High-Speed Rail's Airport Connection

» The British government is set to produce a high-speed plan that does not include a direct connection to Heathrow Airport. Is that a problem?

It’s one of the standard arguments made by promoters of high-speed rail: by investing in multimodal hubs at airports, trains can reduce congestion in the air by encouraging people flying short journeys to switch to rail, even while expanding access to long-distance routes only feasible by airplane. The argument is lapped up by politicians and business groups, both of whom use air travel far more frequently than the average population. The two most advanced plans for American fast train services will include direct connections to airports: in Florida at Orlando and in California at San Francisco, San Diego, Ontario, and Palmdale.

Yet the British government is planning to release a report next week that will advocate bypassing Heathrow Airport, the world’s second largest, on the way between London and Birmingham. To be completed by 2025, this corridor would be the first segment of what will eventually be a north-south high-speed mainline between the English Channel and Scotland. The full £60 billion High-Speed 2 project, it seems, will prioritize center-city connections over air links.

Is that an acceptable position?

The question of whether to route HS2 through the airport has become a prime source of political argument in the United Kingdom, which is likely to vote in national elections in the next few months. The Conservatives, currently in opposition, have been pushing a fast rail link for more than a year, claiming that it would help reduce congestion at Heathrow. Until recently, the ruling Labour Party had been less committed to the project but over the past few months it has invested considerable sums in initial planning for the line, hoping that it will be a popular policy and improve its political chances.

Now that the north-south link has support on both sides of the political spectrum (as well as a promise of financial help), 220 mph trains running from London Euston Station to Birmingham, Manchester, and Edinburgh in just over two hours seem inevitable within the next few decades.

But one major point of contention has been over the future of Heathrow. The airport is over-congested with only two runways despite its high traffic (Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport, has five runways), so its owner BAA has asked for the right to construct a third runway, a position endorsed by Labour but opposed by the Tories, who want most future domestic travel to be by rail. Labour leaders, led by Secretary of State for Transport Andrew Adonis, have suggested that both the third runway and the high-speed system be built.

The peculiar extension of this controversy is that Tories are now pushing for a high-speed hub near Heathrow that would allow commuters from the north to make easy connections to international flights. Labour leaders, however, will pronounce in next week’s report that there is no business case for a hub at the airport and suggest that train riders hoping to get to flights would be able to connect quickly enough to the Crossrail commuter rail line currently under construction.

The Tories have announced that they will not support the government’s plan for the high-speed train’s route and reserve the right to alter plans if they are to win the election. Polls, which showed massive leads for the conservatives just months ago, now show a tight race for control of Parliament.

It’s not clear whether the Tory or Labour strategy would be more effective in reducing the number of passengers choosing to fly between domestic destinations in the United Kingdom. BAA has announced its support for a direct link to the airport because it assumes it would actually increase traffic, the exact opposite of the argument made by the Tories, who think that an easy connection would encourage people to take the train.

On the other hand, BAA officials might be worried that Birmingham Airport, also planned for a stop on the initial HS2 link, could benefit from a redistribute international air traffic in the country.

But the most important question is whether it’s worth aligning a high-speed route specifically to provide a station at an airport, even if it slows  city-to-city services. It’s a move that has been made previously by France with its TGV links to Paris and Lyon airports (pictured above), and by Germany, whose Stuttgart 21 project will provide direct ICE trains to that city’s airport.

Opened in 1994, Lyon’s airport link has been relatively successful with 400,000 annual passengers, but that’s minor compared to a typical city station, such as the suburban Avignon TGV station, which attracts 2.2 million a year — more than every American Amtrak station except for those in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Chicago. There’s a reasonable explanation for the low ridership at Lyon: customers using the same TGV line also have a connection to Paris-CDG, a much larger airport with more flights. The two TGV stations in central Lyon are also more convenient to most residents of the region via public transportation than the airport stop.

Should countries like Britain considering high-speed rail invest limited funds in airport stops?

One thing that’s worth considering is that airport fast rail links are not really designed for passengers who live in the nearest large cities. Newark Airport, which has almost twice as many annual users as BWI Airport in Maryland, nonetheless has 1/6th of its Amtrak ridership, at only 110,000 a year. That’s because the vast majority of people coming from New York City and other nearby destinations used NJ Transit commuter rail. The higher Amtrak user counts at BWI are likely a result of relatively poor MARC commuter rail service. People don’t use (or, rather, pay for) fast intercity rail from the center city to the airport just a few miles away when they have alternatives.

