Green light for gridlock

A timber-framed red-brick house behind a red-brick wall topped with greenery, accessed by a stony track with a tall wooden gate.Today the government gave its backing to plans to expand Heathrow airport in west London by building an extra runway to the north-west of the existing site, with all the necessary access roads and buildings and so on. This will absorb parts of Sipson, most of Harmondsworth and all of Longford as well as a number of industrial areas that currently sit around the airport perimeter and feed the airport with freight and food. The plans also include the re-routing of some local main roads, the closure of others, the tunnelling of a section of the M25 and the wholesale re-routing of the airport’s current taxiways, which currently form a hexagon around the central island where the old terminals are. A map of the new scheme can be found in this PDF) on page 25. This is more than just an expansion; it looks like a total reconstruction of the whole site.

Living in south-west London and having to drive through the Heathrow area on a regular basis both while commuting and while making runs, the amount of traffic disruption this will cause both during construction and after should be a huge red flag. My usual route from Kingston to reach the M4 or to get to places like Iver or Slough (where a lot of my work comes from) is along the Staines By-pass and then up Stanwell Moor Road and then west along the A4, which has no junction with the M25. However, the northern end of Stanwell Moor Road and a large section of the A4 (Colnbrook By-Pass) are being demolished; the A4 is to be re-routed via a new northern by-pass that starts at the Sipson junction (just east of where the M4 spur road ends), runs east of Sipson towards West Drayton and then west, past what remains of Harmondsworth, to rejoin the existing road outside Colnbrook village, while local traffic from the south is to be redirected through the industrial area of Poyle and part of Colnbrook village, which will no doubt become a major cut-through for anyone wishing to avoid the queues at junction 15 (for the M4). I can currently get across this area without touching the M25, which will not be the case when this is all built; everyone will have to go across junction 14 to get over the M25. This roundabout is frequently very congested and will get even more so when construction begins.

The M25 is to be covered over; the original plans include a re-routing of the motorway slightly to the west, with parts of the original alignment retained for some (not all) M25/M4 accesses, but the current ones have the M25 entering the tunnel just south of the unchanged M25/M4 junction. However, the closure of alternative routes from south-west London to the M4 will mean the road will probably have to be widened, with the addition of at least an extra lane for traffic going from the northbound M25 to the westbound M4, which as it is currently confined to a single lane, is frequently backed up well past junction 14. I am not sure if this has been factored in. And on top of this, this stretch of the M25 is one of the busiest and most congested in the country with queues of miles which start well before peak hours, particularly on the approach to the M4 junction from the south and the M3 junction from the north, and the tunnelling work and the increase in construction traffic as well as diverted traffic off closed roads will add to this considerably. The result will be felt all the way out into Hampshire as people trying to reach the M4 and M40 divert along local roads (e.g. the A322/A329 through Bracknell, the A327 from Farnborough to Reading, the B3349 from Hook to Reading) rather than sit through the jams on the M25, and certainly at the Dartford river crossing as traffic bound for the Kent ports diverts that way.

All this, of course, says nothing about the environmental impact of both more airports and more flights. Air travel is the most environmentally damaging in terms of CO2 emissions, with the emissions being discharged straight into the upper atmosphere where there are no trees to absorb them. The additional runway to the north will mean there is an additional corridor under which homes are blighted for hours every day by aircraft noise; this will include the villages of Sipson and Harlington as well as parts of Cranford and Heston, as well as Colnbrook and parts of Slough and Windsor to the west. Expansion supporters may say that flights on all three runways will be less frequent and that it will be operating at 64% of capacity rather than the current 98%, but we cannot assume that the same number of flights (472,000) will keep operating indefintely; ultimately, more flights will mean the airlines and airport operator will make more money, so they will demand the relaxation of any rules or laws designed to protect residents along all three corridors and eventually, the noise and disruption along the approaches to all three runways will be as bad as they are now.

Inevitably, someone will ask where I favour the building of a new runway, since “there has to be one”. Gatwick has a strip of land running parallel to its existing runway to the south, which could be used for expansion, and the traffic disruption will be that much less during construction as it does not pass over the M23 motorway, but in terms of improving infrastructure to in the south-east rather than the rest of the country, that option is even more extreme. Gatwick’s rail links to almost everywhere, including most of London, are inferior to Heathrow’s (particularly since the branch line off the Great Western was built), and the route to Gatwick from anywhere in the country except south London, the south-east coastal area and East Anglia passes via Heathrow. I am not convinced we need another major runway given that we have six or seven large airports in England, four of them around London, meaning a total of eight full-size runways (Birmingham, Manchester and East Midlands being the others). As for the threat of Heathrow losing its hub status, major road transport links pass through the site with trucks from all over Europe to all over the UK and vice versa, and the needs of everyone who works and passes through the area daily cannot be sacrificed to the demands of one (still very profitable) industry.

As for such things as the expansion of cargo facilities and the few green spaces that are to be built around the perimeter: as I said last October, cargo needs expanding with or without a third runway, as there are not enough spaces for the trucks that park at some of the depots (the Shoreham Road “Horseshoe” area in particular) and wait times sometimes run into hours, and the parks and recreation spots can be built without it. In any case, given the hugely ambitious nature of the plan, we might question whether it will all get done or whether the cost of the third runway and the infrastructure immediately surrounding it might mean that these things go on the back burner. None of the promises of the people proposing this can be relied on, and governments will not hold them to them. Questions like “if not here, where?” and “what about our precious hub status?” should not be more important than whether the area’s roads and businesses can tolerate the inevitable gridlock, or should be expected to.

Image credit: David Hawgood. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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