By Phil Marsh

Heathrow expansion- Were the railways a major factor in the decision? looks at possible reasons why Heathrow was chosen

Published: 25th October 2016

How will Heathrow expansion affect the railways?

London Heathrow Airport (LHR) seems to have won the vote for another runway over London Gatwick Airport (LGW). It is safe to assume that public transport links will have formed a key part of the decision to keep increased road traffic, congestion and pollution as low as possible.

The Transport Secretary Chris Grayling made the announcement and said that expanding Heathrow “will better connect the UK to long haul destinations in growing world markets, boosting trade and creating jobs and passengers will benefit from more choice of airlines, destinations and flights.

The new runway was announced as the first new runway in the south-east in around 75 years so it is a major project to be consulted on over the next year and will then go for legal powers once all views have been obtained. The legal process will take up to five years and construction another four so it could be open in 2026 or 2027.

Why is this important?

The Chris Grayling announcement says that “A new runway at Heathrow will improve connectivity in the UK itself and crucially boost our connections with the rest of the world, supporting exports, trade and job opportunities.”

In ten years’ time, Crossrail will have been operating as Elizabeth Line for eight years, linking LHR with stations between Reading, central London, Abbey wood and Shenfield in the east of London. Network Rail (NR) has just started to appoint a team to build a western link to the airport which at the moment, can only accept trains from east of Airport Junction where the Heathrow line joins the Great West Main Line (GWML).

Once the western link has been built, it opens the way for trains to run from East Anglia via Cambridge, Bedford and Milton Keynes using the East West Rail line. This should have been open for business in three years’ time, but Government delays to the scheme have put this back by three or four years – just in time for an expanded Heathrow. This is partly due to rescoping the line to become a 100mph electrified route but also due to the DfT announcing projects before they have been scoped and funding agreed just before the last two general; elections.

Also by 2026, the electrification of the GWML will be complete and with a western connection, means the airport will be accessible from as far away as Cornwall, West Wales and the Cotswolds. And with the London Underground system also serving Heathrow, public transport could be said to be better than at Gatwick and a critical factor in the decision making process.

But of course the first stage of the UK’s other massive infrastructure project should be ready for business at the same time as the new runway. High Speed Two (HS2) will be using Old Oak Common as an interchange with Crossrail and maybe some services will be able to run direct to Heathrow providing connections to the midlands, the north and Scotland.

There are also plans to run trains from Waterloo via Hounslow into Heathrow thus bring direct trains from the south-west London suburbs to the airport. The decision should bring an end to the rail-air bus links.

Train and flight paths

In October 1998, a Eurostar train was taken to Heathrow airport on a secret test run. This was done to see if it could run from there on a regular basis to Paris and Brussels thus freeing up short-haul flight-paths for longer more lucrative slots at Heathrow.

Despite the success of the test run, the Eurostar services did not operate but the principle was set so far as using high speed rail to free up domestic or short haul flight slots. The London to Paris and Brussels air market has been decimated by HS1 services enabling the vacated runway slots to be used by longer haul flights which generate more value for airport operators.

Despite the Government saying they would reserve slots for such use it remains to be seen if people from the regions will travel to Heathrow if rail services run direct to the airport or by connecting flights from regional airports with all the associated check-in and luggage hassles.

Why not Gatwick?

Gatwick airport is currently has rail connections with Brighton, London and Bedford and in two years time will improve to Peterborough, Cambridge and Kings Lynn when the Thameslink project has been completed. It also connects with Luton Airport, Guildford and Reading.

Gatwick also used to be on the Cross-Country network but was cut back a decade ago losing its direct services to the midlands and the north - which may have played a part in the runway decision.

When HS2 is up and running, this will allow trains from the north to access LHR via western link which will reduce ned for domestic connecting flights which will allow these to be swapped for long haul flights which make the landing slots more valuable to the airport owners.

But whatever the reasons for choosing Heathrow over Gatwick, the two airports will continue to drive rail growth with staff having to travel by rail as part of the planning conditions and the increase in passengers will also bring more traffic to the railways.

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