30 June 2010

Airtrack - is it worthwhile?

Airtrack is a rail project by BAA at Heathrow airport Terminal 5 to run trains along the South West Trains network to Waterloo, Reading and Guildford.The trains would leave Terminal 5 and travel south parallel to the M25, passing over Staines Moor, to join the Windsor line just north of Staines. Here the services would join the South West Trains network to travel on to their destinations.

One service would have stops at Staines, Feltham, Twickenham, Richmond and Clapham Junction before terminating at Waterloo. For the other services a new chord (joining line) would have to be built in the middle of Staines so that the trains can turn south. The Reading service would have intermediate stops at Bracknell and Wokingham while the Guildford service would have intermediate stops at Chertsey and Woking.Some Heathrow Express(HE) trains from Paddington would also be extended from Terminal 5 to Staines to provide a connexion to Paddington and maybe even on to Crossrail.The planned frequency for the three main services would be 2 trains per hour(tph) for each.  

The main idea behind the scheme is to provide better connections to the South West lines and at Clapham Junction and Waterloo to other services south of the Thames. The Reading and Woking services would offer alternative connections to the GWML and SWML (to Southampton etc.). The intermediate stops are planned to offer, for both passengers and airport workers, better oportunities to use public transport thus reducing dependency on the car while at the same time reducing traffic jams and exhaust pollution.

Without doubt BAA is also attracted to the lucrative Railair coach services linking Heathrow to Reading and Woking.  

Initially the proposal looks attractive. This is especially so in these constrained times since the project would be privately funded by BAA thus not affecting the public borrowing requirements of the Treasury.

However, this scheme should be looked at again. There are quite a few factors which make it less attractive than it is painted.
Firstly all the services would leave from Terminal 5 so would not serve the other terminals directly. The only exception to this are the HE services to Paddington which would go through the central terminal area (T1,2 & 3) but not Terminal 4. In the document prepared by BAA Heathrow & Arup for HSR2 Ltd. ("Improving Rail Connectivity to Heathrow" 20-10-09)they looked at the problem of availability and facility of connections in detail. Suffice it to quote one passage from the report . "Each time a passenger has to change between trains at each leg of the journey the total end to end journey time is increased by additional waiting time. The impact of this interchange penalty tends to be greater for passengers who are travelling with luggage, such as air passengers, and is particularly high for foreign travellers and those who are unfamiliar with our transport systems." (Point 4.4 Page 13) In this report it is thus recognised that the advantages of the service is lost to a certain degree when there is no direct connection.

Secondly there are problems with train paths. This means that even if the services were tremendously successful then there would be problems in finding room on the network for additional trains. The Windsor and Reading lines, in particular, are crowded so adding more trains, especially at peak times would only be possible by subtracting trains from other services - and that is definitely a non-starter. 

It has to be added that, especially on the Reading line, there are many level crossings. Even with the programmed additional trains many members of the public are opposed because more trains mean more closing times for the level crossings - and this would result in having an adverse effect of the road traffic in all the towns along the line. Apparently, building bridges or tunnels to substitute the level crossings also presents great difficulty in the space available and the disruption caused. 

We think that the scheme on offer is limited and does take into account the bigger picture of improving transport links in the south and south east of England. In fact we laid out a more detailed argument in our previous blog Fast Trax 2 - The case for a southern high speed alternative (SHSL)(24-02-2010)
Points 5 & 6 refer to our proposals to provide new services between Reading-Heathrow-Gatwick and Ashford as well as Heathrow-Waterloo. We repeat one quote to illustrate the shortcomings of Airtrack as presently laid down.
The report (Review of Business Case for AirTrack Scheme Proposals (Assignment Number 2004/00229)) prepared by  Ove Arup & Partners for the Strategic Rail Authority in July 2005 stated
"The AirTrack services that we have appraised would provide two trains per hour from each of Guildford, Reading and Waterloo to Heathrow Terminal 5. To provide sufficient capacity the introduction of these AirTrack services would necessitate the withdrawal of three trains from Reading to Waterloo in the morning peak period, two trains from Waterloo to Reading in the morning peak period, and 5 trains from Waterloo to Reading in the evening peak period. To compensate for the withdrawn services, additional stops to those assumed in the OBC would be required on some AirTrack services between Reading and Terminal 5."
We view CONNECTVITY as the keyword, not narrow short sighted commercial gain. Airports are to be connected to city centres, airports to airports, main lines to main lines, population clusters to population clusters and so on. That is the only way to provide decent public transport and encourage the public to leave the car at home. We laid out our arguments in FAST TRAX 2
and they are there to see so we will not bore you by repeating them. Basically it shows the case for a new line from the GWML at Reading to Ashford and the Channel Tunnel through the two airports. One of the reasons  would be to provide a relief line south of London so avoiding the capital and directing freight  (and passenger) traffic directly through the Chunnel and not blocking the bottleneck which London would become.
The subsequent benefits are substantial. Not only would BAA get its connecting trains but the possibility of direct inter-city passenger services  to Mainland Europe would also be opened up from BOTH Heathrow and Gatwick. This would result in fewer flights from BOTH airports. Is this not what the present government wants?
In Switzerland the direct connecting rail service between Geneva and Zürich airports has been operational for years. This means that the only intercontinental airport with regular services in that country is Zürich, while Basel and Geneva have been able to absorb the increase in holiday and business traffic - mostly  to/from the UK  and other destinations by Easyjet. 

