Successful Southern Rail Link to Heathrow requires cooperation between Government, private sector and stakeholders, Graham Cross, Chief Executive at Heathrow Southern Railway explains why
Publication of the UK Government’s 2019 Clean Air Strategy in January highlighted once again the urgent need to tackle harmful emissions from across the transport industries. Heathrow Southern Railway Limited (HSRL) immediately drew attention to Section 5 of the Strategy which highlighted the environmental benefits of rail for the conveyance of people and goods as well as the role of modal shift away from road in reducing emissions.
Readers of Rail Professional will recall from my article in last October’s edition how HSRL is striving to provide a privately financed, designed, built and operated solution to the decades-long conundrum of a southern rail link to Heathrow Airport.
We believe that the existing air quality emergency in southwest London – which is undoubtedly largely the result of illegal levels of air quality around Heathrow caused by road traffic – requires real urgency from public agencies to cooperate with the private sector to facilitate such a rail link.
Recent suggestions that Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) will apply to lift the maximum permitted number of flights by 25,000 per year using the existing two runways makes it even more imperative that surface access improvements by public transport do not have to wait almost a decade for completion of the third runway.
We believe our own project promotion organisation embodies the theme of cooperation, embracing as it does substantial figures from transport and business amongst the founders along with the expertise of our investor, international engineering and construction consultancy AECOM. Having spent several million pounds over two and a half years developing our scheme, we are now at a crucial point where we await the Department for Transport (DfT) setting out its next steps.
The DfT say they need to spend some time defining the outcomes they want any private sector promoter of a Southern Rail Link to Heathrow (SRLTH) to achieve, and in working out a commercial model for engaging the market. Whilst Transport Ministers and other branches of the Government continue to express positive sentiment towards a privately financed SRLTH – including in a recent comment by the Transport Secretary in the House of Commons – the DfT has not yet set out any specific timescales or next steps for cooperation that scheme promoters such as ourselves will be able to engage with.
HSRL’s scheme – which enables direct trains to run between Hampshire and Surrey via Heathrow and Old Oak Common to Paddington as well as from Waterloo, Clapham Junction and southwest London to Heathrow – will be privately financed and does not require any public sector money. Heathrow Southern Railway relies instead on the Government cooperating to provide simply an undertaking that, once the line is built, they will require train operators to use it. This straightforward mechanism will avoid public sector subsidy or premium fares as it will enable us to raise the necessary finance at the lowest possible cost.
Our team is actively pressing the DfT to bring forward a process in short order to select a preferred developer, and we were delighted to have the opportunity to present our ideas to Rail Minister Andrew Jones MP recently. Whereas some other suggested solutions for SRLTH have been reported as being rejected by the DfT, our scheme is still very much in the running. We are ready, willing and able to participate in a DfT process.
A large number of key stakeholders we have met are supportive of a southern rail link and agree that it is urgently needed to reduce congestion and pollution whilst improving trade and productivity, whether or not Heathrow Airport expands. Yet every day of delay to progressing scheme development pushes back the date for our new railway opening to traffic.
Whilst we wait for the DfT to set out its next steps, HSRL is taking every opportunity to engage with stakeholders, updating them in greater detail on our progress and hearing further thoughts to help us refine our scheme. This is essential in building cooperative relationships covering important future issues such as our own impact on local environments and the scope for us to trigger other community aspirations such as sustainable housing and commercial developments.
Almost all of our new railway construction will take place in Surrey, making Heathrow Southern Railway the largest new transport infrastructure scheme in the county since the end of the motorway building era. But unlike the motorways, our new railway will mainly be in tunnel, to minimise disruption at surface level. We want the level of cooperation with local authorities, residents and other neighbours to set twenty-first century standards for environmental protection and community engagement.
To that end, we are already considering how the sections of new railway which come to the surface to join the existing network can be viewed as a positive improvement. We are seeking out opportunities to improve nature conservation areas, resolve problems with footpath crossings, and enhance public rights of way, whilst ensuring that the new railway is constructed in a manner which secures value for money for investors and the operators whose trains will use it.
There are major aviation and rail industry organisations with whom we have been keen to forge cooperative frameworks from the outset. The new rail link will greatly expand Heathrow’s public transport catchment area for both air passengers and staff, helping Heathrow to achieve targets for raising public transport mode share without the need to impose a cordon charge on arriving road vehicles.
We envisage bringing into use the two extra platforms which the previous generation of Heathrow planners had the foresight to make space for when Terminal 5 was constructed. HAL is the owner of this facility, so we will need to work closely with them in the design, construction, connection and long-term operation of our new section of railway.
Whilst we will be free to take opportunities to procure railway construction in a more efficient way by pursuing our own standards and strategies, our new railway will be connected seamlessly with the existing infrastructure of Network Rail. Fundamental to our view of the role for our new railway is that, in terms of planning and operation, it will function as an integrated part of the national system. Passengers will not even notice that they have transferred from one owner’s infrastructure to another. But this end cannot merely be willed – it must be worked towards.
Also important for our work with Network Rail is alignment with their own promotion of a Western Rail Link to Heathrow (WRLTH) which will make use of the same Terminal 5 station as SRLTH and is expected to accommodate trains which will need to share access to existing infrastructure with services on the southern link.
Last but by no means least comes our relationship with Transport for London (TfL) and the capital’s Mayoral team as these are already the source of major improvements to rail access at Heathrow by means of Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) and the upgraded Piccadilly Line. We responded to the Mayor’s consultation on his Transport Strategy and continue to make TfL aware of our progress.
Yet, I am compelled at the end of this article to return to the issue of urgency. This is because our cooperation with all stakeholders and related organisations is constrained by their quite proper reluctance to be seen as endorsing one of a number of possible solutions for a new southern rail link to Heathrow. We are eager to see a full competition run by the DfT – a competition we will of course do our very best to win – so that a preferred promoter can be selected and all of these inhibitions to cooperation can be removed.
In concluding, I refer back once again to the UK Government’s Clean Air Strategy and the role of rail in meeting its objectives. Heathrow Southern Railway is forecast to eliminate around 86 million car kilometres per year, yielding a saving of around 8,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide and two tonnes of nitrogen oxides annually.
There is an ever growing worldwide urgency in the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2, whilst millions of residents in London and Surrey affected by toxic emissions cannot be expected to tolerate the intolerable for a day longer than is absolutely necessary. We stand ready to bring a degree of mitigation to their plight.
Graham Cross is Chief Executive at Heathrow Southern Railway Limited