs its operations. Having no competition means that they are essentially free to do what they want, and if it means they have no desire to run a route any longer, they can simply reduce the service level to a point where no one wants to use the train any more, and then claim that the service is unporfitable and withdraw it. Which is what British Rail did with any number of significant routes, not least of which was the eventual closure of the line into London Broad Street (which, I’m sure you have all noticed, has now reopened).
While the big and flashy main line operations, especially the high speed networks, tend to be run by those companies that were formed out of the old nationalised railways, the local operations, the ones that we would think of as commuter, or suburban, or rural, are controlled locally, by French départements or German länder, who tender out the operation of services commercially, in much the same way as TfL and Merseytravel do. And there is the interesting thing. Because both London Overground and Merseyrail are, to all intents and purposes, nationalised rail companies, as all the important decisions in regards to management and investment are taken by the PTEs, with the actual operation of services and revenue collection contracted out to private companies. As a consequence that the PTE takes the risk, the PTE keeps the bulk of the revenue. Similar to this are virtually all of the light rail operations around the country, with only Blackpool and Tramlink owned and operated by the municipal body. This method of doing things has been adopted by some of the newer commuter rail operators in the United States – both the Coaster and Sprinter operations of the North County Transit District in San Diego are run this way, with the actual operations contracted out. So, there is the possibility, as suggested in the newspaper article that accompanied the poll, that people might be prepared to accept this type of arrangement, in ensuring that a public body retains control, but contracts out its operations. Nationalisation? No. Concession? Maybe.
On my way home from Edinburgh back in August, rather than getting a train direct from Waverley to Kings Cross, instead I took the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, from where I then got a service back to Euston. The train that I got from Edinburgh to Glasgow was via the North Clyde Line, which includes the recently opened section between Bathgate and Airdrie. The service was made up of a pair of Class 334s, making the train six cars long (along most of the other Edinburgh-Glasgow routes, trains tend to be 3-4 cars). This was a train at just before 11.00am on a Monday morning, and it was virtually deserted. And it was on my journey between Haymarket and Queen Street, watching the train stop at empty station after empty station, having a significant amount of time to think, that I finally understood Iarnród Éireann’s dislike of running trains. Because Scotland and Ireland are fundamentally similar in being small countries with small populations that are concentrated in a handful of areas. And running trains in areas with low population density does not make for an especially good business model (hence the rationale for Beeching). Running trains like the one I used to travel between Scotland’s two major cities probably costs the Scottish Government a fortune in subsidies. So I can see why Iarnrod Éireann wants to duck out of all of the Irish network’s lightly used lines and concentrate on core services within Dublin and between the capital and other major centres. Of course, it is still the case that Iarnrod Éireann makes the case for withdrawing services by making what services there are as terrible as possible and driving passengers away. If they did run better services on the network’s lightly used lines, they may well get better patronage. But that’s another matter. The fact is that the Scottish rail franchise is one of the most heavily subsidised in Britain (only the Welsh franchise recieves more public money, according to this article in the Scottish Left Review), but it can afford to be because the Scottish Government has guaranteed income in the form of the grant from Westminster. It wouldn’t have this guarantee if it were in Ireland’s position, as the Irish government, which obviously has to raise all of its own revenue (being an independent nation) has been slashing rail subsidies, meaning ticket prices have to rise. If the SNP gets its way, how long will it be before ScotRail decides it doesn’t want to run services in isolated rural areas because it can’t afford them?
There’s no doubt that the furore over the monumental feck-up that is the award of the West Coast franchise has significant momentum to run and run. To use a turn of phrase from Malcolm Tucker, there seems little doubt that this is an “omnishambles” of the highest order, as the civil servants at the DfT gave out erroneous information to the four companies short-listed to bid. Not being either an economist or a business expert, I’m not even going to attempt to tell you precisely what the erroneous information was, or how it affected the bid process. I’ll leave that to Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor. But the fact that First had to have the franchise removed because the taxpayer would have been horrendously exposed to financial risk, even in spite of their business model, shows what a screw-up the entire process was. Whether this whole thing is related to Richard Branson’s wild accusations about First’s bid being way over the top or not I don’t know. Given that Virgin received the same incorrect information from the DfT that First did, it’s entirely possible that had they won the bid this whole issue would have come up, and they would have had the franchise removed. Which no doubt would have led to a similar strop from Beardy.
What does this all mean? Well, for passengers, nothing. The DfT have guaranteed that services will be unaffected by their colossal blunder – after the 8th December, which is the scheduled end of Virgin’s existing franchise, services will continue as per the timetable, and tickets will continue to be accepted. Who will run the services is a question that still needs answering, with either Virgin receiving a management contract for the duration of the new bid process, or else Directly Operated Railways taking the franchise into public ownership until the new operator is due. That option though has met with a certain amount of sniggering, as it is put about that the people that caused the feck-up in the first place are now left running the service. Which obviously means that on the first day trains will start falling off the rails. Despite the fact that, although DOR is owned by the DfT, it is a separately managed organisation that is making not a bad fist of running East Coast.
Lots of people are using this incident as an excuse to once again raise the idea of re-nationalising the railways. Of course you have Mr Potato Head has been saying that all along. But now, other elements are adding their voices to it, with Wolmar questioning the whole franchising concept, and the Labour Party stating that they are ready to adopt it as official policy. The thing is, no one in the mainstream press has said anything about just why we have gotten to this situation in the first place, and why civil servants at the DfT are the ones drawing up the specifications for franchises. A situation that stems, in my view anyway, from the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority, the public body that was responsible for oversight of the rail industry. But who was it that abolished the SRA and brought its functions within the DfT? Why, it was Alistair Darling, the then Secretary of State for Transport. Who you may recall was a member of the last Labour government. It was Labour that divested itself of the corporate experience that the SRA encompassed and decided that it (in its government form) could do better. Can we say that things have been better since? Just taking everything back into public ownership is no guarantor of quality, because you need the experience to actually do things right. If the railways were renationalised now, it would be the same people running them directly as were responsible for the West Coast mess. And then where would we be?
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.