The Rail Link to Heathrow ... Plan B

It was interesting to read that Mark Hopwood, the Managing Director of First Great Western, is calling for a direct western link between Heathrow airport and the Great Western Main Line. This would enable passengers not only from south Wales, but from all over south west England to be able to reach Heathrow directly rather than travel into London and than back out again.

Speaking to a meeting of Cardiff Breakfast Club yesterday, Mr Hopwood, whose company’s franchise includes operating the South Wales to Paddington intercity service, said he had identified a potential route into one of the world’s busiest airport for commuters travelling from South Wales.

He said he recognised the frustration of the current position of passengers having to first take a train to Paddington and then head back westwards again on the Heathrow Express service.

He said: “We are looking at the benefits of a western access into Heathrow rather than first having to go out to London and then come back. It would only take around four to five miles of new railway across land which is currently not really used for anything. We think getting a link into Heathrow would not be as difficult as other railway projects being thought about.”

Mr Hopwood said the proposed route could exploit one of two empty rail platforms at Terminal Five.

Western Mail, 1 July 2011

Until recently, I had hoped that the route chosen for the new high speed rail link between London and Birmingham (and beyond) would have included Arup's proposed Heathrow Hub, as had been Tory policy before they were elected. Details are here and here. But I think everyone except Cheryl Gillan has little choice but to accept that the Tories are sticking with the more easterly route that happens to go through her back garden, and therefore we need to focus our attention on Plan B instead.


At present Heathrow Connect and the Heathrow Express run on the GWML from Paddington before turning off to Heathrow at Hayes and Harlington. The intention was to continue the branch that currently stops at Terminal 5 on to Staines as Airtrack, but this scheme has now been dropped. However the platforms for it are already built, so they can just as easily be used for this link instead. The black dotted line that I've added to the diagram below shows in schematic terms how the western link would branch off the GWML west of Iver and connect to the station under Terminal 5.


The image below, taken from this study, shows how the link works in more detail. The tunnel is necessary because the stations at Heathrow are already underground. The route cuts through a golf club, but that shouldn't be too big a problem. Click the image for a larger version.


I reckon the scheme would cost a few hundred million pounds, but it would shave at least an hour off the journey to Heathrow (two twenty minute journeys in and out from Paddington, plus a change and a wait) from any station served by the Great Western Main Line. Most trains would probably still run directly to Paddington, but others would divert via Heathrow. There could also be a shuttle service from say Reading.

We in Wales (or at least in the south) should be right at the forefront of the group lobbying for this to happen. But we'll be joined by people from Oxford, Swindon, Gloucester, Bath, Bristol and all points west, who will get exactly the same benefit from it as we will.

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Anonymous said...

I dont think that the LOX proposla will come to anything, but a Reading-Heathrow express service would be a huge improvement to (south) Wales airport accessibility. We would all like to see improvements at Cairdiff Airport, but it will never be able to compete with LHR for buisness travel, and it is in the best interests of Wales that such a scheme should go ahead. See my earlier comments here:


Anonymous said...

Not only such a link provide greater resilience for GWML on the London stretch in times of disruption and rail congestion, it would also open up the possibility of high speed inter-city trains from the west accessing London Waterloo and the South East network via the T5 spur and Airtrack. There are 'mothballed' platforms vacated by Eurostar at Waterloo. What's more, it would also open up the 'missing link' to the channel tunnel and the continent from the west, without London transfers. Could this make Heathrow a 'West London Parkway' station, on services between South Wales/West Country and the Continental mainland, at a fraction of the investment cost of other proposals ?

MH said...

Yes Penddu, I very much liked your Cardiff Airport rail spur, and should have said so when you posted it. Sorry.

Definitely agree on the route. The only thing that seems to be a problem is getting the station close enough to the terminal. The ideal place for it would probably be where the long building, the International Centre for Aerospace Training, now is. Perhaps it could be parallel to it, to the south.

I too think that we need to develop Cardiff as our international airport, but it will probably only ever have dozens of destinations as opposed to the hundreds that Heathrow has. A parallel would be with Brussels. It has a thriving international airport, but also has the big intercontinental hub of Schipol airport only 160km away. That's in fact closer than the distance between Cardiff and Heathrow ... and the two are also on different sides of an international border.


Turning to what you said in that post about Heathrow, I don't think the Heathrow Hub as proposed by Arup in the Bow Group report is viable without the HS2 main line being routed through it. The plan was based on an extensive "internal" transport system for getting around the various terminals, stations and carparks, which could have encompassed a Heathrow Hub on the existing GWML, and been justified because of the HS2 station being right next to it. So this is the alternative Plan B.

I agree with you that LOX isn't going to happen. I was only showing that some design work had been done on the rail link, I think by Halcrow.

