Heathrow third runway hoo-ha misses the point

I wish the new transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, well and hope he is in post for rather longer than most of his predecessors. His appointment may owe more to Justine Greening’s stance on Heathrow – did Cameron not realise, as I and many others did a year ago, that this problem might arise – and realpolitik than anything to do with their respective abilities, but Heathrow is actually the least of his problems.

The sustained coverage, partly galvanised by Boris Johson, of the Heathrow issue misses the point.  Nothing will happen publicly about the third runway until after the next election. Sure, there may be some behind the scenes groundwork in the Department, now that Greening has been moved (actually to a very intersting job, but that’s another matter) but waht McLoughlin thinks or doesn’t think on the question is irrevelant. Of much greater and more immediate importance is all the issues about the railways that he will find in his in-tray, some of which have been there since the days of Philip Hammond.

The most pressing will be fares – which will become a big political issue in the run up to the proposed staggering 6 per cent rise in January. There is, too, a whole host of other issues around the railways from franchising and the immediate question of the West Coast franchise, to the ongoing questions about their governance and structure, with the creation of the Rail Delivery Group and the establishment of alliances between Network Rail and TOCs. The affordability of the big investment programme and the necessity to implement reforms arising from McNulty add to the mix as well as the ORR already getting hot under the collar about performance. Add in continued opposition to HS2 and one can see that the McLoughlin is facing a sharp learning curve, even if he was a junior minister for transport when a certain lady had only just vacated Downing Street

I suspect all of this means that the new secretary of state will soon find himself knee deep in nitty gritty railway issues rather than big picture when the Third runway debate has disappeared off the front pages.



  • Mwmbwls

    I concur – I think that the devolution proposals for the north of England and the specification of the Northern and TPE franchises might soak up a fair amount of his attention before too long

  • Forgive me for going off at a slight tangent.

    Rather than creating an island in the Thames Estuary and building an airport on top, why not cut out a stage and use amphibious seaplanes?

    Most of the great cities of the world are on a waterway or on the coast. If not then the ‘plane lands on a concrete runway.

  • Former Controller

    The real missed point of the Heathrow argument (I write as a former airlines inmate with thirteen years servitude, no time off for good behaviour) is the private airlines fly for profit, not to serve the ‘national interest’. If they ain’t flying to ‘X’ that’s ‘cos there’s either no profit in it or they can make more flying elsewhere.
    Then there’s the “Heathrow full” argument – it ain’t, but long-haul airlines really don’t like competition, as it dilutes their market. By using the full up, get lost gambit, they keep the runways to themselves. Open competition effectively lets the passengers set the fares – closed markets let the airlines do that.
    Recent item in the FT, interview with head of UNITED (bought Continental) that he wouldn’t object to more tie-ups – Delta bought Northwest, while Eastern / Western / Pan Am / TWA all long merged into other carriers. US anti-trust rules only apply when someone important gets annoyed.
    Where’s the clamour from foreign airlines wanting to come here? if the Chinese wanted extra flights, how long would Heathrow stay ‘full’? The arguments about flight capacity are political, not practical; they’re all coming from people at least one step removed from the reality of the industry. Branson? Just another bloke with more ideas than he can handle – next week he’ll be selling left-handed widgets.