Jul 21, 2013

London’s Heathrow woes, why should we care?

It's been a week of re-opened scar tissue when it comes to solutions to London's airport problems, but why should we care on the other side of the world? The short ans

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Crossrail graphic of the about to be newly expanded Liverpool St station in London

It’s been a week of re-opened scar tissue when it comes to solutions to London’s airport problems, but why should we care on the other side of the world?

The short answer is because London is an example of what happens when lack of efficient and convenient air access starts to kill a city’s economy, (apart from the bits not killed by criminal misconduct and gross negligence in its banking and financial regulation  spheres).

It is relevant to what is happening to Sydney in particular.

In the week just over Heathrow Airport set out three options for construction a third runway. It’s a brutal document when it comes to the community dislocation all of the options involve, but stiff upper lip and all that, our (your) country needs you to fall under the bulldozers for the greater good.

This is a refreshing change from the Sydney Airport’s she’ll be right until 2049 rubbish that ignores the need of the western half of its  metropolitan sprawl for its own airport.  What Asian century? All’s well, go away. Or catch an unbuilt fast train to or from Canberra Airport to do business in China, which is the severely enlightened position taken by the NSW Premier.

However with impeccable timing in terms of countering Heathrow’s candor about its dilemma, London Lord Mayor and would be future conservative PM of the UK, Boris Johnson, proposed closing London Heathrow and building 100,000 new homes on the site and creating a super hub airport but with only four runways (!) in the Thames Estuary, an idea that has been around since at least the Maplin Sands proposal that was all the rage in the 60s.

One of the first things the curious student of London’s regional economics will discover about its airports is that the three largest, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, are actually very convenient to significant population and enterprise centres, because not everything that value adds happens to be in central London or the City.

London could use an initial extra two runways in the Thames Estuary with the right access infrastructure today, and it would continue to sustain air travel activity at its other major airports, but without a third runway at Heathrow, a second runway at Gatwick, or controversial expansion at Stanstead.

But the smart odds would probably be on Badgerys Creek being turned into Sydney West before Boris’s Island gets built in the lower Thames.

For those who dread using Heathrow today, there is some conditional good news taking shape very visibly in London in the construction of new stations for the Crossrail project, the core of which should be in service in 2018.

Crossrail is not an airport rail project.  It is all about creating but the first stage of an ambitious, and much needed set of new wide diameter heavy rail tunnels through central London to relieve pressure and allow growth in commuter traffic from the vast majority of professionals who can’t afford to even think about living in London, much less driving to and from.

It will however incorporate the existing Heathrow Express services into operations and mean that instead of their starting or finishing at Paddington, they will be able to run through the new tunnels to London tube integrated new stations at Bond Street, Tottentham Road, Liverpool Street (which has a rail service to Stansted Airport), Farringdon Road, and Canary Wharf.

You won’t it seems get more frequent services than now provided by the Heathrow Express, but you will be able to escape from or surrender to the misery that is Heathrow more conveniently than before from inner London stations.

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16 thoughts on “London’s Heathrow woes, why should we care?

  1. michael r james

    ” the smart odds would probably be on Badgerys Creek being turned into Sydney West before Boris’s Island gets built in the lower Thames.”

    Almost certainly true (unless BoJo becomes PM, then the odds improve a bit, though probably still not enough). Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it should not be built or is not worthy of consideration. After all, what would have the odds been in, say, 1980, that Hong Kong would flatten an island to build a new one far out on the edge of Lantau for its new airport? Or that you would zoom on a wheel-less magnetic levitation train at 450 kmph the 30 km from Shanghai’s airport to the city in 7 minutes?

    Incidentally Boris Island would be considerably easier than Chek Lap Kok (the island flattened for HK’s new airport) and would be broadly equivalent to the creation of JFK out of the Jamaica wetlands on the fringe of NYC–ie. the proposed site is currently mudflats and swamp. But I am sure we are agree that engineering (or even the cost of that engineering) is not the determinative factor.

    Re Crossrail, which is an English version of Paris’ RER, I will adapt the method of scorn shown by Apple fans for Microsoft (Win95=Mac84):

    London Crossrail 2018=Paris RER (line B) 1977

    A mere 41 years (so far) late (ie. too late). Of course Paris’s RER line B does go all the way to CDG airport (and serves two TGV lines at CDG and Gare de Nord); also Paris has 5 RER lines, lots of new tramways, and a plan to link the outer suburbs with annular lines.

    I mention all that, not just because I am a Francophile, but to ask (as I did in an earlier post on this same subject) which of these two (London/Paris) we should take as a model? (Given that London is following the Paris model, the question is really more of whether it is better to build this stuff early or wait half a century beyond the point it is needed …. which is the British/London model).

