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The only way is Heathrow

    This article is an excerpt from the CPS Growth Bulletin, authored by Ryan Bourne and Tim Knox. To read the full article, click here. To sign up for our mailings, use the form on the left of our newsletter page.

    Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. Not a day goes by without a politician, economist or commentator advocating some new public investment as a means of our economic salvation. But the most important infrastructure decision facing us – where to build more airport capacity – has been kicked into the future with the on-going Davies Commission.
    This week, the Centre for Policy Studies published what we believe would be the most cost-effective and robust solution to this capacity crunch. A paper by Jock Lowe and Mark Bostock suggests that expansion of Heathrow is the only sensible option. Their plan is to turn Heathrow into a robust hub – with almost double the current capacity at no public cost. Developed in phases, it would provide an integrated rail, road, and air transport solution. It has been submitted for consideration by the Davies Commission.
    Heathrow is currently estimated to contribute about 1% of UK GDP. It retains the highest connectivity score amongst major European hubs, and despite being at near capacity, other UK airports have failed to develop long-distance routes on any significant scale to augment Heathrow. Instead there has been a 49% increase between 2005 and 2011 in the number of passengers flying from UK regional airports to overseas hubs.


    Heathrow remains the largest freight port, with £35bn worth of goods passing through each year. Should the strain on its runways continue to increase, this will be disastrous for foreign investment. Heathrow’s location also has certain climatic and topographical advantages which a Thames estuary airport may lack, such as minimal cross-winds, fog, snow and bird strikes. And this is before we even mention the huge sunk costs in terms of investment that has already gone into the site.
    Heathrow Hub would retain the two existing runways, and take advantage of the simple fact that these are much longer than required for modern aircraft. Both runways would therefore be extended at one or both ends, and divided by an intermediate safety zone to comply with mandatory safety codes, as in the figure below.
    Each existing runway becomes two separate, in-line runways – one for aircraft landing and one for taking off. The M25 motorway would be diverted or possibly bridged where crossed by runway and taxiway extensions.

    This allows each runway to be used simultaneously, providing, in its ultimate phase, a doubling of slots. This would meet all foreseeable demand and create enormous flexibility for noise mitigation and runway alternation. Construction could take place in phases. One option would be to extend the northern runway first, with construction of the southern runway following as and when required. This would be coordinated with development of the Heathrow Hub transport interchange to provide the necessary surface access improvements and, by relocating some land side facilities from Heathrow’s constrained site, release space for larger numbers of aircraft.
    There are also environmental benefits, including reduction of delays and ground hold times. Making best use of existing assets is also likely to be far less carbon intensive than constructing an entirely new airport and its associated transport as well as ancillary infrastructure. What’s more, extending existing runways in this way brings no new areas into the noise footprint.
    In order to make Heathrow a world-class multi-modal transport hub, the Heathrow hub proposal would also develop a new interchange two miles north of Heathrow’s current Terminal 5. The aim of this would be three-fold:

    1. To develop a new terminal to accommodate passenger growth.
    2. To develop a new railway station, linking Heathrow onto the Great Western Main Line (GWML), Crossrail (from 2018), regional and inter-city rail services, and maybe the Piccadilly Line to connect with the interchange and GWML services. The interchange could also be served by HS2 if the current route was altered to run directly via Heathrow.
    3. To enable the Hub to have direct access to the M25 motorway, just north of its junction with the M4. 

    A major part of the development is improving access. Maintaining a large catchment area is crucial for the economic viability of the Hub. This development could occur in three Phases:

    1. First, development of new terminal capacity outside the existing constrained airport boundary (but still “on-airport”). Development of the Heathrow Hub rail interchange would also provide direct rail access to Heathrow from much of the UK, particularly from the economically disadvantaged areas of the South West of England and South Wales.
    2. Second phase would add a new high speed rail connection between Heathrow Hub and HS1. This avoids the adverse environmental impacts of the current HS2 proposal by tunnelling below the Great Western Main Line, (and partly paralleling Crossrail’s tunnels through central London). Two central London interchanges, at low level below Paddington and Euston/Kings Cross/St Pancras, would allow seamless interchange with Crossrail, Thameslink and National Rail services.
    3. Third phase could, if HS2 goes ahead with an amended route, further increase Heathrow’s accessibility, allowing high speed rail to replace many domestic flights and releasing further runway capacity.

    The capital cost of this proposal would be far lower than all the other options being considered. In addition, the phased nature of the proposals allows capacity to be matched with demand. This increases affordability and reduces the commercial risk inherent in “all or nothing” proposals for entirely new infrastructure. Constructing a new terminal and surface access infrastructure outside the existing congested operational airfield also significantly reduces capital costs.
    The authors estimate, for example, that Lord Foster’s Thames Hub would cost £65 billion in development. In contrast, the authors estimate that the Heathrow Hub would cost just £10 billion. They calculate that, under this Hub scheme, the average airport user charge would be only £24 per passenger (compared to Heathrow's current £18), whilst Lord Foster’s Thames Hub proposal would require a charge of at least £62 (a figure which would be even higher for Boris Island).
    With economic growth in the UK being held back by the shortage of airport capacity in the South East, and by the uncertainty over how this will be resolved, Jock Lowe and Mark Bostock demonstrate that “Heathrow Hub” has five main advantages:

    • Capacity – doubling the number of Heathrow’s runway slots would allow more flights while also reducing delays and improving its resilience and efficiency. Importantly, this would also allow some runway alternation throughout the day;
    • Quick – significant new runway capacity could be completed within five years;
    • Quiet – the extra capacity could allow the airport to open later in the morning and possibly allow innovative noise reduction techniques. Very few, if any, new areas will be brought into the airport’s noise footprint. In addition, early morning arrivals could land more than two miles further west, reducing noise over London; finally descent points could be raised from 4,000ft to 8,000ft significantly reducing overall noise pollution.
    • Cost effective – the cost and the airport user charges would be significantly lower than that of any new airport -   an issue critical to the UK's competitiveness. It would also be entirely privately funded;
    • Connected – by at last connecting Heathrow to the national rail network, it will reduce road congestion and improve regional access to the only hub airport in the UK, as well as freeing up runway space for more long-haul flights by reducing the number of national flights from Scotland and Ireland.

    It is vitally important that we end the uncertainty over the future of Heathrow as soon as possible to boost business confidence and further attract investors. It must also be made in time to allow plans for HS2 to take into account the location of the new air hub – and have the main line directly connected with it.


    This article is an excerpt from the CPS Growth Bulletin, authored by Ryan Bourne and Tim Knox. To read the full article, click here. To sign up for our mailings, use the form on the left of our newsletter page.

    Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies in January 2011, having previously worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics.

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