London Heathrow offers metro and commuter rail services today and will get Crossrail regional rail operations within the decade.

Most airport users come from the surrounding region. On the other hand, high-speed rail will for the most part only serve connecting passengers coming from medium-sized cities within a 200 to 300-mile radius but which lack direct public transportation access to the airport — a relatively limited market, especially since there are other, growing airports further afield, and London Heathrow has no room for more traffic.

Most people in Birmingham would like to use their local airport to get to continental Europe, and there’s no reason why such services should be monopolized by London. The primary purpose of HS2, meanwhile, will be to allow inhabitants of Birmingham and other cities direct access into London, not via London. It’s hard to see how airport/high-speed rail connections address those facts.

Heathrow may be a different case, as it is by far the U.K.’s largest airport. Perhaps a rail station there would be considerably more successful in attracting customers, making it worthy of investment. If airlines were better at integrating train tickets into their reservation systems, people arriving at Heathrow from abroad would be able to switch easily to trains heading north to Birmingham or Manchester. But that would only be possible if HS2 is designed with airlines in mind and in agreement with those air carriers, not necessarily possible considering their clear conflict of interest.

These issues apply to any proposed airport connection for a high-speed rail system.

Ultimately, though, this discussion may be irrelevant to the U.K. Even the Tory plan wouldn’t provide direct terminal access to Heathrow; customers would still have to transfer to another train or bus to get to gates. Since that’s true, it’s hard to identify a major problem with the Labour plan, which would be cheaper to build, faster to ride, and also provide a one-transfer link to the airport.

Image above: TGV Station at Lyon-St. Exupéry, from Flickr User Bicycle Bob

28 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Matthew

    The direct air connection can be very useful, and can avoid unnecessary air transfers if ticketing is worked out appropriately. I lived in southern Germany, and Stuttgart was the closest airport. For an additional 1.5 hours on the train, I could reach the airport train station in Frankfurt. Stuttgart has only one route to North America – Atlanta – while Frankfurt has countless additional destinations. Many international flights from Stuttgart would first connect to a European hub, and then continue to the final destination. Lufthansa has a ticketing arrangement with Deutsche Bahn to provide train travel from Stuttgart to Frankfurt airport. This is much faster than getting a connecting flight, it’s more comfortable, and produces far less emissions.

  • James D

    Well, it’s the only practical solution: Heathrow is in a very awkward (read: expensive) location for any sensible HSR alignment, and even large airports only produce enough demand justify very small trains (just look at the JFK airtrain), so it was always going to fail any objective cost-benefit analysis.

    The questions this leaves include:
    1) How northerly an approach into London will be recommended, now that the main westerly pull has been implemented? I suspect we may be looking at the WCML or the M1 as corridors into London, as this eliminates the vast amount of tunnelling under West London suburbs that Greengauge 21 proposed.
    2) Will they listen to the SNCF’s advice and provide for the inner end to be four-tracked, branching somewhere in southern Northamptonshire for Birmingham and the North West and for Nottingham and the North East? The two-track branched alignment has already been demonstrated not to provide sufficient capacity, and a single four-track alignment to the Midlands is inevitably much cheaper than trying to pull the Birmingham route through West London and any future East Coast route through East London.
    3) The location of Birmingham Airport is a natural HSR/Air hub — it’s located directly on the high-speed route with the best business case, and if the connections are built correctly, potentially at the point where the main regional north-east to south-west corridor avoiding London crosses it. To what extent do they intend to work with the owners of BHX to expand aviation capacity on that site to meet the demand HSR would induce? Although currently the vast majority of flights from BHX are to Europe, this would inevitably change as HSR brought it within 45 minutes of central London and within an hour of all of the major northern cities except Newcastle: the scope for airlines achieving economies of scale by consolidation of long-haul routes on BHX is immense. A strategic partnership with the owners of BHX is essential to get the aviation industry on-side, given the lack of viability of doing this through BAA/Heathrow.

    • AlexB

      If Birmingham Airport is not at capacity like Heathrow, it definitely would make sense to draw passengers to that airport via the HSR2 from London, diverting them away from Heathrow.

    • The JFK AirTrain has a very low share of passenger travel, less than 10%. A direct HSR stop would probably be more like the situation at Frankfurt, where rail has a 28% share.