  2. Rufus

    Bring on Crossrail. LHR actually isn’t too bad (cetainly T5 is great and even T1 isn’t as bad as some) but access to and from the City is atrocious. For a roughly 20 mile journey from Liverpool St, it’s at least an hour regardless of whether you take a cab, the tube all the way or the tube/Heathrow Express combo.

  3. Dan Dair

    The Boris Island option is problematic,
    2 or 3 previous attempts (going back to the 60’s) have been made to create a new London airport out on the coast of the Thames estuary & everytime it’s been knocked-back over environmental issues. I don’t see that changing.
    In addition, the safety issues of bird-strikes & also the sunken WW2 armament vessel, are issues I don’t believe will be circumvented.
    The UK has a less centrally planned infrastructure than France, consequently,when the decision was made to build CDG, it happened and the infrastructure around it was planned and made to happen.
    Essentially, it seems (to me) like the problem is Heathrow is now ‘boxed-in’ by development and both Gatwick & Stanstead are in the ‘wrong’ part of the South-East to benefit anywhere other than London itself.
    A hub airport somewhere towards Oxford would be more efficient in terms of accessibility (but that’ll never happen)
    A massive investment in transport links between the 3 (or 4) existing ‘London’ airports, to make them more easily accessible from eachother and the City, would probably mean that the capacity limitations at LHR wouldn’t be such an issue

  4. Aidan Stanger

    The short answer is because London is an example of what happens when lack of efficient and convenient air access starts to kill a city’s economy, (apart from the bits not killed by criminal misconduct and gross negligence in its banking and financial regulation  spheres).


    London is an example of what happens when lack of efficient and convenient road and rail access starts to kill a city’s eonomy, (apart from the bits not killed by the gross negligence of Britain’s economic managers, particularly the current Chancellor of the Exchequer).

    Crossrail will help a bit, but it’s a small fraction of what’s needed and the version they chose is very poor value for money – mainly because they wanted one railway line to solve nearly all of London’s transport problems.

    London has plenty of airport capacity. Heathrow doesn’t, but doesn’t need to. There only appears to be a problem because landing fees are set so far below the market rate.

  5. bushby jane

    Victorian Govt. should take advice from London – Melbourne needs more rail to improve city traffic problems not tollways.

  6. Dan Dair

    A little research has turned-up the fact that in 1971 the Roskill commission recommended a site at RAF Wing, near Cublington in Buckinghamshire (about 30 miles from Oxford !!)
    It was regarded by the commission as ‘green-field’ (then considered a good thing) which would impact on the least number of people, give room for expansion AND be accessible for the maximum number of potential passengers, from both London & the South-East as well as the rest of Central England.
    The proposals were rejected by the then Government as politically untenable & instead one of the many Thames estuary sites, Foulness Point was chosen.(then abandoned the following year as the oil-crises began to bite)

  7. michael r james

    @Dan Dair at 3:41 am

    Tx for your post. Environmentalism is just an excuse that the various parties use to postpone important decisions. (Given that dramatic landing of Flight1549 on the Hudson I suppose one shouldn’t mention building in areas of bird nesting like JFK in the middle of the gigantic Jamaica Ntl Wildlife Preserve; though Fl-1549 had its birdstrike at LaGuardia on the inland side of Long Island).

    My main grumble is how the Anglophone world seems to have lost the political (and public?) will to plan for the future. The UK’s problems go way back but Hayekian economics is the major culprit IMO–sweeping the Anglo world from 1979. Coupled with all the usual impediments (timid politicians, vested interests, environment, budget issues) it is enough to tip the balance firmly into doing nothing unless it meets some narrow and short-term definition of financial return or “business case”. And the fact that our political class are drawn from a narrow pool of lawyers, functionaries and economists (the kind who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing) when the French (and Asians) have engineers and scientists.

    I think that RAF airfield is the one passed by on the Express Coach Oxford-London when I lived there in the 90s. There were some mutterings even then about using it (I think it is used for smaller private jets?) I note that CDG is in a reserved zone of 38 km² so they will never have any of the usual issues. I also see that RER line B that has served the airport since 1977 is getting a major improvement (because it does serve Western Paris commuters and gets crowded at various times), essentially the airport is getting its own ROW on the line and there will be separate express trains serving Gare du Nord and Gare de L’est.

    Anyway, what worries me is how much we use London & UK as a model to follow slavishly. It is not just faintly ridiculous, today it is almost criminal. I don’t know what we can do about it. Penny Wong for PM? (You know, a fantasy that she might be our Lee Kwan Yew …).

  8. michael r james

    [Dan Dair at 3:41 am
    A massive investment in transport links between the 3 (or 4) existing ‘London’ airports, to make them more easily accessible from eachother and the City, would probably mean that the capacity limitations at LHR wouldn’t be such an issue.]

