Reconsidering the Airport Connection: As a Through Station on a Bypass Line

» A station at Heathrow looks more promising when envisioned as a connection between the United Kingdom’s northern and southern rail networks.

In my Friday article on the brewing controversy over whether to link Heathrow Airport to the United Kingdom’s proposed HS2 high-speed rail network, I dismissed the idea rather quickly, arguing that the airport station proposed by the Conservative Party would multiply construction costs and increase travel times. Because Heathrow is not directly on the way between London and Birmingham, including a station at the airport on the first segment of the HS2 route would be a wasteful choice. The Labour Party’s inclination to have airport users transfer to another line to get to terminals is probably the right approach.

Yet, after reading a report on the Heathrow connection by high-speed rail advocacy group Greengauge 21 (thanks to commenter John W), I’d like to modify my position on the issue.

By integrating Heathrow Airport into a bypass route around London, it would become an essential element of the nation’s high-speed network by allowing commuters to make cross-country connections without entering the capital. This link could provide fast train access to much of southwestern England and southern Wales, two regions which thus far have been excluded from consideration for new service.

The Greengauge 21 project promotes its concept in opposition to the three primary options that have typically been proposed for a Heathrow connection: a spur line terminating at the airport, which would suffer from low frequencies (as suggested in Greengauge 21’s first plan in 2007); a required transfer from a station elsewhere that would reduce rail use at the airport significantly (as suggested by Labour); and a remote hub along the London-Birmingham route that would extend journey times and costs (as suggested by the Conservatives).

Greengauge 21 argues that there is no reason to reroute the London-Birmingham route, since that would limit the ridership to be gained from the fastest-possible journeys between London and the north. But by constructing that first stage of the HS2 route with plans for turnouts towards the airport from the beginning, the U.K. could be setting the stage for direct airport access and future fast train service along the South Western Main Line and the Great Western Main Line. The former corridor could handle high-speed trains today, while the latter is planned for electrification over the next decade.

This proposal would create a £3.2 billion London bypass modeled on France’s LGV Interconnexion Est, which runs to the east of Paris, serving Charles de Gaulle Airport on the way. Interestingly, SNCF, the French rail company, proposed a similar line around Chicago via O’Hare Airport in its proposal for a Midwest high-speed rail system several months back.

The French model is worthy of serious consideration as the British implement their own rail improvements. Until the Interconnexion was completed in 1994, customers hoping to take high-speed trains between regional cities were required to transfer in Paris, often even having to get between stations on opposite sides of the city. This lowered ridership significantly, as the time advantage of high-speed trains are lost when major transfers are necessary. But the Interconnexion allowed trains to travel directly from the southeast and southwest to the east and north, allowing people in Lille, for instance, to get to Lyon without changing trains: there are now ten direct trains between those cities everyday.

The fact that the Interconnexion includes a station at Charles de Gaulle Airport (and Disneyland Paris, for that matter) is secondary to the line’s role as a connection between regions. The fact that the airport station is able to attract 3.4 million TGV users a year, no small number (it would be Amtrak’s fourth most-used station), is an added advantage. Virtually none of those riders are coming from the Paris region.

Heathrow could play a similar essential connecting role between the HS2 corridor and the southwestern sections of the United Kingdom, allowing people in cities along the high-speed line like Birmingham and Manchester direct service to Cardiff, Bristol, and Portsmouth, which may not get a new dedicated high-speed line but could at least see high-speed trains. The airport becomes a through-station, with most trains passing through in the middle of a longer cross-country trip. Greengauge 21 argues that this strategy could attract 15 million passengers a year to Heathrow’s high-speed station by 2055.

The primary goal of the HS2 project should be first to connect London to Glasgow and Edinborough city centers in about two hours. This project would provoke a major mode shift towards rail across the country. The construction of a link to Heathrow wouldn’t reduce the airport’s congestion much since only about 10% of passenger movements at Heathrow could be realistically moved to rail and only six British cities currently have directly flights to the airport anyway.

Yet taking advantage of the airport to build a new bypass around London would play a more important role in reducing road travel on routes not involving London, with a movement away from flying as only a secondary, complementary effect. If constructing that bypass becomes a priority in the future, routing it through the airport could be the right approach — and British rail planners should be designing HS2 now to be ready for it.

Image above: Greengauge 21’s Heathrow Opportunity Plan, from Greengauge 21

27 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • David Oleesky

    The author does not fully understand the geography of Great Britain. London is situated in the South-East corner of Britain and most of the other major conurbations are in the Midlands and North of England, with others in Bristol, South Wales and Central Scotland. Unless one is travelling to London or South-East England, it is illogical to travel via the UK capital or on an bypass round it. I agree that a high-speed line deviating to serve Heathrow would not be of much use, in part because much overseas travel from UK regions is done by flying from a local airport directly to the required destination (such services have expanded massively in the last decade) or via a European hub airport such as Amsterdam, when there is no direct connection.

