Rail 673: How Airtrack was derailed

On the one occasion I have had tea with Philip Hammond – an event unlikely to be repeated, I suspect – I was rather taken aback when he had a rant about level crossings. As I mentioned at the time, he was particularly exercised about the fact that trains always had priority even when they had few carriages and there were lots of fuming and fume-emitting motorists waiting for the barriers to open. He had suggested that perhaps the priority could be reversed, but I thought it was just some sort of tyro’s joke. However, Hammond’s obsession with level crossings is rooted in local politics and may well have contributed to the death of Airtrack, an eminently sensible scheme to improve rail access to Heathrow.

There are many sad stories of railway projects that have never seen the light of day, despite compelling evidence that they would be viable and be environmentally sustainable. The somewhat mysterious case of Airtrack is one of the most depressing.  On the face of it, Airtrack had everything going for it, a relatively cheap (well, should have been) spur that would have taken half a million cars annually off the road.

When you fly out of Heathrow towards the West, you see a railway line running just the other side of one of the reservoirs that seems to have few trains on it. That is the Staines to Windsor line and the Airtrack idea was to provide a railway access to it from the southwestern side of the airport.

There were various proposals for schemes over the years with no fewer than 10 reports into the idea since it was first mooted in 1960. The most recent version would have made use of part of the alignment of the long closed West Drayton to Staines railway line, roughly following the route of the line from Terminal 5 to a junction with the Staines to Windsor Line with reinstatement of the Staines West chord.

It was a logical suggestion for such an important transport hub. At the moment reaching Heathrow for its workers and passengers living in Surrey and places further afield is difficult by public transport requiring bus interchanges, never popular with heavily laden passengers, at Woking or other stations. Driving becomes the obvious option, despite the high car parking charges, and would, too, have connected Waterloo with direct trains to Heathrow, giving people in swathes of London better airport access.

Although it seemed like a simple project, somehow the cost escalated, as it always does, to £673m with the airport’s owners, BAA, chipping in £150m and the rest coming from the government. BAA was so confident that the scheme would go ahead that it drew up a Transport & Works bill to go through Parliament and work should have started about now.

However, soon after the election, the new government withdrew the funding. The scheme tottered on for a bit but in April BAA announced that it was giving up on the idea. This is where it actually gets interesting and Philip Hammond comes into the story. The scheme had long been opposed by local residents because of concerns about it extending waiting times at level crossings in the area, particularly in Egham but also in Richmond.

On the face of it, a transport minister, intent on private sector investment in the railways, should have welcomed the project. But Hammond had always been concerned about the level crossing issue, and had raised it in Parliament as far back as 2002. But his behaviour since becoming transport secretary has been even more bizarre. When Surrey County Council decided to accept £11.4m from BAA to improve the level crossings he attacked the Tory controlled council telling them to stick to their guns: ‘I was dismayed when Surrey County Council made a serious error of judgement in grabbing an £11m bribe laid on the table by the scheme promoters for road improvements in the area. Withdrawing its objection to the application, without any solution to the real problem, is a mistake’. He claimed that the money would not be enough to build an underpass that, in any case, would not solve the problem. Nevertheless, it seemed a strange outburst against an important transport scheme from the secretary of state for transport.

Local Transport Today reported a legal source as being surprised about Hammond’s comments: ’It is on the face of it a little bit strange. Clearly he’s got two capacities as secretary of state and as a constituency MP. As secretary of state he’s acting impartially on making a decision on the application in due course.’ Indeed, the DfT stressed that Hammond’s comments ‘were made in his capacity as a constituency MP and do not represent the Department’s views.’

Given this level of scepticism from the transport secretary, it was no surprise that the bill was withdrawn. BAA said this was because a solution could not be found to the problem, but this seems pathetic given the importance of such a scheme. It was noticeable that in Surrey’s analysis of the usage of the level crossings in Egham, most of the journeys were for 3 miles or less – in other words that could be conducted by other means than cars but no one explored such an obvious point.

The murder of Airtrack at birth represents a great planning failure. Now the space under Terminal 5 earmarked for the two platforms that would have served services to the southwest will remain unused for years, possibly for ever. Meanwhile, the section of the M25 between Staines and Heathrow, already the most heavily used part of the motorway system in Britain, gets more and more crowded. The fact that the various stakeholders (sorry, but it is the most apt expression) could not get together to create a vital rail link because of a few lousy level crossings shows the British planning system at its worst. Vested interests together with a lack of vision and government parsimony combined to kill off the scheme despite the fact that it would make good sense environmentally.

There are wider lessons from this debacle. There is always much talk from ministers about persuading the private sector to invest in rail schemes. Here was a project that did attract private money and yet, at the end of the day, there is a lack of will on the government side to push it through, all because a few people in Egham, using their cars unnecessarily, objected.

It highlights, too, the lack of any strategic objections on the government’s part. Nowhere do we a vision of saying – here are some transport bottlenecks, let’s do something about them. The Labour government tried that half-heartedly with its multi-modal studies but the results were skewed by a what seemed like a bias against rail and were quickly forgotten. Planning is an oft derided concept, but nowhere is it needed more than in Britain, a small overcrowded island, and the Airtrack story shows how bad we are at it.

Bob Crow hates me (or maybe he doesn’t)

There’s nothing better for a journalist than being criticised or even banned by an organisation when it is clear that they have done nothing else than try to report the truth. It is a badge we wear with pride. In my time, I have angered rail bigwigs and politicians, some of whom have ensured I never darken their door again. The more sensible ones keep lines of communication open, however, briefing me about big events and giving me access to top managers  because they realise that keeping me informed makes sure that at least I have no excuse for getting my facts wrong, even if the angle I take might not be to their liking.

I’m sure if I covered football, Alex Ferguson would have booted me out of Old Trafford long ago, but I have to content myself with being banned by Bob Crow and the RMT union. A friend of mine recently wrote a review of my book, Blood, Iron and Gold for the magazine of the International Transport Workers Federation and was surprised to find that it was not used. When he queried this, he was told that the review would not appear because the RMT, which is a member of the federation, does not like me and therefore would not want to see one of my books reviewed. Apparently, this decision was not made by the editor of the magazine, but rather one the directors of the organisation.

Actually, as my friend put it, dear old Bob – who actually I like personally and spoke much common sense recently over McNulty – would probably not mind at all if the review of my book were published as he has rather larger fish to fry. However,  this minor episode is illustrative of a wider phenomenon as organisations and businesses seek to control what is said about them.  Stalinism clearly lives on.

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