» 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.
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