Thursday 15 January 2009

To fly or not to fly

It seems certain that the UK Government will today give its stamp of approval to the scheme for a third runway at Heathrow, and that the scheme will include a new rail hub at the airport as well.

I think that the reference to a rail hub first surfaced in The Sunday Times, the week before last. The idea was being floated by the Transport Minister, Lord Adonis. His argument included the idea that such a hub would link the north of England and Scotland to the European High Speed rail network, so that some travellers could use the opportunity to avoid air travel completely for short haul flights to the continent. In short, it was an attempt to put something of a green spin on the Heathrow announcement.

I've argued before that we should be planning to connect Wales to the European network of high speed trains, so my initial reaction to the article was quite favourable. On further reading however, there did seem to be two significant pieces of the jigsaw missing.

Firstly, it was not at all clear to me how exactly the hub would be linked into the high speed network at St Pancras, on the east side of London, which seemed to be the plan. The implication was that it would be by tunnel under London - and a different tunnel from the CrossRail project which has already been approved. But CrossRail has taken many years to get to this stage, and it's not just cynicism which left me wondering whether a second East-West tunnel under London is really going to happen.

Secondly, there is absolutely no intention as part of this plan to build a high speed link from Heathrow to South Wales. That would have to be a separate future project. Despite the Western Mail headline, the government is not about to announce a high speed link from South Wales to anywhere.

Without answers to those, pretty fundamental, questions, I have to say that it looked to me that what we were left with was a diversion of the existing 125 trains from South Wales to Paddington onto a new track which allowed them to make an additional stop at Heathrow. And the main function of that has nothing to do with connecting South Wales to the European high-speed network, and a great deal to do with enabling passengers to use the extra capacity planned for Heathrow without having to travel there by road. In short, it's more to do with 'selling' the third runway and the Heathrow expansion plans.

Yesterday, the Assembly government announced its support for the plan. From the terms in which they were talking, it seems quite clear that they understand the weaknesses outlined above, because they seem to have been talking solely in terms of the advantages of Wales having a direct link to Heathrow airport.

I'm not as convinced as the Assembly government seems to be that connecting South Wales to Heathrow will have a significant effect on economic development. If the scheme is genuinely part of a wider scheme, albeit long term, to provide high speed rail links to Europe, then I'd certainly support the rail hub idea – but as an alternative to air travel, rather than as a means of facilitating it. I'm not convinced about the idea that the planned expansion of capacity at Heathrow is the right thing to do, and I have real concerns that linking the two issues means that we still aren't taking a sufficiently strategic view about the relative importance of rail.


Anonymous said...

kings cross/ st pancras isn't on the 'east side' of london you clot...its smack bang in the centre of london, a little more than half a mile down the road from centre point.

I should know i used to live there

John Dixon said...


Not sure about the clot part, but happy to be corrected on my geography of the big city. We simple country folks...

But the point is that King's Cross/ St Pancras serves as the terminus for railway lines which leave London to the East and North, not the West; and there is an awful lot of London between that station and Heathrow. I'm doubtful whether a tunnel can or will be built in addition to the existing CrossRail scheme in order to connect Heathrow with St Pancras. And if I was going to plot a means of connecting Heathrow to the European high speed network, tunnelling under a large part of London doesn't seem to me the most obvious approach.

Anonymous said...

Ok John, you may not be sure about the geography that is fair enough...don't you think that might mean its a little daft to talk about what can or cant be achieved in terms of tunelling under london...i think its an area we should both leave to the experts.
And FYI there may be an 'awful lot of london' between the knigs cross and st pancras stations and heathrow but there is already such a tunnel, its called the piccadilly line...

John Dixon said...


"there is already such a tunnel, its called the piccadilly line..."

And there will (not-so-shortly) be another east-west tunnel called CrossRail. Likely cost around £10bn?

The issue as far as I am concerned is not whether it can be done - of course it can. It's whether it will be done (or even whether it's the right way of providing a link to the European high-speed rail network; the option of by-passing central London seems not to have even been considered).

My basic point is the one about the political spin in all this - the 'Heathrow hub' is being presented as a high speed link to Europe, whereas, in reality, what is actually on the table today is just about getting people into, and out of, Heathrow.

Anonymous said...

Thats your opinion and I respect that, id be interested to know what you think of these plans compared to the un-ambitous rail strategy put forward by the plaid minister who is now in charge of transport in Wales.

I dont think his much spun and briefed 'express' train from north to south wales (which actually takes 4.5 hours)really represents any sort of step forward for rail travel in this country.

Plaid have a chance to make a real difference...they don't seem to know what to do with the opportunity they've been given.

John Dixon said...


Thanks for the invitation, but I think I'll pass on the opportunity to have a go at one of my own party's ministers.

As far as rail strategy in general is concerned, I have already expressed opinions on the issues here (, here (, here (, and here (

(And one day, I'll work out how to paste proper links into comments).

Alwyn ap Huw said...

To paste proper links into comments use
[a href=""]Link name[/a]
with angled brackets instead of square ones

John Dixon said...


Magic! Diolch yn fawr.

Cibwr said...

I think the idea of going from a fast train to the tube to connect to another line then to go to a "hub" doesn't strike me as a dedicated high speed link....

Anonymous said...

John, there has been, over the years, a variety of different Heathrow rail proposals. So it's easy to get them confused.

However the one that is currently on the table is by Arup Associates and involves building a Heathrow Hub ON the current main line to Paddington, with "campus connections" to the three current terminals, and to the new Terminal 6 if built. No trains from South Wales (or SW England for that matter) would need to be diverted, it will be just a matter of whether they stop there or not. Someone has posted diagrams here:


So there are considerable benefits to south Wales from extending HS1 to Heathrow. I think it's a shame that this should have been offered only as a "sweetener" to make the third runway more environmentally acceptable. But in fact it stands as a scheme in its own right, and also provides the best way of extending the High Speed Rail network beyond London.

John Dixon said...


Thanks for that. I'm not alone in having seen this as a question of diverting trains - The First Minister referred to diversion very specifically in his statement to the media.

"So there are considerable benefits to south Wales from extending HS1 to Heathrow."

I entirely agree. If it's genuinely part of a scheme to extend HS rail to the west of London, then, as I said in my original post, I'd support the scheme. But the way it has been presented, and the lack of any commitment to anything beyond the hub itself, leaves me concerned that it has more to do with getting people to Heathrow in order to fly than with linking to the High Speed network.