20 November 2012

Luton - a viable alternative hub to Heathrow

As I mentioned in the previous blog (18-10-12), in the document presented on 5 October 2012 by  Policy Exchange called "Bigger and Quieter: the right answer for aviation"(written by Tim Leunig of Centre Forum) there was an alternative offered to a third runway at Heathrow . The author firstly proposed a four runway airport situated further west at Heathrow. The previous blog is my answer to that. I basically consider it to be too ambitious and so unlikely to be ever considered seriously.

The other alternative offered to the lack of runways in South East England was to expand Luton into a four runway airport. I originally proposed that idea more than two years before - 5th July 2010 - "Luton - The Next Best Bet ?" However, there are major differences which will be pointed out.

Luton airport´s own proposals:
However, let us look at what Luton airport itself is proposing for its future. On 16th January 2012 the operators of Luton airport called for ideas/opinions about the future. In an article titled "London Luton Airport seeks to expand capacity" (Breaking Travel News) the company wanted  to look at the possibility of increasing the airport capacity by over 50% to about 18 million/pax/annum  The result was the setting up of a project with its corresponding website called ‘futureLuToN:Optimisation’ and the revised masterplan which was published September 2012. Obviously the brief to design the plan was to develop the airport within the present limitations imposed by the government. Thus the plan envisages better use of the one runway within the present physical boundaries, but with better distribution of all the services provided at the airport.

The reason it is called a revised masterplan was because earlier the Luton airport operator (LLAOL) produced a masterplan to add to the government´s paper of 2003 about runway use in the South East. The Luton Airport Masterplan of 2005 used a development brief published in September 2001 but this was subsequently withdrawn in 2007 as being too expensive.

Other proposals:
There has been another proposal, by London architects Weston Williamson, to expand Luton Published in the London Evening Standard 24-10--2012 "Heathrow battle: How Luton could be ‘England’s airport’ - Proposal for a nationwide hub with four runways is unveiled" though not everyone is in favour.

four runway Luton airport (looking Eastwards)                                                          (c) Weston Williamson
As can be seen from the illustration Weston Williamson plan the airport as having four runways just south of Luton and next to the Midland Mainline railway (MML)

To operate independently each runway has to have a  separation of at least 1035 meters from its next parallel one. This enables each runway to have landings or take-offs irrespective of what is happening on the next parallel runway. Mixed-mode is another system of operation whereby one runway is used for both landings and take-offs at the same time, such as is the case of Gatwick at the moment. In the picture shown above, two pairs of runways are in use at a minimum of 380 meters between each pair. Of each pair one is used for landings and the other for take-offs. The plane ready for take-off has to wait for the other runway to be clear i.e. the landing plane has to have cleared the runway on to the taxiway or be just ready to do so. This means that the usage of the pair of runways is more intensive than mixed-mode but less than two independent runways. It is the way the two Manchester runways are used at present which are 390 meters apart. This way of operation, of course, limits the usage of the runways but uses less land.

The Policy Exchange/Centre Forum proposal:
Tim Leunig for Policy Exchange proposed something similar. The first suggestion was to place the runways at Luton Hoo. This is the area between the MML and the M1 motorway. Since this is controversial - Luton Hoo being a historical site, as well of lack of space - he also proposed an alternative site to be east of the MML as is Weston Williamson´s. There would be a terminal station straddling the MML and a road link to the M1 motorway. A  light rail system, similar to the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in London would run a shuttle between Tring on the West Coast Mainline (WCML) via the airport to Knebworth on the East Coast Mainline (ECML).

 Most of the ideas for this secondary proposal are good and should be read in detail. The details are given in the document   "Bigger and Quieter: the right answer for aviation"
on pages 53 to 56. However, it should be pointed out that there are no illustrations (as there are for the Heathrow project) and he does draw heavily on ideas already expressed in the Heathrow plan.