    • I can’t follow this … its sounds like it is based on the geography of Great Britain ignoring distances and population distribution.

      The largest transport benefits will be lines connecting somewhere to London.

      Now, assume that this drives a system of lines to London. This creates a Star network with the problems that it entails.

      The French experience shows that a Star network can be upgraded for quite reasonable capital cost by providing bypasses at the circumference of the central node.

      I don’t see anything up to that point in the argument that fails to line up with the population distribution of Great Britain.

      The bypass can be on either side of the circumference – unlike a commuter radial/belt system a complete loop is not required.

      So plan from the outset for Heathrow to be on the circumferential bypass.

      • I’m with you, Bruce, but bear in mind that in Britain, nothing has a quite reasonable capital cost. £3.2 billion is not reasonable. Already HS2’s projected cost per km is about $150 million, comparable to the cost of base tunnels on the Continent. This isn’t a one-time fluke: Crossrail costs about $1 billion per underground route-km, making it the most expensive project outside New York by a factor of nearly 2 (one subway line in Yokohama came in at about $600 million/km).

  • dejv

    The high-speed trains on british non-high speed rail are unlikely for quite long time. Dr McNaughton stated in his lecture that cost of train compatible with both continental standards (used at HS1 and to be used at HS2) is double compared to equivalent continental-only train.

    London’s geography is also more friendly for transfers between HS trains because trains from all directions can easily be routed to St Pancras or Euston, stations that are only 500 m apart, providing connections to exponentionally more city pairs.

    A bit OT, I’m quite interested if British will use freight potential of HS1 & 2. They will provide direct continental rolling stock compatible link from Chunnel to British main industrial centers. There are two troubles – the trains would need a lot of motive power to pull them at top speed (probably 120 km/h) over steep grades of HS lines and even then the capacity for them would be very low. This could lead to another line for dedicated freight line similar to Betuwe route, probably on ROW of former GCML.

    • Can I take it that when you said, “Dr McNaughton stated in his lecture that cost of train compatible with both continental standards (used at HS1 and to be used at HS2) is double compared to equivalent continental-only train.”

      … you meant “Great Britain mainline train” rather than “continental-only”?

      For the sketched mainline extension to work, trains have to be able to run on the mainline as well as on one or both of the sketch’s HSR-NE and HSR-NW. Running from the mainline, onto the connector, onto HS1 and then to the continent would not be required.

      • dejv

        Yes. I meant the extra cost for complying to both continental (HS1 & 2) and british (the rest of network) standards. Sorry for that.

      • Since the mainline-only trains do not need it, and the HSR-only trains do not need it … and given the distances that are involved (no multi-day treks with a train from origin to destination like Amtrak) … twice the cost for the rolling stock to allow specific services to run from HSR-NE and HSE-NW to the southeast is quite likely a good deal.

  • I understand the point of running HSR on the Great Western Main Line, but why have separate East Coast and West Coast lines? A year ago the plan was to combine them to one line crossing the Pennines.

    • Right, I’m in complete agreement with you about not needing two separate lines — that’s why I didn’t address it in this article: I didn’t want to distract from the Heathrow issue. It’s Greengauge 21’s fantasy. The government isn’t going to propose that as far as I can tell as it’s going to push the single line as you suggested.

      There’s no way the UK’s going to get both NW and NE HSR lines in the next fifty years, not at 60 billion pounds a pop.

      • Fabioso

        Having one line that goes in a long meandering route across the penines undermines the speed advantage to such an extent that the high speed line is only marginally faster to Leeds than the ECML, so it is not a cost effective option. NR and Greenguage covered this point in their high speed / new lines papers. A long meandering line would not serve Nottingham or Sheffield either.

    • James D

      Ridership levels. Remember that they rejected a two-track line, branching for Birmingham and the North West and for Nottingham and the North East because they wouldn’t be able to run enough trains to meet demand. The logical solution is to make the common section four tracks, rather than trying to create two non-stop from London to the Midlands. Running via Manchester to York isn’t likely to gain much over the fairly direct 19th Century East Coast Main Line — the average speed is already about 100mph — and if it did save any time from London, you’d run into overloading once more.

      As for the Great Western and the South Western, both suffer from the same problem, namely stretch-commuter trains eating up capacity on the fast lines. Neither route is likely to justify a high-speed corridor on its own. The best route for that is therefore London-Basingstoke (branch for Southampton and Portsmouth)-Bristol (with trains continuing to South Wales, or joining the Berks & Hants to Taunton before Bristol).

      But to address the original post, it would be difficult to justify any reasonable frequency of trains from HSR-NW/HS2 to Heathrow. It’s really not on the way, and it would add about 20 minutes to do it that way. Doing it as a tangential isn’t as simple as it looks: any reasonably direct route would involve massive tunnelling under west London (which in turn would worsen journey times for the Great Western and South Western Main Lines for those trains routed that way). It would gain far more riders to tunnel under central London and have HSR stations at each of Euston, Liverpool St, and Poplar (Canary Wharf), with trains running into yard space in the eastern docklands, where land is cheap, or alternatively continuing on to Europe. I’m not surprised that Ferrovial/BAA/Heathrow are trying their hardest to sabotage HSR, but really it naturally points to aviation capacity expansion at BHX at the expense of Heathrow.

