In our September blog we discussed how the global growth of high-speed rail should be giving rise to interline agreements between airlines and rail companies. However, we recognised that air-rail intermodality cannot become a reality until we have the investment in infrastructure needed to make it viable. High speed rail services either need to connect directly to international airports or effective transit systems between airport and station must be established to make transfers as seamless and efficient as possible.
It was with great interest therefore that we read in October about the proposal to build a new ‘Heath-wick’ airport hub featuring a £5 billion high speed rail link between Gatwick and Heathrow. The idea was put forward by Councillor Victoria Borwick, a member of the Greater London Authority’s transport committee and former Conservative party treasurer, who believes it will expand capacity around London without jeopardising the coalition’s promise not to build new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted.
The proposed link would mean that passengers would be able to travel between the two major international airports in the South East in just 15 minutes. The 35-mile high-speed rail route would see trains travelling at up to 180mph parallel to the M25, before disappearing into tunnels en route to Gatwick. Passengers would not need to pass through immigration or check-in twice.
Unsurprisingly, the idea has received a mixed response. Willie Walsh, the chief executive of International Airlines Group, has said that it would be difficult to deliver and potentially more expensive than the proposed third runway at Heathrow. He also questioned who would pay for it when the airlines using it had offered to pay for the new runway. Others have argued that hub airports, and Heathrow is the UK's only one, rely on single site operation to gain the efficiencies of having functions such as engineering, catering and maintenance in one place.
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson meanwhile, despite his enthusiasm for building a new international hub airport in the Thames Estuary said the idea was "certainly worth exploring" and praised the former Transport Secretary Philip Hammond as "brave and right" for suggesting the hub.
Undoubtedly this debate is only set to continue in the run up to spring 2012 when the Department for Transport is set to publish a draft aviation policy for consultation. For the rail industry, however, what the proposal shows is concerted recognition of and support for the role that high-speed rail can play in increasing transport capacity and efficiency, especially when it works in conjunction with airlines and existing air transport infrastructure. Whilst there is still a way to go before we see a fully integrated air-rail transport system in the UK of the type we envisaged in September, this proposal surely represents a stride in the right direction.