22 June 2012

The Airtrack Lite fantastic, tripped up?

We tend to talk a lot about Heathrow airport. This comes as no great surprise since a question like the addition of a third runway(R3) provokes so many passions. However, Britain´s principal airport, with over 70 million passengers passing through it annually, has other projects going on at the moment and others are constantly being proposed or floated.

Airtack-Lite is one new(?) such project. Its newness is questioned because it is basically very similar to BAA´s previous Airtrack proposal. That this blog dealt with nearly two years ago, 30 June 2010  "Airtrack - is it worthwhile?"

The basic idea was to run trains from T5 at Heathrow over Staines Moor to Staines. From there trains would run at the rate of two per hour to Waterloo, Guildford and Reading, and also with some Heathrow Express(HE) trains from Paddington running through T5 to Staines. All this was to be financed, built and run by BAA. The project fell down on two main points (a) the lack of train paths to fit more trains on to the three aforementioned routes and (b) the plethora of level crossings along the routes which would have made the road network near and crossing the routes clogged because of extra closures.This proposal was officially withdrawn as unworkable and reported 11 April 2011 in Rail.Co."Heathrow: ‘No option but to withdraw proposed Airtrack link to Staines".

Then, of all groupings, Wandsworth Council came up with their version of the same called Airtrack-Lite.The article in Rail.Co, dated 28 October 2011, "Wandsworth Council proposes new ‘Airtrack-Lite’ plan to connect Heathrow"  only mentions stops at Clapham Junction and Putney. However, the map, as published by Wandsworth Council, illustrates all the stops along the line until Staines. So would it be a stopping service or an express service?

Just as a note for clarity (a) the line Waterloo-Richmond-Staines has 5 level-crossings as illustrated on this diagram, while (b) the line Waterloo-Hounslow-Staines has 4 level crossings (there is an additional one - unmarked on this diagram - between Chiswick and Kew Bridge stations)

As the diagram tries to explain the service proposed does not mean any increase in the number of services into Waterloo from Heathrow T5 and Staines High Street. However, the service frequency is increased from 2tph (in the original Airtrack proposal) to 4tph in this Airtrack-Lite proposal. This, without doubt, means a more attractive, and thus more viable, offer to the travelling and working public.  

But how is this to be obtained? Apparently, two Waterloo-Windsor services(per hour) would be be split at Staines with half the train continuing to Windsor while the other half would run into T5.This would entail a short stopover at Staines to connect or disconnect the two halves as is the case.The stopover would have to be longer than a normal train stop (which usually need be no more than 60-90 seconds). This would mean a danger of delays. This is certainly a risky maneuver on a busy commuter line especially in the rush hours. These two services would be those that run through Richmond (to connect to the LUL District Line and London Overground) and Twickenham (to connect to the Teddington(thus Shepperton) - Kingston line). The opportunity for travellers and workers south of the Thames to connect to Heathrow would, therefore, be greatly increased. The question that needs to be asked here is: Will the trains maintain their present stopping pattern or will fewer stops be permitted? In that case, which stops would be withdrawn?

The other 2tph would run through the Hounslow loop (apparently non-stop from Putney to T5). There is no mention of the origin of these train paths so they seem to be new ones. That might be possible during the main part of the day but during the morning and evening rush hours there is a notorious lack of train paths - the whole timetable being fine-tuned and liable to knock-on effects on all the services (on the Windsor, Reading and Teddington lines) for any minor delays. 

London Mayor, Boris Johnson, accepted the proposal  ("Mayor gives cautious backing to Waterloo - Heathrow rail link", "London SE1 Community website"1-12-11),together with the two other councils of Hounslow and Hammersmith and Fulham ("Waterloo-Heathrow rail link wins backing from two more boroughs", "London SE1 Community website" 15-05-12), while Rail.Co. (15-05-12) goes on to mention the additional stops at Queenstown Road and Wandsworth,which had not been mentioned before.

What has not been mentioned before are the services from the South Coast(Portsmouth)-Woking-Weybridge-Heathrow. This connection would offer a more direct route from Hampshire and the south to Heathrow though only at a frequency of 2tph. This is not really an attractive frequency to offer people so that they transfer from the car to the train to reach the airport - it has limited benefit.

It must be said that Wandsworth Council has tried to maintain the original Airtrack idea in a reduced form (there would be no through service from Heathrow to Reading), while, apparently, not aggravating the problems of train paths and level-crossing closures. This is a valient attempt but no more than that. Of course, to satisfy their own voters they introduce stops in the borough of Wandsworth but that is only a sop to them. 

The idea of a direct service from Waterloo to Heathrow is basically good but runs up against the problem of the level-crossings, be them in the Hounslow loop or in the Richmond branch. The construction of bridges or tunnels along the line at the level crossings is a problem which will have to be attacked at some time in the future. After all this is the main line route to Windsor and Reading with a lot of commuter traffic, and if the traffic is expected to rise up to 50% in the next twenty years this is a problem which cannot be brushed under the carpet.

However, those reasons are not enough to justify the scheme. This blogger sticks by the proposals made in two blogs written 23 February 2010("Fast Trax 2 - The case for a southern high speed alternative (SHSL)") and 15th May 2012 ("Who wants the Irish...?").These support the idea of a high speed line from Reading through Heathrow (T5 - T2/T3 - T4) to Gatwick and then Ashford. If this line were built then it opens the opportunity of running services from Waterloo-Feltham-T4-T3/T2-T5 and even on to Reading. The only part of the new SHSL that this Waterloo connection would use is that between Feltham and T5 (or even on to Reading) but the important advantage it has is that it would connect the four airport terminals - something which neither Airtrack nor Airtrack-Lite do.This encounters certain technical problems but they are solvable. The offer is much better than Airtrack or Airtrack-Lite but runs up against the problems of the level-crossings again. Maybe it would prove the catalyst to get the tunnels and/or bridges built on the lines through Richmond and Hounslow.

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