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. 

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