    Dare I say that when the cost of LHR’s third runway is put at £14-18bn, they could actually build a MagLev linking several of these airports. (It is claimed the Shanghai MagLev cost 9.93 billion yuan/US$1.2 billion, so you know, multiply by ten to get the British cost .. ).
    LHR to Gatwick is 40 km (as the crow flies) so only 10 km longer than Shanghai’s MagLev. Thus it could do the trip in about 10 mins. This effectively is no different to changing terminals* within the same airport. Quite apart from this being way too radical, the privitization of the airports makes it even less likely (and ironically, the recent breakup of the BAA monopoly of all London airports!).

    (*I note that because in Sydney-KSA the International Terminal is separated by a runway from the rest, the minimum times between terminals is 1h15m (for transfer Int to Domestic !). I also note that Shanghai’s Maglev cost $US5.00 to the city while KSA’s shuttle bus between terminals costs $5.50 !! Seriously, I can’t think of another airport that charges for the shuttle within the airport.
    So, BenS, you know my obvious comment: yes, you could travel to Canberra airport on a standard HSR in less time than KSA allows for changing terminals! )

  9. Ben Sandilands

    After Shanghai’s maglev experience Beijing lost interest in longer range use of the technology. Yes it’s a terrific experience, which dumps you in an inconvenient part of the city, which is a negative, but when Shanghai had a rare settled snowfall some years back the maglev failed to lev causing much embarrassment all around. It was also considered outrageously costly to build by China definitions of high cost.

    There is no logical economic benefit to be had from investing in high speed metal wheel on metal track or maglev technology for short distances such as the 35 kilometres that would separate Badgerys Creek from the Wolli Creek interchange one stop from Sydney International. You’d spend over 90% of the trip energy consumption accelerating a 550 ton empty weight train set to 350 kmh for a few minutes top speed (tracks permitting) and then blow it all on slowing it down, keeping in mind the weight penalty of capturing the braking energy as feed back power.

    And you’d get about a six minutes saving in trip time, whether on the Gatwick or Sydney West run, compared to a suburban duplex that is technically capable of a sustained 160-180 kmh with little or no modifications.

    PS If you look like getting stuffed around on the Sydney transfer between international and domestic, cut your losses, and buy a ticket on the underground. Allowing for a ten minute wait between trains, three minutes between stations, and a comfortable 15 minutes in navigating the walk and the lifts, you could save 45 minutes on the absurd estimates the airlines give for the transfer, all for about $6.

  10. michael r james

    I think you are scrabbling around for nitpicking arguments. (Let me nitpick “failed to lev”: no, the train is permanently levitated even at rest. I presume it was an issue like clearance that the “wrong type of snow” messed with.) The Shanghai maglev terminates at the main Shanghai Metro line (admittedly no one really understands why they didn’t take it all the way to the city; there are still plans to extend it).
    On cost, I don’t know if it was actually considered outrageously expensive; and it was a deal with Siemens who were obviously very keen for an actual operational system be built so quite possibly it was cheaper than additional ones would be. But ok maglev does cost a lot and the original plan to extend to Hangzhou lost out to the HSR option which meantime was picking up steam in China. Over the distances involved they are probably correct. (Did you see that over the weekend the Jiaxing-Shaoxing bridge, which stretches 10km across Hangzhou Bay, opened and is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge. This might have originally been the proposed route for the maglev as it was one part of this gigantic transport system around the bay and its cities and airports.)

    More generally, about maglev, the Shanghai line has proven the technology. It is very energy efficient (it is very lightweight compared to regular trains) and has proven to have very low maintenance costs (it barely needs any). It only takes 2 minutes to reach top speed (and the only reason for this is to avoid killing the pax with the acceleration it potentially could apply) which is a lot faster than regular HSR.

    Another engineering advantage of maglev is that it can handle much sharper curves than any wheeled system which gives it more route flexibility. For this reason some engineers advocate that maglev may actually find more application in city PT systems (they were thinking of subterranean Metro systems where the acceleration and tight curves would be very significant pluses; of course the only application so far is indeed a city Metro-type system, Shanghai). (About time savings on heavily used PT: do you know why some of the Paris Metro lines have rubber wheels? To accelerate and decelerate faster than steel on steel. Every time savings matters and can impact total carrying capacity and network functionality.)

    Yet, whatever the perceived and actual shortcomings of maglev, Japan is going to build one to connect Tokyo and Osaka …
    The point about transferring at KSA has nothing to do with me or you; it is what Sydney Airport stipulates as minimum connection times (presumably to regulate what tickets with interconnecting flights can be sold etc.).
    Last time I flew out of the UK, I had to take a coach from Brighton very early, which sailed past Gatwick on the M23 to get to LHR. Took about 80 mins I think (pretty quick at that absurd hour, though they recommend you plan for much longer because of unpredictable traffic issues, sometimes at the entrance to LHR). This also shows that having multiple airports at the points of the compass, like London, doesn’t necessarily work in the sense that “people in the south are served by Gatwick etc.” And for good reasons airlines hate it.

