September 27, 2008

High-Speed Rail Will Give Heathrow Access to All Areas

By Barrow, Keith

Arup director Mark Bostock talks to Keith Barrow about how improved rail links to London's Heathrow Airport could boost rail's market share and provide a catalyst for the construction of high- speed lines in Britain. LONDON HEATHROW is one of the world's busiest airports, with around 67.3 million passengers passing through its five terminals every year. Heathrow has had a metro and an express rail link to central London for many years, but rail journeys to other parts of Britain involve a change of train, and often, a metro transfer between London stations. The role played by rail in serving this vast international hub is therefore a relatively minor one - just 22% of passengers arrive at the airport by rail and metro, compared with 65% by car.

A three-year study by engineering consultancy Arup suggests investment in Heathrow's rail connections could transform this congested airport into a world-class transport hub. "We wanted to look at how we could address Heathrow's big reputational challenge - accessibility," explains Bostock. "The number of passengers travelling to and from Heathrow by rail is very low by international standards, yet there is a huge untapped market for traffic from the north and west. Around 60% of passengers should be arriving at the terminals by public transport, far more than we are seeing today."

In the late 1980s Arup researched an alternative alignment for Britain's high-speed link from London to the Channel Tunnel, which was subsequently adopted by the government and completed last year. Arup's Heathrow study advocates taking this a stage further, with the construction of a new high-speed line from St Paneras, the terminus for high-speed services from Paris and Brussels to London, to a new Heathrow hub station. The initial phase of the project would involve constructing a 12-platform station on the existing Great Western Main Line (GWML) between West Drayton and Iver, 3.5km north of the airport near the intersection of the M4 and M25 highways. This would allow services from London to South Wales, the South West and the Midlands to serve the airport.

Arup believes the first phase could be delivered without the need for significant investment in additional capacity on the GWML, and even with the introduction of Crossrail services in 2017, the traffic patterns would still allow most off-peak services to stop at Heathrow Hub.

Second phase

The second phase would consist of a 24km double-track high-speed line running mostly in runnels to join the existing high-speed line to the Channel Tunnel just north of St Paneras International station. This would reduce the rail journey time from Heathrow to Paris to just 2h 30min. Although opinions on the route of a high- speed line from London to the north vary, proponents of domestic high-speed rail broadly agree that a high-speed line from London to the Midlands and northern England should serve Heathrow.

"The Heathrow connection should be the first phase of a British high-speed network," says Bostock. "Our plans fit in with the emerging proposals to extend high-speed to the north."

Bostock believes high-level political backing will be essential if this is to become a reality. "The expansion of high-speed rail in Britain needs political patronage if it is to succeed," he says. "We only have the Channel Tunnel Rail Link because a few senior ministers were willing to back its construction. Such big projects require a big commitment from the government."

The potential of this link is significant. Arup notes that every day, 104 domestic flights arrive and depart from Heathrow, and a further 140 flights link the airport with European destinations that would be within 2h 30min by high-speed train. The extension of the high-speed line north would also bring large British cities such as Leeds and Manchester within a two-hour train journey from Heathrow. Furthermore, Britain's biggest airport operator BAA revealed last month 2.5 million passengers passing through Heathrow were transferring between long-haul and domestic flights.

High-speed Unes may ease the pressure on Heathrow's two runways, and some would argue dilute the case for building a third, but Arup stresses that its vision for rail is not intended as an alternative to the third runway BAA and its supporters are currently lobbying for.

Indeed, BAA suggests better rail links should accompany investment in additional runway capacity. "An enhanced link to Heathrow, complementing a third runway, could increase passenger choice and create a modern intermodal hub to compete with other European airports," says BAA director of strategy Mr Mike Forster.

Regardless of whether the controversial third runway is approved, Bostock is adamant that current and forecast traffic levels at the airport justify major investment in the airport's rail connections. "Something has to be done, and it isn't necessarily dependent on the expansion of Heathrow," he concludes.

"We feel strongly that there will be huge benefits from improving rail connections to Heathrow and offering air passengers a choice of modes for getting to and from the terminals. There is no silver bullet to solve all of Heathrow's transport problems, but rail offers a transformational proposition to constraints that have been there for a long time."

"The Heathrow connection should be the first phase of a British high-speed network."

Mark Bostock

Copyright Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation Aug 2008

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