Posted by: aboutalbion | January 8, 2014

UK transport solutions that seem to be strangers to each other

Here in the UK, the government is making plans for two big ticket projects that will address two alleged problems.  

First, the lack of future rail transport capacity from the north of the UK to the London area and, second, the lack of future international air transport capacity around London (that will ensure that London maintains its international hub status).  From what I read in the press, I am concerned that each feasibility study appears to be independent of the other one. 

For the rail transport solution, I have no settled view about the merits of a brand new HS2 line (the government’s preferred option) over an upgrade to one of the existing lines out of London to the north.  I just have a hunch that there would be fewer unintended consequences associated with the latter choice. 

For the international air transport solution, I have no settled view among the possibilities on the shortlist of proposals still under consideration by the current Airports Commission.  I just have a hunch that the Heathrow area is “full” whatever perspective you take.  And I have a further hunch that Thames estuary wildlife (a hazard for all low flying aircraft) will never answer to air traffic controllers.  So it follows that I would have allowed at least one proposal (for a brand new airport) in the sector to the north-west of London to make the short list.  And that revives echoes of the Cublington proposal for a new London airport that the Roskill Commission recommended back in 1971 (and which the government of the day rejected). 

But I do have a settled view that those bringing forward the two solutions to the two perceived transport problems should present an integrated pair of solutions.  What impression will be given if users of the upgraded rail line cannot readily transfer to the upgraded international airport for London?  And vice-versa? 

I am aware that outline plans exist for a ‘Heathrow spur’ from the HS2 line.  But those plans pre-date the creation of the Airports Commission to examine afresh the air transport needs for London.  So, quite naturally, further planning for the ‘Heathrow spur’ has stopped for the time being. 

The current situation seems to be that detailed planning is going ahead for the London end of HS2 to be based on Euston rail station.  Meanwhile, the Airports Commission (in its interim report) is leaning (by more than odds of two to one) towards Heathrow after all.  But the Commission will not make its final decision until after the next election in 2015.  And that would seem to mean that a ‘Heathrow spur’ would be an add-on to the HS2 line rather than an integral part of it from the start. 

Three matters about this slowly emerging air-rail ‘solution’ concern me. 

First, I can’t escape the train of thought that suggest that the hands of the Airports Commission are being tied by the (apparent) solidifying of the detailed plan for HS2 to start at Euston station (together with an outline plan for a ‘Heathrow spur’ already on the shelf).  

Second, I ask myself if the HS2 spur line will serve all five terminals (plus an extra one already being considered to accompany the new runway capacity).  And I ask this because, although Heathrow is a single airport from a pilot’s perspective, Heathrow is currently five different ‘airports’ from the passengers’ perspective.     

Third, I just wonder if ‘the many’ will travel on HS2 when it is built.  In other words, it would not surprise me if HS2 charged ‘premium’ fares to use this expensive new line.  In my opinion, for HS2 to become the domain of those travelling on expense accounts would further underline the binary divisions in my country. 

I have a simple hope that, even at this late stage, some consideration is being given somewhere to an integrated transport link – accessible to all – between these two emerging expensive transport solutions.

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