  • jim

    Birmingham-Bristol is shorter than either Birmingham-London or Bristol-London. It makes little sense to make traffic from north of Birmingham intended for Bristol (and the West generally) to run along the two long sides of the triangle.

    To serve the West, it would make more sense to construct a spur from HS2 somewhat south of Birmingham abut 70 miles down to the neighbourhood of Bristol, where it would connect to the Great Western mainline

    • AL

      It is not “distance” that is important, it is “travel time”. Not sure of specific numbers in this case, but a longer route may give a shorter travel time!

      • jim

        I can’t believe that a 100 mile trip to an intervening station and then a slightly longer than 100 mile trip back on non-HSR lines would take less time than a 75 mile non-stop trip.

      • What Jim said … a “right angle” route that allows connecting to an HSR can often make sense, if the longer trip distance involves a shorter time added to the HSR-line run in exchange for a longer time saved on the express interurban line.

        But running 100 miles to reach a point further away from your destination than you started, its hard to work out how the arithmetic of that works out. Might be the New Maths, but.

      • James D

        The existing train does Birmingham to Bristol in 87 minutes every half hour. That may not be great, but you aren’t going to beat that with a 200+ mile trip with a change.

  • Watcherzero

    Unless your travelling from or through Bristol and Birmingham the GG proposal would make more sense. and by the way that 75 miles has 8 stops.

  • DBX

    It’s an excellent idea. Aside from the way it integrates Heathrow Airport into the national rail network, it also solves a long-standing problem for getting from the north of England to the south; the crummy choice between the huge bottleneck that is Reading and crossing central London.

    As far as two N-S high speed lines are concerned, I think it’s possible — if thought of in the following way. It’s not realistic to build a completely new line on the east as well as the west. But the ECML is already a fast route, holding world records for steam (126mph) and diesel (149mph) traction, impressive point-to-point speed records (e.g. 2 1/4 hours from London to Newcastle), and four-track most of the way (the only extended stretch of two track in the London-Newcastle stretch without a relieving route being from York to Doncaster where the line bypasses Leeds). It’s quite realistic to think of it being upgraded as a cab-signalled, conventional high-speed line topping out at 140 or 150mph on the fast tracks and leaving the slow tracks at around 80-90. Besides, it needs to be upgraded anyway, after the shambolic job of building the catenary that Mrs T. forced on British Rail due to an unrealistically low budget.

  • NCarlson

    I agree with DBX; while Britain is only going to get one NEW HS corridor, the entirety of both east and west coast mains are eventually going to be electrified and upgraded to some (likely low end) level that can be called HSR.

    In the mean time, the real question is what can be done about EVERYTHING in the UK being so much more expensive than on the continent.

  • Watcherzero

    Once you have a backbone network in place, extending spurs to other large citys and gradually working backwards along mixed services upgrading or replacing non-upgradable lines makes a lot of sense and is far smaller figure to argue over.

  • Tom West

    It seems like people are trying to make this one line do everything – connect to all cities, lower everyone’s travel time, bring world peace, etc. The French, Spainish and Japanese systems all started out as one line serving the busiest corridor, and then expanded the system form there. A London-B’ham-Manchester route will come first, and we should take that as a starting point as to where to add spurs, extensions, etc.

    • James D

      I’d go for Liverpool in the first phase rather than Manchester — it would make for an easier northward connection to the conventional network. Manchester can cope for a while with the conventional line via Macclesfield.

      • Chris

        I’m dying to know quite how that would work. If I understand you correctly you’re proposing that the line travels north of Birmingham to somewhere near Warrington, then veers west into Liverpool? So any continuation of the line north the Scotland would have to reverse in Liverpool and then travel east back to an alignment parallel to the M6?

        Doesn’t sound very easy or indeed sensible to me.

  • nick uk

    the distance by road from London Euston to Birmingham international where the line is likely to go is 109 miles direct or about 121 miles via Heathrow.This is not anything like the detour the tgv nord takes to go via Lille, although a shorter cut off via Amiens for direct London Paris trains has been suggested by SNCF.

    Even though the trains may not be able to reach their full speed by heathrow, 12 miles at over 200 mph is not of much consequence, particularly as the route will probably follow the m40 motorway/chiltern railway anyway.

    it would be silly to not include Heathrow if the proposed route passes near it anyway.

  • does anyone know what the latest on this situation regarding Heathrow is? Especially with regards to Terminal 5? I use this site below a lot for information and couldn’t find a thing on the TfL website.

    http://www.heathrowterminal5.com/

    Cheers,

    W

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