At first glance, the latest planted Times churnalism from failed aviation tycoon Kit Malthouse (of course it’s a plant – do you think we’re stupid?) looks daft – an airport off the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary replacing Heathrow after construction lasting an unbelievable six years?  No obvious source of finance?  No addressing of the reasons why the previous idea of putting airports out there collapsed?  No questioning whether or not the state should really be encouraging air travel right now?

At second glance and a bit of playing around on Google Maps (click to view map) the airport part actually looks perfectly feasible – there’s plenty of space along the north coast of Sheppey, you can arrange ten mile approach paths entirely over water or empty land from both east and west, you can avoid both the Thames and Medway shipping lanes and keep the foundations in shallow water.  Moreover there’s an existing transport corridor along the A2/A289/A228 most of the way – upgrade it to motorway and lay a high-speed railway line alongside, extend it through the Isle of Grain, then about a four mile sunken tube tunnel across the Medway mouth and that’s your airport connected.  Job done.

What starts to ring alarm bells are when you start working out journey times to this palace of go-getting Boris achievement.  Bear in mind that Heathrow, 15 miles from the centre of town, is right on the M25/M4 (Terminal 5 is directly connected, the rest is one junction away), which makes getting to the hi-tech industry clustered from Slough to Reading pretty easy.  It’s 15 minutes from Paddington by direct express train costing £16.50.  Crossrail, if it’s built, is going to make the West End 31 minutes, the City 36 minutes and Docklands 43 minutes away (bear in mind that Crossrail trains stop more often, and thus take 13 minutes longer to Paddington), probably about the same price, adjusted upwards for inflation.

How does Boris International compare?  For a start, It’s about 30 miles outside the M25 by any reasonable route, which is going to be 40-45 minutes drive.  Then, of course, it’s the wrong side of London – anyone to the north, south or west of the capital is going to have to brave the already overcrowded M25 for some distance (it’s about 60 miles around from the west for instance, which is an hour even if things aren’t bogged down).

Turning to central London connections, the 45 mile drive out to the new airport, only about 25 miles of which will be on proper motorway, some of which is through the ghastly slow roads of south-east London, is going to be getting on for 1hr 30, or about a quarter of the flight time to New York.  By train the only reasonable way is going to be high-speed (140mph+), which Malthouse suggests takes 35 minutes to St. Pancras.  This is probably reasonable and possibly even conservative – the distance by rail along HS1 and my suggested airport branch is about 50 miles, so that’s an average 86 mph start to stop.  For comparison, the domestic HS1 service to Ashford is going to take 36 minutes for 56 miles.  I’m assuming they’ll be sensible and stop at Ebbsfleet and Ashford.

However, the HS1 service to Ashford is going to come at a hefty price premium.  Currently the single fare is £20.40, which will have a 35% premium added if you want to go to St. Pancras, for a total of £27.54, or getting on for twice the price of getting to Heathrow.  Since you can get to Baltimore and back for £309 with BA at the moment, getting to and from the airport is going to be nearly 20% of the journey, and you’ve still got to get to St. Pancras, Stratford or Ebbsfleet first.  There’s also the problem of finding extra space on High Speed 1 and in St. Pancras for all these extra trains – Assuming you can find four paths per hour, the new domestic trains with 350 or so seats in six cars only actually shift 1400 people per hour in each direction.  You can have longer trains, I suppose, so let’s see how many people Heathrow processes in a day:

There’s another nasty side effect – the journey costs in time and money to get from areas west of London to the new airport should make it much more attractive to run services from regional airports like Cardiff, Bristol, Gatwick, Southampton, Bournemouth and Birmingham, one of which will be quicker and cheaper to get to than Boris International from virtually anywhere in the western arc of London.  Thus your shiny new high capacity airport will drive traffic away by its very location.  Of course, if you want regional airports to take up the strain, why not save some cash and artificially restrict Heathrow a bit?

So, in short, it’s a perfectly workable airport idea, but the location, as in the 1970s, means that the surface access costs in both time and money are probably going to be prohibitive.  Add in the sheer cost of the thing and it rapidly becomes clear that a better use of everyone’s time and money would be to invest in extra fast rail capacity from London and Heathrow up the country, use the tax system to discriminate in favour of long-haul at Heathrow and incentivise domestic operators to invest in high speed rail services, which they should jump at after the recent oil shock – rail is more reliable, greener and more attractive up to four hours journey time.

Finally, Kit Malthouse is Deputy Mayor for Policing.  Can he really take time off to puff his airport plans with this kind of thing going on in our farce of a Force?  Surely the day job takes precedence just now?

