High speed rail’s tenuous connection to Heathrow

Lord Adonis rather lets the cat out of his bag by accepting that a High Speed rail connection to Heathrow would do little to reduce the number of flights from the airport. This is commendably honest but rather undermines the case put forward by his boss, Geoff Hoon, for the railway as a green alternative to flying which was the rationale for including it in the announcement about the third runway.

 In fact, a huge railway station under the airport with fast links to major conurbations might well encourage more people to use Heathrow and attract yet more flights to the hub rather than to regional airports. Given that Lord Adonis seems to accept there is little synergy between the high speed line and the airport, it is clear that the rail announcement was a hastily cobbled together package designed superficially to appease the environmentalist lobby.

 This is demonstrated by the sketchy nature of the plans. The projected cost of £20bn is merely a guess and there will be enormous wrangles over the route and the environmental impacts, as there was over High Speed One which had to be placed in lengthy tunnels at enormous cost. And there are doubts even among high speed line supporters about whether routing a high speed line to Heathrow is a sensible move.

 In reality, the commitment to examine the viability of a north south high speed line is little more than a belated adherence to the Labour party manifesto which previous transport ministers had ignored. It is also a response to the Tories’ who put Labour on the back foot by announcing their support for a line at the party conference last autumn.

 The launch of the study is nonetheless welcome because the concept needs to be thoroughly examined not only from an economic point of view but an environmental one. It is by no means certain that a high speed line would be a green project. Quite apart from the fact that the line would require enormous amounts of resources and energy to build, it would lead to people travelling longer distances, as is happening with the first High Speed Line which will soon be running fast trains from Kent, encouraging commuters to live further from London. Labour should have commissioned such a study years ago, rather than letting the Conservatives make the running and crucially must go into it with an open mind in order to assess thoroughly the idea’s green credentials. As with the third runway, the odds against a high speed line ever being built remain high.


  • Tim Arnold

    Quite so Christian, even Richard Brown (Eurostar Chief Executive) agrees, this from him on p60 of RAIL 609: “Many of Eurostar’s travellers fly in to London from across the world and take the train to Paris and beyond” therefore Eurostar is encouraging use of Heathrow.

  • David

    I think Tim Arnold has perhaps misunderstood the situation Richard Brown was referring to.

    During the summer of 2006, my wife and I shared a four-seat block of a ‘Eurostar Italia’ train on a service between Venice and Milan with a woman and her son from New Jersey. During the journey, we got into conversation, and she said how lucky we were in the UK to have budget airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair – it meant British people with average incomes could travel throughout Europe, and out leisure opportunities were considerable.

    She then expanded this to talk about the costs of Trans-Atlantic travel, and asked if we knew why air fares between the USA and the UK were so much less than to other European countries; I couldn’t give her any reasons for this, but she then told us of web-sites which she had found which show Americans how they can cut the costs of their travel to Europe by flying into the UK, and then by completing their journeys by either rail or budget airlines. Even with overnight stops in London on the outward and return journeys, considerable savings are still achievable, she told us.

    I’ve often observed passengers speaking with North American accents on ‘Eurostar’ services, and I guess they are either using the train as part of their European “Grand Tour”, or else trying to make their bucks go further. So for some of those using both Heathrow and ‘Eurostar’, their choice results from that ‘c’ word which many of our TOCs seem to ignore – cost; it is simply the cheapest way of getting to Europe for their holiday.