This blogger´s biggest objections are two. One is to his idea of a light railway to connect the WCML (at Tring) to the airport and then on to the ECML (at Knebworth). The idea has its value, which he expresses, in that it is easier to build, can turn tighter corners and can negotiate bigger gradients. That is true but it ignores one major consideration - connectivity - which this blogger has been propounding for a long time. The other objection is that if we are going to build a a big megahub to serve the country for the next century why put limitations into its use? If the idea is to build four runways then let them be independent ones so as to maximise their potential use.   

This proposal:
The map image below (courtesy of Google Earth) shows how this blogger envisages the layout between Luton and Harpenden, and between the airport and Stevenage. It should be pointed out that to the west no population centre of note is affected until Aylesbury which is at a distance of 28kms.(In comparison that is the distance from the end of Heathrow´s northern runway to the Thames at the Isle of Dogs/Docklands). This means the noise would be less than bothersome for the good people of Aylesbury.

The distance from the MML to the end of each runway is calculated at about 4kms. This would include the present extended runway and three new ones further to the south towards Harpenden. The length  of each would cover the necessities of runway length, overuns and runway approach light emplacement. The distance between each would be 1100 meters (greater than the minimum of 1035 meters facilitating independent operation with taxiways and the building of a terminal with satellites in  a "toast rack" formation. In comparison the distance between the runways at Heathrow is 1420 meters.

Obviously, a start would be made by building the second runway and then extending the present one with the appropriate taxiways. The present terminal buildings would be used during the construction stage but the main terminal would be between the first and second runways together with the rail links. When the runways, terminal, rail  and road links are finished then the present terminals can be closed  and the service, cargo and maintenance facilities transferred to new buildings south of the second runway, while the present site is sold off for development. The third and fourth runways would not be built immediately but when demand dictates it. In the meantime the necessary land would be reserved for future use.

With the services south of the second runway and eventually between the second and third, their, relatively easy, access to the four runways is assured. With the building of the third and fourth runways then a new terminal and satellites can be built  between them. This way operators would use either the northern terminal (using the first and second runways), or the southern terminal using the third and fourth runways. Such would be the case that no cross -runway traffic would be necessary.  Thus there would not be a proliferation of terminals just two large ones with their attendant satellites. Any extra services which might be needed would find room south of the fourth runway (just north of Harpenden). 

The area bounded by Luton, Harpenden and Stevenage showing the layout of the four runways and a possible route for a train link between the MML and the ECML.
One further consideration must be taken into account. Since the site can be planned as a whole from the word go then mistakes made in previous generations must not be repeated. By this I mean no new building, especially of residential property  must be permitted under the flightpaths at both extremes of the airport´s four runways. As a benchmark it would be prudent to prohibit any building west of the  A1(M) trunk road. the same can be said for the area west of the runways up to, at the very least the M1 motorway. In fact it might well be more prudent to extend the limit westwards to the A4146 and B4506 roads just to the west of Whipsnade.Though such construction is unlikely it is surely better to enforce it from the beginning so that there is no encroachment.

The distance from the end of the runways to Stevenage is (at its nearest point) 8kms. To give you an idea of the equivalent distance from Heathrow, 8kms. is from the end of the southern runway to the river Thames at Isleworth. This means that not an inordinate amount of noise would be suffered under the flight paths. Together with better designed aircraft and engines of the newer generation aircraft, and a steeper approach for landing the noise levels would be decreased further(as explained by Tim Leunig). In fact the measurement was made up to the edge of the A1(M) trunk road so the noise created by traffic on that road would be more of a nuisance than aircraft noise at that point.

Usually everybody looks at the connections from the airport to "London". This is quite understandable since one supposes that the vast majority of passengers would originate from/to London. I think, however, that the other connections are more important to look at,initially, since they also determine the traffic to the airport and they often get forgotten in the plan. This plan is a part and parcel of the whole so should not be ignored which is why I wish to mention it first. The success of a venture is not necessarily as a result of the prime market - please take note.

As you can see from the map below we have shown various solutions to the problem.

