04 May 2012

Long-haul rail terminals under Heathrow and Gatwick.

This idea has been around for some time but as usual it means different things to different people.

A-The origins:

It firstly came from the engineering consulting firm  ARUP in September 2008. Basically the idea was to build a new interchange station directly north of Heathrow T5 on the GWML at Iver(Buckingham Advertiser 7th July 2010). This would connect with local, regional and long distance services on the GWML from where passengers would be fed to the various terminals by an unstated means. On the plan you can see that T4 was not connected while some fanciful T6 satellite terminals(right across the A4 Bath Rd.) were proposed for the third runway which would be connected too. All this was to satisfy present infrastructure demands but it went further than that. A high speed line (HS) was to be built into central London terminating at Euston. From there a connection was planned to the HS1 line to eventually merge somewhere near or before Stratford. From Iver the idea was to direct the HS line northwards to Birmingham and onwards, probably to merge with HS2 or even replace it. No details of the planned routes were given. That idea has not progressed but other less ambitious ones have appeared.

B-The Present Situation

T5 was constructed with six rail platforms,two for the LUT Piccadilly line, two for the Heathrow Express(HE) services to Paddington, and two more for, at that time, new undefined services. Airtrack was a proposal by BAA to build on the success of HE by offering new services from those two platforms to Reading, Guildford and Waterloo plus an extension of HE services from T5 to Staines. These services did not come to fruition. They can be seen in ARUP´s pdf. file.
The Airtrack proposals proved to be non-starters and were dropped in autumn 2011.
There are no extra rail platforms either in the the Central area(T2 &T3) nor at T4.

C-Initial New Proposals

The idea of a connection to Reading remained and appeared in a proposal by  the UK Transport Secretary,  Philip Hammond, to build a connection from Reading along the GWML and into T5 - a shuttle service to be run 4 times per hour. This very limited idea was to replace the RailAir coaches to Reading station with approximately the same frequency.

Our thoughts on this proposal were expounded on this blog
on 6th October 2011

This was followed up two days later by a proposal to connect Heathrow with Gatwick  to try to make them operate as one airport named Heathwick (ughh!!)

We also looked at this proposal on 11th October 2011

We do not need to reproduce all the arguments we used to reject the proposals - many well-known business personalities have voiced their disapproval.The two proposals were floated and nothing of substance has been heard of them since then.That makes one think that the government was only sounding out opinion - and did not like the reaction.

The way they were presented and the little substance in their content made them totally rejectable. However, if these ideas were not taken separately but were part of a larger plan then they could be looked at differently. We would like to emphasise that we would like people to look at the complete picture.

D-The Real Reasons

The government wants to build a spur from HS2 into Heathrow. The idea is to offer an alternative to domestic air travel so as to reduce traffic through the airport. They ignore that an assessment commissioned by the previous Labour government, and repeated by the Coalition government came up with the same conclusion. The demand satisfied by a direct HS spur does not justify its construction because of the low numbers concerned - about 2000 pax. per day. Not all potential destinations are connected by rail or even would not benefit by an HS spur. There are many destinations where air links are essential (Northern Scotland, Ireland and the other British Isles) while rail links are impossible.

Even with HS2 completed up to Glasgow and Edinburgh there will still be a demand for substantial air travel to those cities, without mentioning Aberdeen and Inverness.(the HS trains have not killed the air traffic between Paris and Lyon, Madrid and Seville or Barcelona).Despite ignoring these realities the government wishes to imagine people travelling everywhere in Great Britain by train. The ministers should try it some time and not just for the photo call.

There are manifest practical difficulties to run direct HS trains from Heathrow to HS1 and on to mainland Europe.The proposals being mooted involve inordinate difficulty, disruption and cost into London and through to Euston. It will be like forcing more content through a bottleneck - the weak link is from Camden Town to St. Pancras - already designated a major freight route (plain madness). Has the government even thought out the practical difficulties of trying to offer direct rail connections from outside London to European cities? Not at all, even though many doubts and objections have been aired on forums, blogs and interested pressure group websites.

The real problem is that the government has painted itself into a corner and does not know how to get out. It has come to the conclusion that its initial prohibition of new runway building at 3 London airports is a non-starter. Whatever the long term solution, the problem of undercapacity is immediate and needs solving now. That is why the government´s long awaited policy document on aviation has been postponed from March to summer 2012.

E-Thinking outside the box;

Building the Reading-Heathrow and  Heathrow-Gatwick links separately is extreme stodgy thinking with only limited benefits and acceptance. Combining the two ideas into one link from Reading to Gatwick opens up all sorts of possibilities, not least providing a one-stop link from  South Wales, Bristol, and the South West to the two principal UK airports. Also from Reading connections to Birmingham and further north can be provided to link to the two airports.
Extending the line from Gatwick 73kms., over mostly open ground, to Ashford then we have a direct link to HS1 and through the Channel Tunnel to mainland Europe.
This achieves bypassing the bottleneck which is London. We avoid the prohibitively expensive and disruptive construction of a fast line through west London and relieve the clogged transport system of the capital.