  • California HSR wouldn’t really be connecting to SFO any more than Labour’s Heathrow plans, actually: trains would stop at the Millbrae BART, and passengers would need to take BART one stop to get to the terminals. Hopefully once this happens they’ll reopen the direct Millbrae-SFO link at all hours so that people don’t need to change trains twice to make the connection.

    One thing I’m curious about in terms of ridership is how much of a difference it makes if the connection between the train station and the airport is via a dedicated people mover or a publically accessible train that’s part of a larger system. It wouldn’t surprise me if people would be more likely to make the transfer in the former case even if the two connections take the same amount of time, just because you’ll have the feeling of staying “inside the airport” that makes the transfer mentally less taxing. It’s the same situation, I think, of rail-to-rail transfers via block-long underground passageways, vs. transfers that force riders to walk a block down the public sidwalk.

  • AlexB

    Crossrail will connect Stratford International Station to Heathrow via central London in 40 minutes/13 stops. That’s a long time, but probably not significantly longer than taking HSR from Stratford to Heathrow would otherwise take. Considering how much it would cost to build another branch of a high speed line, I don’t think it would be worth it. http://www.crossrail.co.uk/the-railway/why-crossrail/benefits-of-crossrail/good-for-transport

    However, it is a long time if you are coming from north of London, potentially adding an hour to a trip that could take much less if HSR2 went directly north from the airport. I still think it might be easier and cheaper to create some sort of connecting service from the next HSR2 stop to the northwest of London to Heathrow via other existing train routes. If it takes an extra 20 minutes to get to the airport, I don’t think that’s a big deal.

    If the goal is to switch users from air to rail, I don’t think improving access to the airport from population centers is necessary the best idea. Give people a direct connection from the airport to the city center (Crossrail), but try to make it such that almost all travel within England, Scotland and Wales is by rail. Heathrow should be for international only, and then only if it’s farther than Paris

    • A connector service to the next northwest HSR station is exactly what came to my mind.

      For HSR to take pressure off an airport, it has to have a lot of flights that can be replaced by HSR. However, in part because of its limited runways, I wonder whether Heathrow’s traffic includes a lot of very short haul flights.

      If you can get the train terminal inside the airport, and its an airport with long haul / short haul connections where the HSR can replace some of the short haul connections, it can make a useful supplement to the main patronage of the HSR. But it needs to be a good fit in reality, and not just a general stereotype.

  • Tom West

    The UK is a small place, and there are very few flights form Heathrow to other airports in the UK. Furether, they are mostly used by those who are making onward connections to international destinations, who would less likely to switch to rail. Therefore, the potential market to be gained is tiny.

    (Some figures: Heathrow had ~67m passengers in 2009, of which ~61m were international. Six million domestic passengers does not justify a high-speed line – the buesist UK rail stations have tens of millions of passengers).

    (Also, Heathrow may only have two runways, but they are used very efficiently – it’s the world’s second or third busiest airport by total passengers).

    • James D

      Yes, the UK is small. London to Birmingham is about as far as Sydney to Newcastle, or Frankfurt to Cologne, or slightly further than New York to Philadelphia. So the Heathrow-Birmingham ding-dong (which I expect to continue for quite some time) is nothing more than the fact that the smaller city’s airport is on the right side of that city to be useful to the larger one, once the megalopolitan scale becomes a fact of life. The only thing that’s surprising is the Conservative Party’s stance, seeing as Birmingham is by far its strongest regional city, and it could stand to gain a few marginal seats in the upcoming election by being seen to be pro-Birmingham.

      We should also remember that virtually no-one actually wants to go to any airport in particular: people only use airports to get to somewhere else. It’s not particularly unusual for major airports to get eclipsed: Munich has moved its airport twice, Hong Kong once (indeed, from a very efficiently-used site), and even London closed Croydon airport. These days we tend toward free-market solutions, but we shouldn’t imagine for one minute that what is bad for BAA shareholders is bad for aviation, even if they’re Spanish multimillionaires with friends in high places.

  • John W

    @AlexB: I’m not sure where Stratford comes into this. It’s on HS1, which won’t (at least initially) be linked to HS2, and the only people who would be using it to get to Heathrow would be coming from stations in Kent. Even without a parkway station to serve Heathrow, passengers on HS2 would be arriving at Euston, not Stratford. I don’t think anyone is mooting an alternative where the trains head due north from London.