(a) the connection : Airport- Stevenage:
This is an essential connection to the ECML. Tim Leunig´s document suggested a connection from the airport to Knebworth. I reject this. The distance might well be shorter to connect to London but it does not solve the connection problem. Knebworth only has connections with First Capital Connect(FCC) (Regional) trains. On the other hand Stevenage is an important stop for FCC, First Hull trains, East Coast and could well be a stop for Grand Central trains. To demand a change in stopping patterns is too much in such a short distance. Thus what we will have is a good service from points north to have a one stop connection to the airport.

There are three possibilities to connect westwards to the WCML. Here we consider that the connection to the WCML should be at Milton Keynes. The reason is the same as mentioned to Stevenage. Milton Keynes provides regional services with Southern (and its eventual inheritors), London Midland, and intercity services with Virgin trains(and its inheritors?). The possibilities of providing connections for employment at the airport are also increased by the connections at Milton Keynes and Stevenage.

Consider the three possibilities from south to north:

(b) there is an existing (unused) rail line from the MML at Luton to Leighton Buzzard. The rights of way will already exist and so the reconstruction would not be excessive. The re-construction of the line involves 19kms. some of which can be easily rebuilt and some is already occupied by other buildings. It is a single track railway so either it should be double-tracked or passing sections would need to be provided. An advantage, not to be ignored, would be the possibility of offering local services at Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard on the route. However, it should also be mentioned that the route is rather tortuous so the maximum speeds attained would not be be so great.The overall distance from the airport to Milton Keynes using this way would be about 39.6 kms.

(c) This route would separate from the MML north of Luton town about where the MML touches the M1. It would be a completely new line to just north of Leighton Buzzard of about 14 kms. in length of new construction. There would be no substantial interesting populations to serve along the route so could work out a more rapid route than the previous option.The overall distance from the airport to Milton Keynes using this way would be about 38.2 kms.

(d) The third option is to use the MML up to north of Flitwick from where a cord can be built to the Bedford-Bletchley line. The new construction would mean about 6.25kms. of new rail (by far the shorter distance). A new cord would also be necessary at Bletchley to connect to the WCML but would be of about 750 meters. So the total new construction would be no greater than 7 kms.The overall distance from the airport to Milton Keynes using this way would be about 43 kms. The advantage of this route is that the line from Bedford to Bletchley has or / is being upgraded for freight traffic with double track so increasing the capacity. This means that the adaptation to new workings, track, ballast, signalling and resulting line speed, is the least onerous. For these reasons it is my preferred option.

The area between Milton Keynes, Luton airport and Stevenage showing the rail link to Stevenage and the three possible routes to the WCML

New services:
Whichever option is preferred the possibility exists then of providing semi-express or even local services between Milton Keynes and Stevenage via Luton airport. This would serve four groups (i) those wishing to connect from the WCML(at MK) from the north (ii) those wishing to connect from the MML (at Luton)  (iii)those wishing to connect from the north via Stevenage from the ECML and (iv) those who live in the area and wish to work at the airport or even wish to have better regional connections,(v) and other possibilities onwards.
Connection to London and ...:
This is what people look at firstly. The present service from London St.Pancras is provided by East Midland trains(EMT) and FCC. FCC services also run from there to south of the Thames, even to Gatwick airport and Brighton. That is a good connection. However, because of the present track layout trains run to Luton Airport Parkway before continuing northwards, when there is a direct airport connection the rail traffic pattern would have to change.

(e) this blogger envisages a rail traffic pattern where trains run from Brighton (possibly), Gatwick (most certainly) through central London (Elephant & Castle(?), Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon, St.Pancras)  on to West Hampstead and Luton airport. Of course there would be a return service in the reverse direction. However, this blogger envisages that any service would continue from Luton airport to Stevenage, Finsbury Park, and (either) Kings Cross or Moorgate (via Highbury & Islington ). This latter option would be interesting for potential customers in the City. However, though feasible since there are two free unused platforms at Moorgate it might prove too difficult to put into effect. It should be remembered that Farringdon will be an important station on Crossrail with connections to Heathrow and London City airports. Moorgate on the other hand will not be an official station on Crossrail but will have direct underground tunnel connections to the station and platforms at Liverpool Street which is the official stop on the Crossrail line. Thus the resulting service would be from Gatwick northwards to Central London and on  to Luton airport returning via Stevenage to Kings Cross or Moorgate, and vice versa.