The opening of such a line from Reading to Ashford gives us the chance to substitute the RailAir coaches plying between Reading and Heathrow, and the National Express coaches (up to 6 times per hour) between Heathrow and Gatwick. These would be with a greater frequency and greater reliability. However, they need not stop there. There is scope for trains to stop on route at such places as Feltham, Guildford, Woking while on to Ashford at Tonbridge. Thus the service becomes really regional offering connectivity to the airports and at other interconnecting points to other parts of Great Britain.

What make the rail ideas attractive are the possibilities of offering mainline European services  which do not transit London. The present Eurostar train services go to Paris and Brussels from London St.Pancras. The German railway company DB plans to run services also from London but onwards from Brussels to (i)Amsterdam, and to (ii)Cologne and Frankfurt. Imagine if such services were offered from Heathrow and Gatwick. Part of what the government wants - a lowering of demand at those airports - with the reduction of flights to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, and Frankfurt, would be achieved. The effect would most probably be more than any desired effect on domestic flights. This would certainly be a way of damping down demand on air, runway and terminal space.

In these cases passenger services tend to be the only ones mentioned, however,  freight is of extreme importance. The possibilities are tremendous and so need a separate blog, which will be the next when we deal with what we call the SHSL (Southern High Speed Line).

F-The Heathrow Interchanges Stations;

To get back to the idea of interchange stations at Heathrow (and at Gatwick) then we have to imagine one  built specially for purpose, most certainly connected to the present rail/tube stations. When we think of local or regional services then we think of convenience. This would mean one station at each terminal - T5, T2/3 &T4. With a long distance station we tend to think of one for a whole complex - so probably situated at Heathrow Central.

However, we have to separate the ideas of domestic and European services because of the question of immigration controls.

For the trains to originate at Heathrow there is a whole complicated problem of turnback and parking facilities, all underground or well away from the airport. It is much better to start these services at an existing rail hub which can absorb such space demanded, and the ancillary services needed even on the surface.

Thus, if the trains do not originate at Heathrow but at Reading then the platforms, at the airports, would be through platforms not terminating ones.The trains could stop at each terminal providing the convenience for the passenger. Unfortunately, I believe, that the present track layouts mean that such a through line with its corresponding platforms would have to be completely new (undergound obviously).

To make the use of the rail station(s) popular accessibility is the word. The stations will be underground at the airports with three platforms provided for the regional and national services - one "up", one "down"and one for overflow/accidents etc. The same would be needed, but separate, for services to Europe. This means a total of six platforms.

The rail tunnels would be like the present Channel tunnel with two main separate tunnels with a service tunnel between. This would allow the flexibility and security demanded of an enclosed environment. Trains running on the surface might find two tracks to be sufficient.

The point of having six platforms in the terminals is to separate the international from the domestic passengers. To do this by limiting access to all the platforms according to the type of train which is leaving(or arriving) is complicated and time consuming. It is simpler and much more efficient to have separate platforms. That way domestic passengers can gain access to the 3 domestic platforms in a constant, unimpeded way facilitating their onward transportation.

International passengers, on the other hand, can gain access to their 3 platforms in a more relaxed manner having passed through Border Controls. If there is just one Central Area international set of platforms then passengers would have to go through Border Controls to land-side and then again through the controls to air-side to their flights. This is unnecessary duplication of Border Controls for what are transit passengers( the queues and time wasted would be horrendous) This would be done having changed to the relevant terminal, which might well be an inconvenient connection away. However, if there were international platforms at each terminal (T4, T2/3 &T5) then the transfer to flights could be directly on to the flights, or from the flights (with controls at the destination). Why should there be a difference in treatment between air and rail passengers? The train would be considered just a connecting "flight" with luggage collected at the destination. (The Swiss do this really well.)  Heathrow has already passed the 70 million pax.per annum mark and is well on the way to 100 million pax.per annum.(Like it or not this is a realistic figure to be looking at in the next ten years - before any other capacity is brought online) Is it not necessary to look at constructive ways to facilitate movements?

The trains would then have stops both for domestic services(long-distance and regional) and international ones at each of the three terminals, T5, T2/3 and T4.   Gatwick, on the other hand would only need one underground station. That way it could fit under the present surface one and be able to cross it west-eastwards without interference (including the differing electrical traction systems).


Long-haul rail services from Reading through Heathrow and Gatwick to mainland Europe.
This way they start at Reading and provide connections - north, west and south west - to other services which means that London does not need to be clogged with transit passengers. Border controls are carried out at Reading and the airport terminals direct to the European destinations.
The result would be a marked decrease in short haul air traffic to mainland Europe while increasing the airport accessibility for towns and cities in northern France, the Benelux countries and north west Germany (including all the Ruhr). This would provide a greater demand for medium and long-haul routes from Heathrow and Gatwick, and also on domestic/Irish routes.

The new rail infrastructure provides capacity for domestic regional routes between Reading and Ashford for any stopping places on route. Access is improved for passengers and workers to the airports leading to less road traffic. These connections would reduce the need to travel through the bottleneck of London.

Long-haul domestic rail routes could eventually be offered from Gatwick (or even Ashford) to many places south-west, west and north, and maybe even to Scotland, all without the need to pass through Central London reducing the demands on the capital´s overstretched transport infrastructure.

Does it offer any other possibilities? Yes it does, particularly with freight but that will be dealt with in the next blog.

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