Getting a direct rail service to Heathrow

I'm very pleased to see the news that the UK government is planning to build a rail link from the Great Western Line to Heathrow Airport from the west. This would mean that rail passengers from south Wales and south west England would not have to travel into Paddington and then back out again, saving about an hour.

     Plans unveiled for £500m rail scheme linking Wales to Heathrow
     Hammond Heathrow £500m rail link plan consideration

As the Western Mail story notes, the case for a link was put forward with new urgency a couple of months ago by Mark Hopwood of First Great Western. But in fact the key to its viability was not to consider this link in isolation, but to combine it with the spur from the new High Speed 2 line which provides a direct link to Heathrow from Birmingham and, in due course, further north. Although I haven't seen the plans, the written description exactly matches the proposal I outlined in this post:


If the spur does go ahead as reported today, it finally kills off any idea of the Heathrow Hub on the Great Western line itself, as had been proposed by Arup. I think that's a shame, but it won't be the only good idea that's not been built. However the effect of the decision is that High Speed trains from the midlands and north of England will terminate at Heathrow rather than pass through Heathrow, so the frequency of service will be limited.

The key for passengers from south Wales and south west England will be whether the station is designed to allow normal intercity trains to pass through Heathrow on the existing Heathrow Connect/Heathrow Express line. If it is, there will be the potential for more direct services between south Wales and Heathrow, because these trains will also carry people travelling on to London. But if it isn't, the number of direct trains will be limited by the numbers that want to go to Heathrow. I'd be very surprised if the numbers would justify more than one or two trains a day, if that, so it is much more likely that the normal pattern of service would be a shuttle between Reading and Heathrow, with passengers having to change at Reading.

Obviously changing at Reading is better than having to go into London and then come back out again, as at present. But it would be even better if at least one train every couple of hours was direct, which could only realistically happen if trains passed through Heathrow. So if we want a direct service to Heathrow, there's still some lobbying to be done.

Update - 6 September 2011

I have no idea why this link was reported as something that would particularly benefit south Wales, yet it seems to be the main topic of debate elsewhere. So perhaps it's worth clarifying that this link will benefit everybody who wants to get to and from Heathrow in not only south Wales, but the whole of south west and southern England from Southampton westwards, plus the Thames Valley and Cotswolds.


I think we should also question the timescale. 2021 seems like a very remote date, and I can't see why it should be left that late. The link will be useful from the time that the GW main line is electrified, but this will be done in stages, from east to west, and the section to Reading will be complete by 2016 or 2017. So there's no reason why a shuttle from Reading couldn't operate from that date.

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Unknown said...

I suspect that this service is being provided for the M4 corridor towns like Swindon and Reading rather than South Wales, though no doubt Cheryl (HS2) gillan will be along shortly to claim it as a great victory for her skills at negotiation.

I once travelled frequently, for my work, to Europe and beyond, through Heathrow, from Cardiff, and although the journey via the Heathrow Express from Reading was tiring, it was not too bad.

Anonymous said...

The proposal I saw talked about a shuttle service between Reading and T5 with a frequency of 4 trains per hour, as well as the link to HS2. I dont think there are any through services planned


MH said...

That's the point of the post, Pen. The BBC story talked about a shuttle, but probably on the basis (rightly) that there would never be enough passengers from each individual branch of the GWR to justify a frequent service terminating at Heathrow.

But if we design things in a way which would permit through services to and from London (which is perfectly feasible because that's what was proposed for AirTrack, though it branched off to the south rather than north to the GW line) then instead of a just shuttle with everybody having to make a change we could have, say, one train in four from Cardiff (and maybe Swansea) going through Heathrow (i.e. once evey two hours), one train in four from Bristol and Bath, one train in four from Cornwall, one train in four from Exeter via Yeovil. If each stopped at Reading, then then the other three would act as a shuttle for passengers from the other branches providing a half hour service. Plus services from Oxford and Cheltenham/Gloucester as well. Those who were less concerned about time than convenience (heavy luggage, babies etc.) might well choose to travel earlier or later on the direct train.

A through route will allow all sorts of future flexibility. A terminus will limit that flexibility.

Anonymous said...

Whippe! Last time I travelled to Heathrow was around 2001. This means I'll be saving an hour's journey time every 10 years.

Unknown said...

I can't compete with Syniadau for technical detail, but I thought the political spin behind this from the UK coalition stuck in the craw following their neglect over electrification. As Siônnyn notes, Cheryl Gillan or her subordinates will no doubt promote this as an "achievement for Wales" as a way from distracting from their overall record on transport links into Wales which is a sub-standard record to say the least.

Anonymous said...

The footfall at Swansea station is over 2 million per year. The number of passengers wanting a through train to Heathrow from Cardiff is nowhere near that figure. This proposal if considered a 'UK spend' is nothing short of robbery from the Welsh consequential. A T5 spur does little for South Wales, other than provide a useful rail shuttle from Reading. Wales should be given the full consequential of the T5 spur, so the line to Swansea can be electrified.

MH said...

Obviously the line will be useful for people who live in south Wales, but it will be useful to many, many more people who live in England. So the idea that this is money spent on Wales or that the need for a link between Heathrow and south Wales is the driving force behind the plan is laughable.

I don't know how this will be funded (for example there might be a substantial contribution from BAA, as they will benefit from it) but to the extent that it is funded by the Treasury, we should get a Barnett Consequential. Although it's often reported that Crossrail is considered a UK spend, it isn't. We are getting a Consequential on the Treasury funded part, but that is only about a third of the overall cost of the project.

Anonymous said...

Improving Cardiff Airport should be our main objective.

Catherine said...

This would really benefit the passengers of South Wales and South West England.

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