A few weeks ago, the Government approved the building of a third runway at Heathrow Airport in London, with support from the Labour and Conservative Parties. This has been a controversial plan ever since it was first suggested in 2006 – increased air traffic will lead to more air and noise pollution, and the disruption to local communities will be significant. However, Heathrow is at 99% capacity, meaning disruptions can be severe.
There is, I think, a better solution to this. We already have trains which exist “beyond” UK passport control – you can get on a Channel Tunnel train at Kings Cross International, and you’re not allowed to get off at Ashford International because you’ve already left the country. With Old Oak Common providing a Crossrail and HS2 station near Heathrow, we have the opportunity to run “air side” trains along HS2 to Birmingham and Manchester Airports. This means passengers don’t need to go through passport control “into” the UK, travel to another airport, then go back “out” and check their luggage again at the far end.
Effectively this turns Manchester, Birmingham and Heathrow into one big airport, with airside transfers between them. This means no need to build a third runway at Heathrow, and brings more economic benefit to the rest of the country outside London. It creates more competition between airlines at the different airports as it becomes more feasible to fly into one and depart from another, which should drive down prices.
Of course, HS2 is a much-maligned project. It’s been sold as a way to get people to London 20 minutes faster. On its own this is a terrible justification for the investment. But when you look at use cases like this, which just wouldn’t be possible with the existing rail infrastructure, along with running double-decker passenger trains and wider cargo trains that can take standard shipping containers across land, the potential is much greater.
I believe we should invest the money set aside for Heathrow expansion into HS2 instead, and start building the Birmingham to Manchester link (phase 2) simultaneously rather than after London to Birmingham is completed. This is not a radical idea – people are already floating a Heathrow – Gatwick – Ashford rail link. This would provide the same benefit to the other London airport, when I’d rather see it spread across the country. However, as more parts of HS2/3/4 get completed, this will improve direct rail access to Europe, which will cut down on the demand for a lot of plane flights.
There will be logistical difficulties to overcome with this proposal – it may be better to run a spur from Old Oak Common to Heathrow, and airside facilities would need to be installed at either of those – but the general shape of it seems to be a better investment than
That being said, I don’t believe that funding for rail projects around the North should be cut to pay for this – as somebody who regularly commutes on Northern Railways’ timetable and Pacer trains, the need for rail electrification and upgraded rolling stock to actually meet timetables is urgent. But since the Government have found a pot of cash for Heathrow expansion, let’s spend it on HS2 instead.
The elephant in this room is of course Brexit. It’s not impossible that no UK airports will be doing any business in March 2019, if we don’t sort out some kind of deal. Even if we do, the impact on people travelling to and from the UK via plane and train, and goods entering and leaving the country, is likely to be severe. That’s why it’s even more important to Exit from Brexit with the nationwide rail and air infrastructure we need to be part of a modern interconnected world.