29 October 2012

Heathrow to Stansted by train: not as expensive as you’d think

In some ways Heathrow’s third runway is like giving your wife an incredibly expensive diamond necklace when you realise your marriage is on the rocks. It will buy you some short term goodwill, but ultimately you’re still in trouble. The £10 billion third runway project might well stimulate some work in the boom-and-bust construction industry, but it does little to address the fundamentals of growth, or indeed offer a long term solution to London’s need for airport capacity: it is lazy policy.

So instead of looking at expensive, shiny baubles, the government’s review should concentrate on getting the basics right: remembering to put the rubbish out, cooking more often, or in the case of London’s airports, making sure they are used more efficiently. Considering an expensive runway as a short term fix to Heathrow’s woes seems mad when you consider that Stansted is running at 50% capacity, with the space for more terminal buildings that would linked seamlessly into existing motorway and rail infrastructure.

The problem is that getting between London’s airports is utterly nightmarish – as anyone who has trekked across the capital to catch a connecting flight knows. Slow bus journeys around the M25 are the order of the day: not exactly reassuring if you have a tight schedule, and hardly an advertisement for modern Britain. The logical solution would be a Heathrow-Stansted rail link, yet this would obviously be a wickedly expensive option given the distance involved.

But curiously enough we already have all the infrastructure in place to operate such a service.

Re-laying the track on a disused rail chord south of Tottenham Hale is all that stands in the way of running trains between the two airports. The Gospel Oak – Barking line is a busy railway, but improved passing loops and signalling would allow passengers to transfer in about 70 minutes.

The disused rail chord
The work could be delivered as part of the already proposed capacity improvements to the Stansted Express, and for a tiny fraction of the £10 billion required for Heathrow’s short term third runway solution. The connection at West Hampstead would link to Thameslink’s Luton and Gatwick services, and Willesden Junction would give access to the new HS2 interchange. It wouldn’t be too much of a leap in imagination to see a ‘London Airport Connect’ service quickly becoming popular for both transfer journeys and passengers travelling to and from west London.

If looking at airport strategy is indeed a completely open-minded exercise, then there is the potential to shift the political consensus from a negative (a wasteful short term fix at Heathrow) to a positive (creating a long term solution – potentially building Boris Island in the Thames Estuary).

This process will be drawn out, with either solution decades away. The fine tuning of our existing facilities should start without delay – and with the imagination and flair that London desperately needs.

First published by Platform 10 on September 10th, 2012