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Where is UK air-rail going?

Ahead of next month’s UK Air-Rail Update event, board member and former president of the International Air Rail Organisation, Paul Le Blond, examines current air-rail projects in the UK and internationally.  

The biggest issue in 2015 will undoubtedly be the Airports Commission’s final report, due soon after the May General Election. The Commission published a major consultation in November 2014, seeking views on the three options for additional runway capacity, two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick. With the consultation, the Commission published a huge number of technical reports that have guided them, as well as the technical submissions of the promoters. No doubt everyone with an interest will be studying these and preparing their responses by the due date of 3 February. After that I expect the Commission to go very quiet until they publish their final report.

However, I don’t expect politicians to be quiet during the election campaign, and the promoters will have to work hard to keep up with what is usually a fast moving campaign, with everyone trying to follow the latest events and information. Airport expansion has not usually been a major national issue at General Election time, although it certainly is at the local level. The views of some prospective MPs are very predictable, but there are also a great number who have not yet declared a clear position. And of course, outside the areas directly affected by the expansion options, the rest of the country may not be interested at all!

So, how is rail access covered in the Airports Commission’s consultation? Looking at each option in turn, this is what the Commission says:

  • The additional passengers from Gatwick’s second runway will be accommodated, together with commuter demand, on the expanded rail services at the airport, especially the Thameslink route, currently being upgraded, alongside new trains for Gatwick Express.
  • The Heathrow Hub proposal for a new station on the Great Western Main Line that goes along with their plan for an extended northern runway is dismissed on the basis of the penalty that arises from having an interchange, the added journey time on Great West train services, additional costs and other factors.
  • The plans for additional rail services for the Heathrow North West Runway option will provide access from the west and south to add to the enhanced services from London thanks to Crossrail and an upgraded Piccadilly Line, but parts of the network are likely to be congested and overcrowded.

In some ways the positive and negative aspects of each of the options are in balance, or at least equivalent, so rail access is unlikely to be the decisive factor, but it will be important in adding up all the pros and cons of the options.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot happening elsewhere in the UK. Although Stansted wasn’t on the Airports Commission’s short list of options, it has considerable spare capacity available now and the airport operator, MAG, is trying to persuade everyone that improving rail access is the key to unlocking that capacity. Network Rail is in the middle of a major route study of the Anglia region (as well as other route studies) but is currently rather lukewarm about the plans to speed up and provide extra capacity. London City and London Southend continue to show that small airports can also have great rail links that contribute significantly to their success. London Luton is just embarking on a major revamp of its terminal area, and is now thinking about how it can improve the link to its parkway station.

Birmingham is working with the promoters of HS2 to make the very best of the fantastic opportunity it will have with the Birmingham Interchange Station on the new high speed line. The airport is also working with the city and region to plan for a potential link to the city’s metro network. Manchester Airport was linked to its city’s Metrolink tram system towards the end of 2014, joining the heavy rail network, which is also being expanded with an additional platform. In the longer term, Manchester is also looking for an HS2 station while the shorter term focus is on how to serve the Airport City development by rail.

In Scotland’s capital city, the new tram was commissioned with one end at Edinburgh Airport. Passenger numbers are growing fast at both the airport and on the tram system. At Glasgow Airport, where a rail link project was cancelled a few years ago, plans are now being drawn up for a tram-train link.

Around the world, there may be something like 400 cities where there are plans for air-rail links to add to the 200 currently in existence. The largest numbers of new links are regional trains, suburban or metros, and light rail, but there are also significant numbers of high speed and cargo links on the drawing board. Only few airport expresses are planned. North America is a hotspot, with a new light rail ink opened in Salt Lake City in 2014 and the UP Express in Toronto to open in 2015. Needless to say, there are many planned new air-rail links in the Far East, not least in China, but also in India. The Middle East is slowly joining the ranks of rail connected airports, as their huge hubs begin to recognise the need for more than just road access.

In summary, therefore, there is considerable activity in all parts of the UK in air-rail, both in terms of existing operations and future plans, and this is echoed throughout the world.


Paul Le Blond will be speaking alongside representatives from Heathrow and Gatwick airports, Network Rail and other key organisations at next month’s UK Air-Rail Update in London. For more information about the event, which is taking place on 9 February, visit the Waterfront website or email conference@thewaterfront.co.uk


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