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10 Responses to Boris Airport?

  1. BenSix says:

    The press coverage – aside from The Times – has been fairly blandly negative, but there may be more interesting articles in flight/construction magazines.
    The Daily Mash:
    http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/12-year%11old-boys-back-johnson-airport-plan-200809221270/

  2. [...] 2003 he was declaring that “Britain is already overcrowded“, and bemoaning that, ironically enough, “we can’t find space for new airports“. One could argue that his support for [...]

  3. AN says:

    Another problem that doesn’t seem to have been given enough consideration is birds. I don’t mean the impact on habitats – that’s seen more than enough – but the simple fact that a few kilograms of birds in the engine does not do a plane an awful lot of good.

    Several groups working towards the various plans for airports in the area claim that birds are easily manageable, but even a fairly conservative study performed while planning for Cliffe found that there would be three times the danger of damaging bird strikes than at any existing airport in the UK, even if extremely aggressive tactics were to be used. There are just as many birds on Sheppey as on Grain, and more shipping traffic passing by.

    There is no real airport solution, sadly. Luton is too foggy to be a major airport, Gatwick too far away and with the same infrastructure problems you mention, and the expansion of Stansted is too unpopular and would require rebuilding from scratch (despite it probably being the best option otherwise).

    It seems there is no better option at the moment than sticking with Heathrow.

  4. Tom says:

    I think I’ve said before that the best site purely as an airport is still Cublington near Milton Keynes, which is on the right side of London and has the best transport links. It’s also in a Tory voting area of fine English countryside, which is what stopped it before. There isn’t actually a solution that ticks all the boxes.

    Fog isn’t the problem it was, of course – Heathrow gets pretty foggy sometimes.

  5. [...] become Labour voters, I’m not quite sure, but anyway… Indeed, Boris’ plans for a fantasy island airportin the Thames estuary, so as to prevent planes disturbing the residents of heavily built up areas [...]

  6. [...] Boris Airport hasn’t sunk quite yet… “The Mayor has made it clear that if there is an overriding economic, environmental, political or practical reason why the airport would not work, then he will not progress the project. But he is determined to consider all the arguments first so it can be decided once and for all whether the airport is a feasible option.” [...]

  7. Paul Revel says:

    What is so outlandish about building a new airport in the Thames estuary? It’s the kind of thing they do everywhere else in the world. In those tiger economies of the east, they don’t dither for years about tacking extensions onto a creaking 70-year-old airport in the middle of town. They just go ahead and build a brand new multibillion-dollar showpiece somewhere else.

    Why can’t we do that? Why does everything we do have to be so shoddy and ‘make do’?

  8. AdamB says:

    A few reasons:

    1.Kent County Concil don’t want it
    2.The Conservative Party don’t want it
    3. The Labour government doesn’t want it
    4.There’s no money behind it
    5. Boris has no jurisdiction in Kent

    That’s without mentioning the environmental objections, the lack of sufficient transport infrastructure and the ship full of explosives lying where Boris wants to build it.

  9. Tom says:

    “Why does everything we do have to be so shoddy and ‘make do’?”

    Been to St. Pancras International lately? Canary Wharf underground? Travelled on a refurbished First Great Western HST? There’s a lot of good stuff around if you just open your eyes, and more coming – I’m looking forward to the East London Line opening.

    Adding to Adam’s comments, the airport’s the wrong side of London (forcing a large percentage of its users to travel along already congested transport routes like the M25, which would require disruptive upgrades), a huge area of west London would lose its major employer and turn into a ghost town, you’ve got to move that workforce 40 miles and provide it with public services, in a flood-prone area. Then there’s the hi-tech industries along the M4/M3 corridors which will be really pleased to lose one of the main reasons for locating there in the first place. Every time I look at the idea I see more giant objections.

    If you really need more space, why not use RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, which isn’t that much further out, is on the right side of London, is near a motorway, two main railway lines and nicely positioned near a probable route for a high-speed rail line which would put the centres of London *and* Birmingham about 45 minutes away. You could build a lot of that HSL for the money saved over Boris Airport.

    There’s nothing wrong with Heathrow operationally that can’t be solved by reducing the number of aircraft movements – that’s what causes the overcrowding and delays. I last used it last week, dropping the missus and kid off for a flight up north – no traffic delays, flight on time both ways.

    Finally, Heathrow isn’t even 70 years old. Just because the ‘tiger’ economies do something doesn’t mean we should do something completely different and stupid that bears a passing resemblance until you examine it with your eyes open.

  10. Silverstrata says:

    .
    For a professional debate on this new airport, please see the pilot’s blogsite at Pprune.org.

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