The train to the plane

WP_20140614 4I think big hub airports are the way forward as opposed to lots of little/medium sized airports serving different airlines/destinations or to appease NIMBY’s. Am I the only one to think that a Thames Estuary airport to take some of Heathrow’s capacity and future capacity is a crazy idea? Hub airports let passengers flow seamlessly through the system for onward connections, have economic benefits through increased economies of scale and as mini-cities create huge employment. Obviously there are environmental issues to aviation in general and those who hear every single aircraft land and take off will take issue on a local level whilst on a global level the industry needs to look at reducing its carbon footprint. This has got to be through technology though not blanket reducing the amount of flights. Travel facilitates global growth whether for business, leisure or tourism for the developed and developing World. On an individual level travel opens people’s minds and should be encouraged. Unlike the Greenpeace gaffer who refuses to take the high speed train between Brussels and Amsterdam preferring to fly the short distance, I am happy to cover shorter European hops by train but equally understand the need for good air links over the limitations of surface transport.

Wherever you stand on Heathrow Airport expansion (personally I’m on team Gatwick becoming a mini hub to complement its West London bigger sister) I’m a great believer that getting the little things right helps with the bigger things. The little things being getting to the airport. My local regional airports Leeds Bradford, Robin Hood (Sheffield -Doncaster but poorly accessed from either) and Humberside all have no rail connection and public transport wise have an infrequent bus service from nearby cities. The road access to Leeds and Robin Hood airports are also very poor. Anybody observing at anyone of these airports notices just how many people arrive by car! Surely this is a small area where environmental issues can be improved. Better public transport could reduce traffic congestion ( benefits local residents) where as it also contributes towards reducing the carbon footprint involved in the airport process. Potentially less parking requirements free up land for other uses as opposed to external expansion. Incidentally Leeds Bradford with its sum total of public transport offer being 1 bus an hour has the highest parking charges, greater then those at London’s smaller airports Luton and Stansted ( so much for it being cheaper up North!).

You would think Heathrow would fare better. At first sight there is the Piccadilly line, Heathrow Express and Railair coaches connecting from trains at Reading however there are huge parking areas that you notice at the side of the London to Reading railway line quite a distance from the terminals highlighting the huge numbers who arrive at the airport by car. There have been many proposals over the years for trains to access the airport from the South and West but as yet all railway access is from London only despite a huge target market for the airport from Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire.

Even the railway access from London is not ideal or geared up to shift huge amounts of traffic from the M4. The Piccadilly line takes an absolute eternity from Central London to Heathrow and just try and get 4 big suitcases from ground level to train at most of the underground stations enroute. Heathrow Express offers a rail service every fifteen minutes with a journey time of less then 15 minutes and priority over all other trains on the common section of line between Paddington and Airport Jn. Many a FGW train from Cornwall on a 5 hour trip to London comes to a grinding halt 10minutes from London to ensure Heathrow Express run non stop from Airport to capital city such is the crazy contract agreed with airport owners BAA and the DfT. The problem is BAA who set up open access Heathrow Express we’re purely motivated by cash hence why Heathrow Express trains are always (half) full of business people. They are the only people who can afford to travel on the UK’s most expensive 11 miles of railway. A single for the 15 minute journey in standard class costs a whopping £21. To put this into context a single fare from Central London to Welwyn Garden City (23 miles) is only a tenner, the 78 miles from Plymouth to Penzance will set you back only £9.70 whilst taking the train to the heart if Manchester Airport ( a success story in terms of public transport) from Leeds ( 57 miles) still comes in much cheaper then Heathrow Express at less then 50 pence per mile compared to Heathrow’s whopping £2per mile making it one of the worlds most expensive railways!

In contrast in Europe -Munich, Amsterdam, Brussels and Berlin all have conventional rail links with travel to the airport included in the zonal ticketing system of each city respectively. You don’t have to buy special tickets or pay a premium. Just try using your Oyster Card on Heathrow Express! Hopefully Crossrail in 2017 will reduce the cost of travel from Heathrow and make it more accessible but still rail links to the South and West still seem a long time coming.

Some UK airports fare better then others with Gatwick having decent connectivity both with road and rail. The rail links offering decent journey opportunities to a great deal of UK destinations thereby offering a real alternative to the car. Also being on the Thameslink route it offers step free links from airport to Eurostar (at St Pancras) to the continent offering alternatives to long haul passengers arriving at Gatwick continuing their journey.

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