Heathrow Airtrack (proposed)
The current Terminal 5 station which would have formed part of Airtrack
|Type||Urban rail / Airport rail link proposal|
|Locale||London, England, UK|
|Termini||Heathrow Terminal 5
Heathrow Airtrack was a proposed railway link in west London, England, UK. The line as proposed by BAA, would have run from Heathrow Terminal 5 into central London and across the suburbs of south-west London. BAA announced that it was abandoning the project in April 2011. In October 2011 Wandsworth Council announced a revised plan called Airtrack-Lite.
The BAA proposal would have provided direct rail services from the airport to London Waterloo, Reading and Guildford, and offered an alternative route to the existing rail routes to Heathrow (namely Heathrow Express, Heathrow Connect and the Piccadilly line). The scheme, estimated to cost around £673 million, was controversial mainly because of the projected impact on local road traffic due to the high number of level crossings on the route. In April 2011, BAA announced that it was abandoning the project, citing the unavailability of government subsidy and other priorities for Heathrow, such as linking to Crossrail and HS2.
Both proposals involve reopening a section of the former West Drayton to Staines railway line, roughly following the southern route of the line to a junction with the Staines to Windsor Line and a reinstatement of the Staines West chord.
Heathrow Terminal 5 has two safeguarded heavy rail platforms for use by a west-facing connection to the National Rail network, which would have been utilised by Airtrack. The original proposal for the AirTrack link included a new station, called Staines High Street railway station, built near the site of the former station of the same name, but that plan was omitted from the revised proposals in the second public consultation, published on 20 October 2008.
A new rolling stock depot on the site of the former marshalling yards at Feltham was included in the proposal.
Rise and Fall
The principle of a rail connection to Heathrow from the south had been the subject of considerable discussion and study for 50 years. Since 1960, there have been more than 10 studies or proposals that considered how to improve surface access to Heathrow by means of an additional fixed rail link and in 1984 studies confirmed the viability of the link.
Following a period of public consultation in 1998, BAA submitted plans on 24 July 2009 to the Secretary of State for Transport seeking authorisation under the Transport and Works Act to acquire the necessary land and begin constructing the rail link.
Work had been forecast to begin in 2011, with rail services operating by 2015. However, on 30 July 2010 the Department of Transport wrote to all parties involved in the public inquiry, informing them that this had been delayed indefinitely. The reason cited was that "the Government has confirmed that its most urgent priority is to tackle the UK's budget deficit and that there will be a spending review in the Autumn. The review may have implications for the proposed funding of the Airtrack Scheme and until the position becomes clearer, we do not consider it appropriate to take matters forward..."
In the event, Airtrack was not mentioned in the spending review and, as a result, in November 2010 BAA announced that the 'public enquiry remains deferred'.
On 23 December 2010, two radio stations, County Sound and Eagle, ran news stories on the 'end of the line' for Airtrack. However, it is not clear whether these stories were based on industry rumour of official sources. The same report had BAA insisting that its commitment to the project was still there and promising a new 'public consultation in the New Year'. However, on 26 January 2011 the DfT again wrote to objectors informing them the Transport and Works Act process remained suspended indefinitely, citing 'continuing uncertainty'.
Meanwhile, an alternative proposal has emerged, called the Windsor Link Railway. According to the promoting company, this has the advantage of potentially not requiring any public subsidy whilst providing more public benefit, not only connecting Heathrow to the north west (via the Thames Valley) but also to the south and linking the historic Great Western and Southern Railway regions. The proposal has been welcomed by the Minister for Transport, Theresa Villiers. 
Support and opposition
The AirTrack Forum, is a 'group of organisations with a common interest in seeing Airtrack built', formed at the initiative of British Airways, according to its website. It has commissioned consultants to study the economic benefits of the scheme funded by the (now defunct) SE Regional Assembly. Some groups within the Airtrack Forum do not support the current proposals.
BAA has claimed support for the scheme from Transport for London, the Mayor of London, nine London Boroughs and local borough councils of Runnymede, Reading, Woking, Guildford, Bracknell Forest and Wokingham, as well as by Surrey and Hampshire County Councils. However, this is contradicted by objections made by some of these authorities to the final plans. Surrey County Council, for example, is an official objector to the scheme, as is Wokingham. Additionally, "Strong concerns" have been raised by the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, including a worries that the busy Windsor Riverside service would have been downgraded as a result and, again, level crossings.
