» 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