    An Old Oak Common Crossrail/HS2 station would be between Acton Main Line station and Paddington. There’s no reason why at least some Heathrow Express services couldn’t stop there as well, giving people the option of ‘being in the airport zone’ rather than being on a commuter train when transferring from the train to the airport. Travel times would be below 15/20 minutes (depending on terminal) on an express train from Old Oak Common to LHR.

    @Tom West: The UK may be small but it’s heavily populated and the motorways can be awfully congested, so there is a large potential market to be taken from auto share. There are also a lot of people who take internal flights, particularly London to Glasgow/Edinburgh. According to the Glasgow Airport website, the top four destinations are London airports, and there are 15 flights a day from Edinburgh to Heathrow alone – I think that’s more than ‘very few flights’. With travel times of just over 2 hours once the full line is built, that will pretty much kill off those flights, as has happened in other European countries. Even for connecting passengers it may work out quicker to take the train to transfer to an international flight at LHR if you would otherwise have two sets of airport formalities to deal with.

    • AlexB

      I only mentioned Stratford because Crossrail connects directly to it. I would think that HS2 will eventually be linked to HS1 so that someone from Birmingham can travel directly to Paris, which means they would connect with Stratford. That being said, Stratford is way out of the way for someone coming from the northwest, which is why I suggested it would be useless. The Stratford connection is only useful for someone coming from Kent, as you mentioned. That’s why I suggested a connection from the northwest to Heathrow, which is what Jonah shared in the following post.

  • ilprincipe

    What British high-speed rail should and shouldn’t do is very nicely explained in this lecture by Andrew McNaughton, Chief Engineer of High Speed 2.
    A rail link at Heathrow would probably dump even more air passengers there. Better to invest in expanding Gatwick (not under BAA control, wink wink, and less complicated) than to expand Heathrow (HSR station and 3rd runway), which would reduce service quality for the whole of HS2.
    The big numbers will come from car travelers anyway.

    BTW: Stuttgart 21 is an idiotic, expensive real estate project with tunnels, which will prevent other essential projects from getting built. For one thing, spending all that money on tunnels to lose the time savings to an extra stop at the airport is ludicrous.

    • Max Wyss

      The airport connection with Stuttgart 21 is not its main purpose, but a (appreciated) side effect. The main purpose (besides the development in the city) is obviously the creation of a through-running station.

  • I think a bigger question is why a 500-kilometer HSR line is expected to cost £60 billion.

  • Tom West

    @ John W “According to the Glasgow Airport website, the top four destinations are London airports, and there are 15 flights a day from Edinburgh to Heathrow alone – I think that’s more than ‘very few flights’”
    That’s bad use of statistics – it doesn’t matter if everyone from Glasgow goes to Heathrow. What matters is how many flyers at Heathrow come from Glasgow and other domestic flights. As I pointed out, it’s 6 million, which in rail terms is peanuts.
    As everyone else pointed out, the real gains are to be had from cars.

    • Not all people who fly from Northern England connect at Heathrow. Some connect at Dublin, some at CDG, some at Schipol, etc. A Heathrow station would make Heathrow more competitive as a hub for those passengers.

      Tokyo actually has a related issue here – the Shinkansen doesn’t serve Narita, and the domestic flights all go to Haneda; together these patterns make Narita useless as a hub. Thus Seoul has risen as a hub for connections from long-distance flights to Japan away from Tokyo. Narita’s only useful for connections between pairs of non-Japanese cities.

  • Heathrow HSR doesn’t add up to me. Yes, it’s a busy airport, but most of its traffic is for metropolitan London and connecting flights. It’s already connected to central London by the Heathrow Express which only takes 15 minutes.

  • Mason Hicks

    OK, I wish I could, but I can’t really add to this conversation. However, I am a new Paris resident and I am wondering if any of you could or would comment on the application of the TGV connection at Roissy/CDG. I didn’t pick out a mention of it in any of the comments, and it would appear on the surface to be a quite relevant case-study of this question.
    Again, as I have learned to expect, great post, Yonah…

  • John W

    There’s some interesting points in this Greengauge 21 report, The Heathrow Opportunity (PDF), which compares the three options (a stub; an interchange with Crossrail (ie Old Oak Common suggested by Labour); and a remote hub nearish to LHR, which the Conservatives are pushing for). Their main proposal, though, is the creation of a ‘Heathrow Interconnection Network’, modelled partly on the CDG setup and using a station abutting Terminal 5 where the proposed AirTrack station would go.

