Before we even think of expanding Heathrow …

A group of people in yellow flourescent jackets standing in a circle in an open space marked for parking spaces, with cargo sheds behind them with some large vehicles in front of themSo, Heathrow expansion is in the news again, with another round of consultations being by the government this week and a report, the Airports National Policy Statement, being released which, according to the Daily Telegraph, “takes into account updated noise analysis and a new air quality plan as well as policy changes since the independent Airports Commission backed the Heathrow project in 2016”. The report also claims that “updated international evidence on vehicle emission forecasts was published at the end of September last year and this had to be considered in terms of the expansion’s potential compliance with emissions legislation” and that a north-western runway scheme could be carried out without “impacting the UK’s compliance of air quality limits”. The north-western runway would require the demolition of three villages, namely Longford, Harmondsworth and Sipson, and cause massive noise impacts on other neighbourhoods under the flight path, particularly to the east, such as Harlington and Cranford.

I’m against Heathrow expansion on principle; on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions alone, even the current volume of aviation, and the pumping of CO2 straight into the upper atmosphere, is unsustainable. And make no mistake: any new runway will attract more planes until it is used to capacity, as are the current two runways. All the assurances about noise mitigation, night flights and so on will be chipped away once the runway is opened, because airlines will still threaten to desert the UK for Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or wherever if their demands are not met, and our leaving the EU, making us less attractive as a hub for European destinations to begin with, makes that even more likely.

What nobody has mentioned so far is the airport’s creaking cargo infrastructure. As a truck driver in the west London area, I have to visit the cargo terminals quite often and the inefficiency is staggering. Not all of it is the fault of the airport or the cargo handlers, but a large part of it is. It is not uncommon for drivers picking up or dropping cargo at the terminals, particularly on Shoreham Road (known as the Horseshoe) to have to wait several hours to get onto a bay. There are only a limited number of bays that can accommodate an articulated lorry, and none within view of at least one of the buildings, and you need a view of it because it’s where the counter is that tells you when it’s your turn. There is in theory a 4-hour waiting time limit, but on Monday evening I had to wait well over that time to get a bay, and much of it was spent standing resting on a railing because my truck was too far up to see, and other vehicles were parked in the way; when I did get the cargo, only half of it had been brought landside and a second truck had to be sent the following day to get the remaining boxes.

Part of the problem is sheer lack of space, even though many operators have their own cargo terminals both inside and outside the airport perimeter (particularly Virgin and DNATA, the Dubai-owned handler which serves a number of airlines, which have big depots along the Stanwell Road). But there is also inefficiency. They mostly operate in the pre-mobile phone era; rather than take drivers’ numbers and ring them when it’s their turn, they expect us to sit in our trucks (or stand in the street, even if it’s raining) watching their counter (which does not count in order, and gives no indication as to how long you will be waiting, which is essential as truck drivers have maximum working times), and when you tell the guy behind the counter that you can’t see the counter from where you’re parked, they say it’s not their business. It’s possible to pay the airline or their agent for quicker service, but this only prolongs the wait for other drivers. It would be much more efficient to require everyone with a vehicle over, say, 3.5 tonnes to book in, but really, they need to move it all out of the Horseshoe. It’s just too small and the delays caused by trucks reversing or parked on the road for lack of a bay often stretch out onto the main Perimeter Road.

We cannot add more runway capacity, and thus more planes bringing more cargo, until these infrastructure problems have been fixed. There is plenty of land around the airport and we can spare one or two fields so that cargo can be handled efficiently and drivers are not working 15-hour days (as happened to me on Monday) just because of waiting around on the Horseshoe.

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