Another possibility exists, but might be unnecessary, which is to provide through regional commuter services from Milton Keynes either via Luton to St. Pancras, or via Luton, the airport and Stevenage to Kings Cross/Moorgate. No option should be ignored.

Whichever option is chosen is of importance because the passenger traffic flows to the airport can increase or not because of the greater accessibility of the airport. Many times it is not a question of theoretical journey times which determine a traffic flow but the convenience offered. A five or ten minute difference might well be ignored if the connection can be made more comfortably with only one change instead of two or three. Lumping cases on to and off trains is an important factor to take into consideration.

 We propose a better connection to the M1 motorway which does not interfere with the local Luton traffic as well as a good connection to the A1(M) trunk road to provide alternative routes both north and south, as well as to those parts of the country which interest the users without blocking up the system.

This is a subject I have not mentioned in detail. I consider that the provision of public transport is of paramount importance. The more the public transport system is used the more it is considered as important. When it is considered important the result will be a lessening of demand for road transport. Here we come back to the ideas of connectivity and convenience. Why leave your car in a long-term car park for two weeks if you do have a comfortable, convenient and well connected public transport system. If we can take transport off the roads then all the better for those who really need it.

The effect on Stansted:
Tim Leunig is of the opinion that Stansted airport would have to close with any expansion of Luton. This probably would not be the case immediately as all things are transitory. However, it must be considered as a possibility, eventually. This would mean compensation for the owners of Stansted. It should be emphasised here that in November 2012 the present owners BAA must still sell the airport. Obviously the new owners are very much interested in knowing if there are possibilities of expansion or not - i.e. will they have paid over the odds in the long term?

The traffic patterns with a two runway airport at Luton need not affect Stansted too much. Quite a different question is the working of a four runway airport at Luton. Then without doubt the restrictions on air movements at Stansted would be notable. Its status might well be reduced to that of Southend at the moment - this airport has to fit in its traffic flows with London City and Stansted, so its capacity is reduced. The same would happen at Stansted where, at most, it could have some regular flights, but most likely would have to find another role e.g. as a maintenance depot (as Cardiff is at present for BA).

This blogger considers that the expansion of Luton airport is most certainly essential together with the expansion of Heathrow to three runways and Gatwick to two.
As we noted, 5th July 2010, on the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition government coming to power the prohibition of expansion at South East England airports specifically mentioned Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. It did not mention Luton which resulted in the blog of that date. The question is, is that the get out clause for the government? This blogger considers it so. It is an area with few Conservative and no Lib-Dems candidates worrying about their seats. The job prospects produced by expansion for the local populace can only be seen as positive. The alternatives to doing nothing are a decline in the fortunes of the country, therefore, expansion has to take place - somewhere or somewheres.

Why not expand this airport north of London to serve the rest of the country as well ,and so avoid gridlock in the capital, meaning that any out-of-London passengers would not have to transit the capital. The question of funnelling passengers( and other traffic) through the capital´s transport system is something which has never been mentioned but needs to be.That, however, is another question at which we will look eventually.


  1. Just out of interest have you had a look at a topographical map of the area. Even Luton Airport looked at this as an option a decided the terrain made this psort of expansion unfeasible (let alone tunnels and everything else that this scheme is proposing making it cost prohibitive)
    Have you seen the suggestion for an airport at Gaydon (http://andrewlainton.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/if-boris-island-will-take-30-years-what-could-be-built-in-10-15/)


    1. To be fair Luton´s owners rejected the possibility of expansion because they had no backing to be a major hub airport which is quite different to this proposal.
      Tim Leunig in his document admits that the terrain is challenging but it is not insuperable. When you consider the problems of working in the Thames Estuary and the coastal marshland I would say Luton´s expansion would be far less difficult and expensive.
      Though I am no fan of Michael O'Leary his comments to the Commons Transport Select Committee are worth listening to.
      His thoughts about a greenfield airport more or less sum up mine

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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