Heathrow: the sweetener which isn’t

Gordon Brown today gave the go-ahead for the third runway at Heathrow airport, the international airport in the western suburbs of London. I posted what Simon Jenkins wrote about this disaster yesterday, and here is what George Monbiot has to say on the Guardian’s website today (it might well appear in the print edition tomorrow). I agree with both writers that this government is composed of spineless wimps: they give in to big business again and again. My theory is that they are chronically overawed by power, which explains their craven subservience to Bush and now their policy of giving into the aviation industry again and again. However, I want to examine the “sweetener” which has been added to this bitter pill: high-speed rail links, which sounds about as sweet as the most alarming assessments of aspartame.

From the Guardian today:

The most dramatic element will be the building of a railway hub at Heathrow which will form part of a new 200mph rail line, running parallel to the congested west coast mainline, linking London and Birmingham direct, with a spur to Heathrow from St Pancras station, linking the new line to Britain’s current high speed Eurostar line to Paris and Brussels.

The government will declare that it is delivering a new high speed link for the whole of the west coast mainline to the north-west of England even though the new line will stop at Birmingham. This is because most of the congestion occurs around Birmingham, allowing new trains to continue at speed, though not the full 200mph, to Manchester and Liverpool even after they come off the new line.

Anyone who uses the West Coast Main Line knows that it does not run out of St Pancras. It runs out of Euston. Anyone who uses it also knows that they have just spent a decade upgrading it so that the new tilting trains can use it. They also purged it of a lot of slower old-style trains, like the Southern region Gatwick-to-Rugby service, so that the Pendolini could run at, pardon the pun, full tilt. So, why did they bother with this rather than just build the 200mph line ten years ago? It would probably be cheaper to reconstruct the old Manchester to St Pancras line, which would take a lot of pressure off the West Coast Main Line.

Second, the likely route of the link to St Pancras would be along existing freight lines, which are not direct by any means: the link to the Great Western, known as the Dudding Hill Line, branches off the Midland Main Line the north of Cricklewood and joins the Great Western near Acton Main Line station. It is unelectrified, unlike the lines it links (although electrifying that stretch would not cost much), and presently has a 30mph speed limit. This is presently used by freight trains (freight locomotives tend to have slower maximum speeds than passenger trains), so unless they want to bulldoze large tracts of Neasden and Harlesden to build an extra pair of tracks, it will not be very fast, and if they do improve that line, no doubt the people of Neasden and Harlesden will want a piece of the pie as well, in the form of a couple of stations. And then there will be the problem of extra pressure on that bit of the Great Western line, which has already lost capacity to the Heathrow Express.

Then there is the matter of St Pancras itself. There is already a direct link from St Pancras to Heathrow: it’s called the Piccadilly Line. Yes, it stops dozens of times, but you can still use it on a London Travelcard. You cannot do this with the Heathrow Express, or even the stopping Heathrow Connect service from Paddington. Only the very rich, or the very hard-pressed, will use any direct rail link from there unless you can use Travelcards.

St Pancras may be well-connected, but it is in what is essentially the northern suburbs of London: if you wanted a link to the City via that route, it would be better to start the service at Moorgate, and pinch those two terminal platforms from the Metropolitan Line. If you did that, you would also add four extra platforms to St Pancras (reduced from six to four platforms by the international station), which would make a bit of extra room for that Manchester service (and the new link to Corby), and for anyone who might say “but the Midland Mainline is diesel”, diesel trains were run into Moorgate on the old Midland City line for decades until the 1980s.

And why build a spur from Heathrow to a high-speed link from London to the north anyway? Surely, nobody really wants to go ten miles east and change trains in central London to get from Heathrow to Birmingham or anywhere else in the north; they want to go direct. One way of doing this is to rebuild the old Great Central line as far as Rugby, where it could join the WCML to Birmingham, but cheaper options would be to link Heathrow to the Chiltern Line or to the westbound Great Western. As for Eurostar, whatever happened to that idea of a direct link from Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle, and failing that, just to Ashford International? What about that link from Feltham on the South Western lines?

But all that is just blue-sky thinking, just like the government’s own proposals. They will be forgotten about. If they are built at all, they will be done on a private finance basis and use of the new stations will be reserved for people who pay premium prices, like the Heathrow Express. Others will take the Piccadilly Line or arrive by car, which will mean more congestion along the roads to Heathrow, including the M25, the M4, the A312 and all the suburban roads, much to the inconvenience of anyone who lives nearby and doesn’t work at Heathrow, or needs to use those roads to get anywhere except Heathrow, unless they revive long-dead road schemes like the Cobham-to-Reading link or build a bypass for the M25 round that whole section.

The third runway is to be a short one, for short-haul flights, not jumbo jets, and short-haul flying is the most unnecessary and the least justifiable in terms of the damage it causes (and we already have a runway at Southend capable of taking 737s, and that’s right next to a railway line that runs straight into the City at Liverpool Street). There must be no third runway.

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