It has been reported that Surrey may 'drop its opposition' after BAA offered to fund £11 million of transport improvements and a vote to provisionally drop their opposition was passed by the county's cabinet on 28 September 2010. This decision was due to be finalised by the full council in December 2010 but was deferred. The move was the subject of an 'extraordinary outburst' from Philip Hammond, the local MP, who at the time happened to be the Secretary of State for Transport. Hammond criticised the council for 'grabbing a bribe', a payment of £11 million towards mitigating some traffic problems in Egham entirely unconnected to Airtrack and went on to demand a more comprehensive solution, saying 'no solution, no scheme' and urging BAA to 'get back to the drawing board'. BAA had made a significant compromise in offering this payment as it had previously been consistent in arguing that traffic problems caused by Airtrack were not its responsibility, using the fact that Network Rail has no legal obligation to open level crossings at all or to consult on changes.
The economic case was heavily dependent on the fact that Airtrack should be a low-cost option as only 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) of new line would be required, mostly within Spelthorne. The remaining new infrastructure would consist of station improvements and associated facilities.
The key elements of construction work would involve:
- Tunnelling from Heathrow Terminal 5 to Stanwell Moor
- Construction of a new rail line across Stanwell Moor and Staines Moor
- Construction of a new section of track in Staines-upon-Thames town centre
- The remodelling of Staines station
- Building a train depot at Feltham
The scheme was estimated to cost about £673 million, of which about £150 million is expected to come from an operating surplus and the remainder from a government subsidy.
In the Airtrack project some stations used by its trains would be upgraded. It was intended that from Staines-upon-Thames the trains would use existing Network Rail tracks
The passenger services proposed for the Airtrack service were generally to offer a half-hourly service to each destination:
London Waterloo - Heathrow: two trains per hour stopping at:
- Clapham Junction
An extension of the Heathrow Express service to Staines-upon-Thames would have provided an additional 2tph between the airport and Staines-upon-Thames. Journey time from Waterloo to Heathrow would have been approximately 40 minutes.
Journey time from Guildford to Heathrow would have been approximately 36 minutes.
Reading - Heathrow (via Egham and Virginia Water) two trains per hour stopping at:
Journey time from Reading to Heathrow would have been approximately 45 minutes.
Concerns about the impact of Airtrack construction work and operation had been raised by local residents, campaigners and politicians.
Most of the construction work would have affected Staines Moor and Stanwell Moor, which include a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and extensive consultations took place in Spelthorne resulting in major modifications of the scheme.
Building a train depot in Feltham was part of the scheme. Residents of Feltham had expressed opposition to this mainly as the depot may have encroached on a natural conservation area and that the depot may give rise to noise pollution.
In response to these concerns, BAA had published assurances in their consulation literature that the Feltham depot would have been designed to limit noise and light pollution and with landscape screening.
A number of major problems concerned level crossings. The proposed Airtrack route would have run on lines which have fifteen level crossings, and local campaigners along those routes have pointed out that more frequent trains would increase waiting times at closed barriers and exacerbate traffic congestion problems. For example, between Richmond and Barnes as many as five trains may pass before the road barriers are lifted. BAA investigated the possibility of constructing road bridges or tunnels at these locations but concluded that such construction was "not feasible or justifiable".
BAA had acknowledged these problems and noted that eight crossings would have been slightly impacted, with barrier closure times increasing by up to 13%. Three level crossing more would have been moderately affected, with increases of between 13% and 25% to the amount of time that the barriers are closed to road traffic. Four crossings would have been "severely" affected, with barrier downtimes increasing by between 25% and 36%. As no independent time and motion study had been conducted, the closure times of level crossings and impact to the surrounding area had yet to be assessed at the time of the project's cancellation.
Three of the four severely affected crossings are located in Egham, which lies between Staines-upon-Thames, where the Airtrack spur would have met the main line, and Virginia Water, where the Reading and Guildford lines diverge.
Airtrack originally envisaged that by investing in new signalling technology, they could keep level crossings down-times to a manageable level. This was accepted as a reasonable proposition by the local authority, Runnymede Borough Council, and by the Highways Authority for the area, Surrey County Council, both of which actively supported the Airtrack scheme. However in September 2009 Runnymede Borough Council responded to the TWA application with an objection.