 London Heathrow Airport from West Drayton to Feltham

As with every project these things will take time so will have to be done in parts. We suggest the start should be made with the line from Terminal 5 (at Heathrow) to the Central Terminal area then the curve south to Terminal 4 from where the line is extended to Feltham. This would provide the connection for the service to Waterloo at low cost. The terminus already exists at T5; a curve would be built at T1,2&3; the extension to Feltham would be new - but better with a new chord both west and east; and the new depot is already programmed for Feltham. Thus the three Airtrack services could be started with less disruption while serving all the terminals at Heathrow. The other elements of the SHSL would fall into place eventually but the main part through Heathrow would be in place from the start. Remember that both the Piccadilly extension to the airport and the HE line had to be expensively modified when T5 was built. Let us not make the same mistakes with short-termism thinking. 

Our politicians should take care with their sound bites and think constructively about problems while looking at private interests with scepticism. The ideas expressed here could provide a better solution to transport problems being part of a bigger picture. However, there is still a problem which has been identified and has still not been addressed. The need for a new runway in South Esat England is real and urgent. The present recession only provides a breathing space but the problem will not go away so we will look at it in the next blog. 

10 June 2010

Crossrail - where is it going?

The Crossrail project to connect the west London area lines(into Paddington)to the east London area ones (out of Liverpool Street) has run into some heavy criticism in the run up to the election. It has also been questioned strongly about its viability while the new government has been looking at the possibility of cancelling it since their need to make drastic cuts in all projects in order to reduce the public deficit.

The project has been saved for several reasons, not least the fact that cancelling it would probably has been more costly than continuing with it due to the partnerships involved. The UK government pays only part of the project (directly) while local authorities and businesses pay the major part
together with Transport for London, Network Rail among others. Without doubt there are built in penalties for one party not fulfilling its part. Therefore, if the government pulled out the businesses which have been taxed to pay for it and the local authorities (both within and without the Greater London area) who have been badgered to fork out for it would be, to say the least, rather peeved. It is reported that the government has already spent GBP1000M with its remaining GBP4000M to be paid over the next 7 years - hardly figures which will break the bank while the figures to be paid by the other groupings would come to close on GBP10900M (within budget).

Since the government cannot cancel the project it does not mean
the project is above criticism despite the claim that it will transport 200 million persons per year.
This map of the Crossrail project and the other variants are to be found at

Since this project is more than likely to go ahead we have to look at it to see that it is well thought out or not. Let us firstly look at why it is being built.

The Great Eastern services into Liverpool Street are dominated by a large number of commuter services from the inner M25 area. These provide services to areas of Greater London which are not so well served by Tube lines which, anyway become heavily crowded. With a tunnel through Central London many of the commuters would be able to disembark nearer to their places of work thus taking pressure off stations, like Liverpool Street, and the connecting Tube lines which become heavily overcrowded such as the Central Line. According to Crossrail´s own estimates 10 of the 16 trains per hour(tph) which run from Shenfield into Liverpool Street would be directed on to Crossrail. This would alleviate capacity restraints at Liverpool Street and free up platform capacity for more longer distance commuter and inter-city services. An additional 2 tph. would run on to Crossrail from Shenfield making a total of 12 tph from that destination.

Secondly, 12 tph are destined to run from Abbey Wood (in North Kent) through Crossrail. These would double the frequency of the services through Central London making a total of up to 24 tph in the central section from Whitechapel to Paddington. These services would provide an easy access service to Docklands and on to the City and Central London avoiding overloading the connections for Kent commuters at Woolwich Arsenal, Greenwich and Lewisham, as well as the termini at London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross.

So far so good, but what about the western end? This is where questions must be asked whether the project has been well thought out or not. According to Crossrail itself 14 of the 24  tph will start/end at Paddington. While Crossrail does not claim to be something it is not, the area west of Paddington does not seem to be well served in comparison with Essex.

The proposed timetable for the Great Western Corridor consists of 4 tph to/from Maidenhead with an extra 2 tph to/from West Drayton. In addition 4 tph will run to/from Heathrow airport - these would be double the frequency of the present Heathrow Connect stopping services to/from T4. This way we reach the 10 tph which are predicted for the western section of the line.

However, in our view the investment involved to construct a heavy rail tunnel under Central London with  six major station construction projects for(at least) 12 coach trains seems to be excessive if and when it is only going to be used at a fraction of its potential. The net benefit claims to be a 10% capacity increase which also seems to be unspectacular. Well let us look at this in detail.

This is the First Great Western system map showing the service pattern from Paddington to Reading including Heathrow airport.

