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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