Heathrow at Crossroads in Great Western Franchise Consultation

March 2015

Mention of Heathrow Airport in the 99 page consultation is restricted to details of when Heathrow Connect stopping services will become Crossrail services and an acknowledgement that Access to Heathrow from the West might be possible by 2020; some might argue that the importance of Heathrow as an economic magnet is missed. In reality, the future is best referenced in the London and South East Route Utilisation Strategy (L&SE RUS) published by Network Rail in July 2011. Here the future requirements for peak passenger flows on the Great Western route to/from London lead to a suggestion that Heathrow Express be shunted to the Relief Lines to allow a 20 trains per hour (tph) service on the main (fast) lines, all serving the Thames Valley and beyond instead of Heathrow Airport.

Express to stop?

With the end of the Heathrow Express track access agreement in the timescales of this franchise (2023) and the 2030 vision of the L&SE RUS capacity study, I have some sympathy with the suggestion that Heathrow is served by a 10 tph Crossrail service to Central London. Our research has shown that the London airport markets are reaching a critical tipping point for rail access where the dis-benefit of overcrowding on co-existent commuter corridors is perceived to outweigh the air passenger benefit of dedicated airport train services. One of the advantages of dedicated airport services is that trains are designed for the airport traveller and high speed quality trains can maximise modal share. However, as capacity becomes an issue government strategy moves towards integration of passenger flows; with governments accepting that the downside to the airport passenger is outweighed by the reduction of overcrowding on commuter services. With the Heathrow Express peak demand to/from London reflecting the Thames Valley commuter peak, something has to give.

So can Crossrail step up to the plate and become a proxy rail service for the 6 million travellers who use the Heathrow Express today? If service frequency is achieved in the way that the 10 t.p.h. Crossrail to Heathrow is envisaged in the L&SE RUS, and air passengers have perception of being safe and secure on board, then they are likely to be attracted to the point to point speed of transfer to/from Heathrow and the West End, the City and Canary Wharf; Crossrail provides a sleek alternative to the Paddington interchange arrangements of today. It also resolves the difficulty of serving the Heathrow terminal layout, avoiding the need to change trains to get to Terminal 4 and the Heathrow Connect service, which terminates at Heathrow Central, then apparently runs empty to Terminal 5 station.

Western access benefits?

Franchise bidders should also consider carefully the Western Access to Heathrow and how the passenger market might react to that. Journey times of 9 minutes to Slough and 28 minutes to Reading sound attractive but the Heathrow air passenger market outside of inner/outer London origin & destination is dispersed widely.

It also seems unlikely that any journey time extension for long distance high speed trains re-routed via Heathrow will be acceptable, so some form of shuttle service serving Reading as an interchange seems likely. For this to create a modal shift, ‘turn up and go’ frequencies would be required; it will also need to appeal to non-air passengers to improve volumes over and above today’s sparsely used rail-air coach service from Reading to Heathrow. The compromise to make any service economically viable may not suit the air traveller.

The airport worker market offers potential for volume if not yield but on a railway that has generous closures for engineering works they are unlikely to change their travel habits. Unless a 7 day per week timetable is offered with start and finish times that suit the range of shifts, they are unlikely to give up their season tickets on more reliable bus services to Heathrow, or the convenience of driving from home to the airport staff car park. Heathrow Connect, with its poor weekend service and 30 minute service frequency at best, is testimony to poor take-up by airport workers where their needs are not met.

Debate yet to happen

In summary, it seems likely that the form of surface access to Heathrow will change radically during the life of the next Great Western Franchise. The consultation is light on detail and questions about how surface access to the growing 70 million passengers per annum Heathrow Airport will be addressed in the long term. No doubt consultees will have much to say on the subject and bidders will have much to consider.