In fact the National Rail maps (London Connections and London and the South East) are more accurate. They show the Greenford branch joining the main line (as this does) but the branches Slough-Windsor, Maidenhead-Marlow, and Twyford- Henley-on-Thames are feeder services to the main line with no direct services further.
The point of this is that the proposed 4 tph from Paddington to Maidenhead can probably absorb the present and envisaged passenger demand. This is without doubt so when First Great Western at present programmes 4 tph (both stopping and semi-fast) from Paddington to Reading. The traffic pattern from Paddington to Greenford is 2 tph which will be easily absorbed by the 2 tph from Paddington to West Drayton and the 2 tph extra services from Paddington to Heathrow (to add to the present 2 tph Heathrow Connect services). The 2 tph service to/from Greenford will not run into/from Paddington but to West Ealing. The logical solution is to run the services into/from Ealing Broadway(to connect to the tube services which terminate there) but there exist problems concerning platform space and turnback facilities which make this option impossible at the moment without large investment (though probably worthwhile).

Thus we arrive at 10 tph to connect to Crossrail and run through Central London out to the east. The net effect of this will be to free up platforms at Paddington for other longer distance services.
There has been a suggestion of extending Crossrail services to Reading. This is quite logical and very possible (a) if the electrification of the GWML  to the West and South Wales goes ahead and (b) the planned remodelling and renovation of Reading station goes ahead. It should be said that they are not certainties as yet because of the government´s plans for reductions in spending. However, let us hope that the worst case scenario is a postponement of plans not their cancellation.

Such a Crossrail service extended from Maidenhead to Reading would absorb the stopping and semi-fast services to/from Reading to/from Paddington. The planned capacity to Maidenhead might be sufficient to cover the demand along the line but there is plenty of spare capacity at Paddington with the 14 tph planned to terminate there from the east. There should be no track capacity problems along this route, at least for the next ten years(as envisaged in the GWML Route Utilisation Strategy(RUS) as published by Network Rail on 19th April 2010).

There also exists the possibility of extending Crossrail services past Reading to (a)Basingstoke and (b) Oxford and Banbury. The problem is that while it is possible for Crossrail to operate along the core GWML as far as Maidenhead, and very probably as far as Reading, past Reading the services are not surburban and encroach on the long distance services (and subsequently the franchise) of the Train Operating Company (TOC)First Great Western to which it would undoubtedly object strongly. After all Crossrail itself is also a TOC and, therefore, competition for FGW. 

One solution does exist, however, and that is using the Heathrow Express(HE) services that run non-stop to Paddington. These could run through Central London and even run up to Stansted airport combining with or substituting the Stansted Express (SE) services from Liverpool Street. Both have a traffic frequency of 4 tph which make them compatible. Their running through Central London would alleviate some demand on LUL tube lines while facilitating connectivity between the airports. This is important when there is a lack of runways at one and/or the other airport after having their proposals for extra runways withdrawn. Could not the Heathrow Connect services run to Abbey Wood (thus serving London City Airport) while the HE and SE services connect both airports? Connectivity is the key.

The problem with this solution is that we are then talking about 3 different TOCs with all the differing interests involved. Crossrail will run all the services through Central London and FGW´s surburban services will be transferred to it. HE is owned and operated by BAA. SE is part of National Express East Anglia out of Liverpool Street. Critics of this solution say that any delay on such a long distance service between Heathrow and Stansted airports would have a knock-on effect to other Crossrail services. We cannot see the basis for such an opinion since the same argument applies to the long distance services to/from Shenfield to/from Maidenhead (and even Reading). Obviously a joint service would have to be set up but maybe BAA is against this. It should also be mentioned that with its Airtrack services BAA is planning to run the HE trains out to Staines from T5. BAA is obviously thinking of the perennial goose and golden egg which it does not want to share with anybody. 

We will look at Airtrack in a subsequent blog. 

What have also been mentioned are the possibility of running some London Midland services from Northampton through Paddington and the London Overground service from Watford to Euston through Paddington and Central London. This latter proposal is not really acceptable as it runs over the same tracks as the Bakerloo LU line and would involve running dual sets (trains that run on the third DC rail and overhead AC gantries). The London Midland services are compatible so could be run on the Crossrail line having the connexion somewhere in the Willesden Junction area. However, nothing more of this proposal has been heard.

One additional option is open but we do not know if this coalition government would even consider it. The new HSR2 has been proposed to run from Old Oak Common(near Willesden Junction) to South Ruislip and on to Birmingham. This means that if this goes ahead at least part of the corridor to Bicester will be electrified. This would also beg the question whether the new Chiltern Railways´service from Marylebone to Bicester and onwards to Oxford (after 2013) will be electrified. With 5 tph to High Wycombe and 3tph of those to Princes Risborough(for stops to Aylesbury) these Chiltern Railways services are certainly candidates to connect to Crossrail.

Something must be done to better the options on Crossrail. At the moment it seems like a badly thought out "white elephant".