However, I did think of something else last night. Now that the main London to Birmingham HS2 route is not going through Heathrow, the idea is to build a loop or spur to it. This will almost certainly come down the Colne Valley and cross the GWML at the point where Arup had proposed to put the Heathrow Hub. It strikes me that if we design the two links together, more than half the work involved in the GWML link on its own will be covered by HS2 link. That immediately makes the GWML western link more viable ... in fact a no-brainer. I'll try and draw something up.

MH said...

I wrote my previous comment before seeing yours, Anon.

I don't think we can get intercity trains from the west (if by that you mean on the Great Western line) to come into Waterloo via T5 and Airtrack, it would mean having to reverse back out of T5.

But I agree with the second part of what you say, which is in effect what Arup and the Bow Group were proposing. Sadly, that isn't going to happen now, but the same interchange can still take place at Old Oak Common. Passengers on GWR trains from Cardiff, Bristol, etc, could change onto a direct high speed train to Brussels or Paris (and hopefully Frankfurt and Amsterdam) at Old Oak without having to go into Paddington and make a separate journey across London to St Pancras.

But, as I mentioned here, Old Oak can only really be a rail interchange. The Heathrow Hub would have been an integrated rail, road and air interchange.

Anonymous said...

While I sadly agree that the Heathrow Hub as envisaged by Arup will now not be built as planned, this would still not prevent a more modest Hub being built to serve GWML. However, if the Reading-T5 express could be built instead then that would serve the same purpose.

Wales-Paddington trains would still stop at OOC but to meet the HS2-HS1 trains and not as a Heathrow connection.


Anonymous said...

MH...I do not think the 'reverse' out of T5 station is a problem. Indeed, I think it would be desirable. Modern high speed rolling stock is versatile in splits and attachments. I would envisage a 6 car Hitachi 395 type set from South Wales or the West Country occupying a platform, and another 6 car Hitachi 395 type set from Southampton going into the same platform and an attachment being made. This 12 car set then looping round to Waterloo International, to attach to another previously terminated 6 car set. This would have the advantage of a full 18 car set (the current length of a Eurostar) taking the channel tunnel route. A similar 'split' operation taking place at Lille Europe for Paris/Brussels and the remaining 6 cars to Frankfurt. This would provide optimum capacity utilisation, and maximum use of the channel Tunnel slots. Attachments and splits of 395s are currently done on HS1 at Ashford International for domestic high spped to St Pancras. It takes 5 mins, and can allow for crew change. T5 Heathrow Western Hub would be an ideal location to do this.

MH said...

Thanks, Anon. That would work in logistical terms, but I do see a few problems.

The Hitachi 395s have a maximum speed of 225kph/140mph. I don't think they can operate at 300/185, and that wouldn't make them suitable for a long onward journey. The next generation of trains (proposed for Amsterdam/Frankfurt) would be even faster at 320/200.

Airtrack does now seem to be dead anyway. The problem is to do with level crossings, particularly the amount of time they would need to be closed to road traffic if there was a substantial increase in use of the track from Staines to Waterloo.

Finally I wonder just how useful a link only to T5 would be. The big problem with Heathrow is getting around it, particularly from one terminal to another. The only way is to go underground and take the train. Even this proposed diversion from the GWML to T5 and T123 misses out T4. It is this problem that Arup's "internal" transport system would solve, and was one of the big benefits of their proposal.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually amazed that no-one has taken a step back and analysed the wider consequences of this idea.

In Wales we have a cross-party commitment to sustainable development and reduce our carbon emissions by 40% by 2020. Increasing transport capacity, especially projects that drive up emissions, is surely a last resort for transport policy in Wales.

In addition, what impact would this have on social justice and quality of life issues? Rail and air projects generally benefit the well-off, driving inequality. For those who say faster international links benefit the economy - please explain why cities such as London and Liverpool, and indeed Cardiff, have fast transport links but also some of the worse poverty/social problems in Britain.

If, on the other hand, we focus on reducing the need to travel (e.g. through video conferencing and better land use planning) and invest instead in low-impact, healthy infrastructure (prioritising walking/cycling for local journeys where possible), we can boost the Welsh economy, create jobs and improve the health and wellbeing of the population.

Sure - we sometimes need flights and to get to the airport, but we need to reduce these as much as possible. Creating a rail link to Heathrow is going in the wrong direction.

MH said...

It all seems fairly obvious to me, Anon. Better links to Heathrow do not encourage people to fly, they just allow people to get there in a way that is more convienient for them and better for the environment.

This is not an air project, it is a rail project. A rail link from the west will either cut out two wasteful rail journeys (into London and back out again) or will discourage people from driving to Heathrow instead ... which many people do because the present rail journey is too convoluted. However it is the better off who drive (or take a taxi) so improving public transport links like rail will be of greater help to the less well off.

With regard to linking Heathrow to the high speed network, the aim is also to discourage people from making short hop flights from their local airport to catch a connecting flight for an onward flight from Heathrow.

Finally the Heathrow Hub also makes it possible for people from south Wales and the west of England to easily travel to places like Brussels and Paris by rail rather than by a short haul flight. That's better for the environment too. However that is acheived equally well by the Old Oak interchange.