    It would mean city-centre to city-centre journey times aren’t increased, as there would be separate services from the central London route. And it would certainly be more convenient for people in southwest London and the surrounding cities such as Reading, Guilford, etc to use this new station than it would for them to cross half of London to get to Euston. (I’m talking about people who aren’t shifting from flights, but from cars or even train journeys that currently require a cross-London transfer). Of course, it would add £3.2 billion to the price tag.

    A possibly far-fetched scenario, assuming a bottomless pot of money, would be to continue on to Gatwick (possibly with a stop at Woking to allow transfer from Portsmouth, Southampton, etc) and join up with HS1 at Ashford for trains to the Continent. I know, it doesn’t really make sense when there’s an easier hookup of the lines in north London, but way way in the future it might be useful to have what’s effectively an orbital around London, which can link future high-speed lines to the west and southwest directly with the Continent.

    • There is no reason to place an HS1-HS2 connection anywhere except to the north of London. Arguably, there’s no reason to build a connection, period. The ICE deals with stub-end stations along a route by having a train enter the station, reverse direction in 3-4 minutes, and continue to its destination. It would require Britain to plan in advance and not have separate stations for HS1 and HS2, but the resulting service pattern would give Birmingham and Manchester much more frequent service to Paris and Brussels.

      The location of Heathrow is such that the most logical continuation is an Interconnection West, connecting HS2 with a line from London to Bristol and Cardiff.

      On the other hand, because of the unusual cost of construction in Britain, maybe the best solution is to dump Heathrow and connect HS2-HS1 with an airport on the Continent.

      • John W

        I think the idea originally was to allow trains from elsewhere in Britain to have direct access to the Channel Tunnel without stopping in London. However, I think that idea’s been pretty much quashed as ridership would not allow the necessary service levels.

        Unfortunately, it looks like it’ll be a schlep between Euston and St Pancras. It’s maybe a 10 minute walk but after faffing about getting on the tube and off again for just one stop, it’d be simpler. (I think it’s about the same distance as between Gare de l’Est and Gare du Nord in Paris? Minus the stairs).

        So you’ve given up on the floating airport too? (Evening Standard article)

      • It’s nearly criminal for the UK to assume by default all HS2 services will feed into Euston. It might be that it has some advantage in routing over St. Pancras, but did they ever study the question?

      • John W

        May have spoke too soon. The articles I’ve read made it sound like Euston was a done deal (“London’s Euston station has been earmarked as the main terminal, according to rail industry sources” – from the Guardian article linked to in this post). But this very amusing Londonist blog post suggests otherwise. Guess we’ll have to see what’s in the report next week.

      • The expected 16 tph traffic is overoptimistic – Tokaido has 12 peak. The only way HS2 might get 16 is if all the excessive splitting forces separate trains to each destination. Even then, 6 tracks would be enough, and by jiggering the existing platforms for commuter service, they could probably come up with 6 existing tracks.

        Increasingly, this project looks like building for the sake of building.

        The worst thing about the post is that one of the commenters is producing $8.3 billion/2.5 km East Side Access as an example London should follow.

      • Nathanael

        There’s clearly room to build a set of covered moving walkways — a pedestrian-only link suitable for persons with baggage, such as found in airports — from Euston to St. Pancras. Under Midland Road, the British Library, and Eversholt Street, and it could probably be sloped to the surface for the rest of the distance. I’m not quite sure *exactly* where to run it, but there are enough back streets, parks, gardens, etc. to avoid knocking any buildings down.

  • John W

    Loads of coverage in the British press (Google news roundup) about the route announcement.
    Phase 1 London-Birmingham.
    Phase 2 branches from Birmingham to Manchester and to Sheffield/Leeds
    And it is Euston for the terminal, which will require a fair bit of rebuilding to accommodate the 400m trainsets.

    Overviews and route details as PDFs on the Department for Transport website.

    There’s a good graphic illustrating journey time savings to points within London (eg Leeds to Canary Wharf), which demonstrate how useful the connection to Crossrail at Oak Common will be. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an online version.

  • John W

    “There’s a good graphic illustrating journey time savings to points within London (eg Leeds to Canary Wharf), which demonstrate how useful the connection to Crossrail at Oak Common will be. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an online version.”

    Forgot to mention that it’s in today’s Independent newspaper.

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