Immediately after Staines-upon-Thames the westward line goes through the town of Egham. Local campaigners in Egham had voiced their opposition to Airtrack mainly due to the foreseen traffic congestion problems caused by level crossing closures. Opponents noted that the railway bisects the town, and it can only be crossed via four level crossings (Thorpe Road, Egham Hythe; Vicarage Road; Station Road; and Prune Hill) as there are no alternative bridges or tunnels in the locality.
Concerns were also raised about the scheme's effect on the town by Egham Chamber of Commerce, Runnymede Council, Richmond Council, and bus operators. The local MP for Runnymede and Weybridge, Philip Hammond, first raised his concerns about lack of alternatives to level crossings in Egham in the House of Commons; in 2002. In 2009 he arranged for the Chamber of Commerce to deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street appealing to the then Labour Government to not allow Airtrack to be built without a tunnel or bridge in Egham. Hammond became Secretary of State for Transport in May 2010.
In a consultation between Surrey County Council and the emergency services, the Fire and Ambulance services expressed concerns about increased level crossing down-times.
Airtrack had estimated that if the project proceeded as planned the three significantly affected level crossings in Egham would be closed an average of 34 minutes per hour between 7 am and 7 pm. These figures were based on the assumptions that only timetabled trains would have operated, that they would have operated without delays and that the signalling regime could have been reorganised to allow barriers to be raised if were a 30 second gap between trains.
The Airtrack route was also planned to pass through the town of Wokingham. As with Egham, an opposition campaign was organised to voice local concerns about the foreseen traffic congestion caused by increased rail traffic on level crossings. Wokingham has five crossings (Easthampstead Road, Waterloo Road, Barkham Road, Station Road and Wellington Road) which would have been affected by the project, and campaigners submitted a petition to the Government.
BAA said that Wokingham Borough Council was considering the issue as part of its transport strategy. The council discussed the possibility of building a bridge over the Barkham Road crossing but such a solution was unlikely due to the excessive construction cost. The council also proposed that Wokingham Station would have needed to be moved closer to Reading in order to accommodate the Airtrack proposal.
In October 2011 Wandsworth Council announced a revised plan called Airtrack-Lite. The idea behind this was to address some of the criticisms of BAA's Airtrack including: costs, level crossing downtime, the use of Feltham depot and the displacement of existing commuters from services which are already overcrowded for shiny but empty trains to Heathrow. Wandsworth thus proposed abandoning the Guildford and Reading branches of Airtrack, which only accounted for 20% of the forecast demand anyway, so stopping any increase in downtime on lines to those destinations, whilst extending existing services from Waterloo to Heathrow, connecting south London to Heathrow without increasing level crossing downtime in places such as Barnes or requiring new rolling stock.
It was proposed that the Waterloo to Windsor service would divide at Staines-upon-Thames, and the Weybridge to London via the Hounslow loop service would be recast as Weybridge to Heathrow and Heathrow to London services.
In March 2013, Wandsworth Council initiated a new £25,000 study into providing a 30-minute rail journey from Clapham Junction to Heathrow.
A variation of Heathrow Airtrack Lite is also used by the Windsor Link Railway, with a new link to T5 from a triangle Wraysbury, providing both a north-west and a south-west rail link to Heathrow, with a bridge over the M25 avoiding the cost of tunneling associated with Airtrack.
Aviation Policy Framework proposal
A new rail link proposal has been included in the governments High Level Output Specification for rail. The proposed line would use a west-facing connection near Slough, which would allow through trains to serve the airport from south Wales and Bristol if a business case could be established.
|Heathrow area rail services|
- 21st Century upgrade of the Great Western Main Line
- Superlink (railway network)
- Windsor Link Railway
- BAA Heathrow website: Heathrow Airtrack page
- AirTrack Forum website
- Wokingham objection website
- TWA Application, Environmental Statement Volume 2
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- Giesler, Nick (2009). "Heathrow Airtrack Environmental Statement Volume 2: Effects at Road Level Crossings". Temple Group Ltd. Retrieved 6 January 2010.
- "Level Crossings and Egham". Egham Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved 6 January 2010. (Egham Airtrack campaigning website)
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- Fort, Hugh (19 November 2008). "Airport link could create ‘chaos’". The Wokingham Times. Retrieved 6 January 2010.
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- "Report by the Chief Executive and Director of Administration (on behalf of all officers concerned) on the Proposed South London – Heathrow Rail Link Project". Retrieved 5 September 2013.
- "New rail link included in DfT aviation plans | Railnews | Today's news for Tomorrow's railway". Railnews. 2012-07-13. Retrieved 5 September 2013.