Of course none of this precludes taking other measures to reduce the need for long distance travel altogether, or for finding better ways of doing local daily travel. It isn't a matter of either/or, it's both/and.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments MH.

Do you have evidence that increasing rail capacity reduces car or air travel? My hunch that it could simply increase travel overall. There is an element of logic to your argument - but surely if we are to encourage a switch to more sustainable means of transport we also need to discourage less sustainable forms.

Also - the easier it becomes to travel to Heathrow, surely the more attractive and popular that will become. Put it this way - would airlines and airport operators be against better rail links or for them?

Your argument on income doesn't stack up. Look at the stats - rich people travel much further by rail than the poor:

In summary - surely increasing overall travel capacity will drive increased overall travel and therefore carbon emissions, air pollution, asthma, depletion of natural resources and destruction of wildlife habitats?

I support modal shift - but no-one is proposing opening this rail link while reducing flights from Heathrow, reducing its car parking spaces, reducing road capacity and inctroducing 'stick' as well as 'carrots' such as road tolls to subsidise rail travel. Until they do, I cannot support the project.

Rhydgaled said...

Well said, we need sticks and carrots in equal measure regarding modal shift. The biggest point of all is that a massive hike in aviation taxation is needed to massivly reduce aviation. Apparently there is an international law that says you can't tax aviation fuel, so I say put this tax on landings or tax-offs and make it applicable to all non-military aircraft, including freight. The idea of a rail link from the west to Heathrow is good (though there are enough complaints of extended journey times due to extra stops (Swindon and Didcot) on the services to Wales anyway, so I think the best thing to do is route some Crossrail services via Heathrow and provide interchange with them at Reading), but would the cost be worthwhile if aviation is reduced by the amount it needs to be?

I'd say to kill aviation off completely with said taxation, but flying is the really the only option for long haul international travel that crosses oceans. A few long haul flights from Heathrow would therefore remain, but hopefully only 1 a day to most of the destonations served. All other UK airports would practically shut.

The Westminister government claims to be the greenest ever, yet at the last budget it gave motorists a carrot (a reduction in fuel duty) and slashed the feed-in tariff for large solar schemes while doing nothing to replace the RPI+1% formula for railfares with the RPI+0 system that I think is needed (a fare cut might be a step too far). In fact, for three years they still plan to do the opposite and rasie the formula to RPI+3%!

On the roads, I think all current 70mph limits could do with being reduced to 60mph (the point above which fuel ecconomy falls) to make rail more attractive in terms of journey time without needing to invest in higher linespeeds. I look at the plans to re-route the trunk road from St Clears to Red Roses and bypass the A40 for a few miles the other side of Penblewin roundabout (the other side has already been bypassed) in horror. How much investment will the railways of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire need to compete with this reduction in road journey times? £600m is being plowed into increasing the number of lanes on the Heads Of The Valleys road from 3 to 4. That money could pay for electrification of the whole ValleyLines network (and I'm including the Maesteg and Ebbw Vale services, the Swanline (Cardiff - Swansea stopper) and Cardiff - Cheltenham Spa services in that) and, I think, a fleet of brand new electric rolling stock to run it. That would also release a number of class 150 DMUs to improve service levels elsewhere.

MH said...

Apologies to Rhydgaled. Your comment at 09:45 on 9 July had got caught in the spam filter, and has only just appeared.

MH said...

I don't see why we need evidence for something that is self-evident, Anon 17:24. In terms of rail access, a western link to the GWML saves both time and two unnecessary rail journeys. That's good ... because it in fact reduces travel, which seems to be your main concern.

As to whether it will reduce car travel because of people shifting to the train instead, or whether a HS link to Heathrow will reduce short-hop air travel to Heathrow for connecting flights, the answer is again self-evident ... namely that offering an alternative can only help reduce those two things rather the reverse.

I find it very odd that you think that something is good or bad on the basis of whether airlines and airport operators are against it. I'd expect them to be in favour of the western link to the GWML, and consider it a good thing. It will save their customers time and money, as well as saving unnecessary travel.

This western link doesn't "increase overall travel capacity" because it has nothing at all to do with flights in and out of Heathrow. It is just about easier ways of getting to Heathrow.


Widening now to the general theme of what we do to encourage or discourage modes of transport, as also raised by Rhydgaled, I have no objection at all to making things easier by means of infrastructure improvements. So if the aim is to discourage air travel, the way to do it is not to make any part of the journey physically harder (because that not only wastes time but also fuel, which causes more environmental damage) but to use taxation ... particularly green taxation (i.e. taxes which reflect the degree of damage done to the enviroment).

Rhydgaled makes a good point when he says that governments have been prepared to put huge sums of public money into road schemes, and hardly anything into rail. Welsh Ramblings has a couple of times made the point that IWJ was the first Welsh transport minister to spend more of his department's budget on public transport than on roads. I'd have liked him to have given a link to the figures, though.

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