  11. michael r james

    Ben, Hope you’re watching Q&A (about 60 seconds ago) 🙂
    (Hint: Tim Fisher & HSR).

  12. Cunningham John

    Not sure Ben why you are always having a poke at Heathrow. Have you used it this century? You managed not to report that Heathrow Terminal 5 was voted by passengers Best Terminal in the World 2013 in the recent Skytrax awards. And the new Terminal 2 is almost finished. Sure it has capacity problems which the current study is intended to address, but you need to correct your knee jerk in the interests of fair and balanced reporting.

  13. Ben Sandilands


    Skytrax is totally lacking in credibility. I am not sure if it is a absurd as an S & P rating but its lack of credibility was laid bare recently by a UK consumer investigation.

    Let me make a point about ‘list stories’ and ‘rating stories’ for new readers. They are PR exercises foisted on a willing and lazy media to fill space and curry favour with advertisers.

    Terminal 5 is good, by UK standards very good. But by the standards of Changi or Hong Kong, good grief!

  14. JRAPQQ

    Don’t like Heathrow? Then try this – fly to, say, Frankfurt transfer to a flight to enter the UK via Edinburgh (EDI) – aircraft on blox to first bags collected about 10 minutes; then fast (but not very fast) train to London or have a day in Edinburgh (you’ll be in your hotel room in 30 minutes after leaving EDI). You’ll never want to go near a London airport again…

  15. fractious

    I’m not a huge fan of LHR either, but nor do I have a pathological hatred of it. Given its confined space and the (rather large) numbers of passengers and planes it services, on average it does OK. T5 I have not used but it does look flash (for Britain), but I am glad they finally (finally…) spent a few quid on the shambolic, shabby and frankly squalid T3 (which is where I always seem to land and leave from).

    ButI think the focus on LHR (and the merits of following its lead) is missing the point. The fact is London and Britain is getting on with it (albeit late), whereas Sydney is still pi$$ing into the wind. London may be years or even decades behind Paris, HK etc. but Sydney will have endured a whole century of faffing about on the issue of a SSA by the time 2049 comes around. In the end it doesn’t matter a jot whose model Sydney and the Federal and State governments follow so long as their get off their collective backsides and start work at Badgerys Creek. Now.

  16. michael r james

    Ben, I have done a bit of study/updating on Wikipedia on maglev and am surprised to see that some of the things I mentioned above (which were from memory) are further along than I realized. No snark here, but really it looks like it should be examined in more urban situations. The costs have come down, and note the quite high speeds even with multiple stations on these urban lines. I reckon you should check these out on your travels and report back on your blog. After all maglev is technically flying, just at 15mm off the ground!
    Also get this: “The world’s first commercial automated maglev system was a low-speed maglev shuttle that ran from the airport terminal of Birmingham International Airport to the nearby Birmingham International railway station between 1984–1995.”
    Anyway here are the three most interesting actually built systems.

    Linimo (Tobu Kyuryo Line, Japan)
    The commercial automated “Urban Maglev” system commenced operation in March 2005 in Aichi, Japan. This is the nine-station 9 km (5.6 mi) long Tobu-kyuryo Line, otherwise known as the Linimo. It cost approximately US$100 million/km to build.[56] The line has a minimum operating radius of 75 m (246 ft) and a maximum gradient of 6%. The linear-motor magnetically levitated train has a top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph). More than 10 million passengers used this “urban maglev” line in its first three months of operation. At 100 km/h (62 mph), this urban transit technology is sufficiently fast for frequent stops, has little or no noise impact on surrounding communities, can fit into tight turn radii rights of way, and will operate reliably during most inclement weather conditions.
    Besides offering improved operation and maintenance costs over other transit systems, these low-speed maglevs provide ultra-high levels of operational reliability and introduce little noise[verification needed] and zero air pollution into dense urban settings.
    The trains were designed by the Chubu HSST Development Corporation, which also operates a test track in Nagoya.[65]

    Beijing S1 Line
    The Beijing municipal government is building China’s first low-speed maglev line using technology developed by Defense Technology University. This is the 10.2 km (6.3 mi) long S1-West commuter rail line, which, together with seven other conventional lines, saw construction begin on 28 February 2011. The top speed will be 105 km/h (65 mph). This project is scheduled to be completed in 2015.[82]

    Incheon Airport Maglev
    At Incheon Airport directly above Incheon International Airport Station is the upcoming Incheon Airport Maglev. It is planned to be 6.1 kilometres (3.8 mi) long, with six stations and a 110 km/h (68 mph) operating speed. Opening is set for September 2013.

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