When, two and a half months late, we wondered where Doug Oakervee’s airport report had gone, it was evident others were thinking along the same lines.  After answering the same question from a number of Assembly Members, Kit ‘Airport’ Malthouse and his friends at the Times have produced another one of their airport-pushing puff pieces in the Times today, the report is due fairly imminently:

On Wednesday Oakervee will discuss his initial findings with a panel of experts at the Institution of Civil Engineers led by Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientist. He will submit his research to Johnson three weeks later.

Oakervee did not wish to comment. However, according to a source familiar with the report he has concluded that a four-runway island airport is feasible and could be built in less than 10 years.

Gosh, I wonder who the source is.  I really do.  OK, time for a good old-fashioned fisking:

He will submit his research to Johnson three weeks later.

This implies to me he’s only just started – if he’s still consulting senior engineering figures this week he’s not as certain in his conclusions as the ‘source’ would like us to believe.  Obviously Mr. Oakervee has been involved in Crossrail until relatively recently, as this interesting article from May makes plain.  It also contains a snippet on the Airport scheme that, to my mind, carefully pours cold water on the idea:

Oakervee is very clear that creating the infrastructure to support it is a tougher challenge that will require a radical rethink of UK planning and a major commitment to developing the whole estuary.

“I believe that history will show that Boris was the man that paved the way,” he says, pointing out that this project remains several decades away and will have to sit alongside a new high speed rail network. “It will come to pass − it is part of a very big (planning and development) jigsaw.”

‘Decades away and built after high speed rail and requiring a radical restructuring of south-east England’, then, says Boris’s technical boffin.  Note also the sop to the giant Mayoral ego.  Bear that in mind as we return to the Times piece:

The airport, which would cost an estimated £40 billion

At 2009 prices?  2020?  2050?  Inflation?

‘Air quality in London would be completely imperilled by a third runway at Heathrow. It’s environmentally nonsensical

Not that this is wrong, but air quality in London is hardly in safe hands under Boris, of course.  I’m sure it’ll be great to use lots of energy to travel tens of miles from the middle of the sea to choke in the centre of London thanks to his traffic smoothing schemes.

Passengers would shuttle between the two islands either in a tunnel below the river or on bridges running from Essex on the north bank to Kent in the south.

If they’re not yet sure whether to go over or under the sea, it’s not exactly imminent, is it?  It’s not just passengers, as we’ve said before, it’s staff, air crew, fuel, food, baggage etc.  Lot of logistics.

A terminal in Kent would be connected to the Crossrail line, whisking passengers to central London in 35 minutes..

Now we’ve got some figures to play with, and they’re obvious nonsense.  Let’s look at the Crossrail angle.  The current plans forecast a time from the current terminus at Abbey Wood to  Liverpool Street in 17 minutes, so we have 18 minutes to play with to get from Abbey Wood to the Kent airport terminal.  On current timings on the line, that only takes you to about Gravesend, although if you go non-stop from Abbey Wood you might get a bit further, possibly as far as Northfleet!  Woo!

Now, according to our Boris International map, this is about 25 miles short of the Kent terminal and 30 miles short of the actual runways, but that’s as the crow flies – because of the shape of the estuary any land based link has to detour to the south for quite a distance. What I suspect is that the 35 minutes is about right for a *high speed rail connection* – the Southeastern highspeed service from Ashford along HS1, for instance, gets you into town in about 30 minutes, and, whilst the terminal site we identified in eastern Sheppey is a few miles further, that’s only a few minutes in a Class 395.  However, that’s a 140mph Japanese built limited stop express train, not an all-stops Crossrail commuter train, which is likely to be a good deal longer to central London, over an hour by my reckoning.  In Boris Airport world there’s an obvious need for both an express service and a local stopping service, of course, because of the huge imaginary new town you need to build to put all the annoyed airport workers force-migrating from West London.  Whatever, the Times article is either deliberately misleading or badly informed when it states that you can get to central London in 35 minutes on a Crossrail extension – apart from anything else, the runways are still 7-10 miles from the terminal so you’ve got to get you and your bag back to shore before getting near the train and vice versa.

.. and also to the high-speed Channel tunnel rail link, reducing the need for many shorthaul flights

This is probably the biggest boondoggle of the lot.  HS1 can provide you with connections to Paris, Brussels and a few parts of France at the moment, and by the time we’re looking at this airport being ready that’ll extend to large areas of Germany, Amsterdam, possibly Luxembourg as well as wherever a British HSL network reaches by then – quite a lot of north western Europe is reachable direct from London with the construction of currently planned lines plus a new generation of Eurostar capable of interoperable running on more lines.  If you build a terminal for this sort of thing in London, say near Heathrow or Willesden or St. Pancras, it’s open to channelling in passengers from the rest of the UK arriving in London by train.  If you build it in the Thames, you’re limited to people arriving by air – everyone else will want to change in London anyway.

While Johnson envisaged an airport in the Thames estuary as a replacement for Heathrow, Oakervee believes they could operate in tandem…

They’d have to, actually – you can’t move everyone and everything overnight.  This therefore runs up against the problem that no airline will want to be the first to inconvenience all their passengers and move.

How easy is it to build an airport in the middle of a fast-flowing estuary? According to engineers, the process itself is relatively simple.

It’s relatively easy to build a couple of runways in the shallow bits of the estuary, but that’s not an airport.  The people pushing this want us to forget the land access requirements that sank every previous effort plus the housing costs.

The issue most likely to stop the airport, however, is birds.

No, it isn’t.  It’s the land access and housing costs, as anyone with half a brain can see.  Curiously enough, I get a lot of my information from Sir Peter Hall’s book ‘Great Planning Disasters’ . I’ve no idea why he’s apparently backing the scheme, although to be fair the book is more about the tortuous and idiotic manifestations of the public planning system than about the airport.

Johnson, however, hopes he can use his combination of political clout and charm to persuade the Tories to make the estuary airport an option in the wake of the general election.

Oh, clout and charm, is it?  We’re screwed then, aren’t we.  What does the man himself say?

“My long-term hunch, looking at the graph of aviation use over the last 50 years, is that we are going to need much more capacity. I hope to persuade my colleagues”

There’s a subtext to all this – person or persons unknown have, as with the Routemaster/bendy stuff, tried and succeeded in using Boris and the press to push a silly scheme and there’s no one with any common sense in charge to say ‘stop’.  This is a policy from the 1970s, not the 21st century, from a time of ‘predict and provide’ where someone would draw some lines on a graph as their best guess of future transport demand and order in the engineers to build sufficient capacity to meet it.  That way of doing policy failed when people started analysing the real demand against the projections and found that the planners had omitted a number of factors that were unforseeable at the time which meant the not only was the eventual demand not what they expected but also the eventual capacity wasn’t either.  This led people to say ‘hang on a minute, if you’re spending all this money and destroying people’s quality of life based on inevitably flawed numbers, what’s the point?’.

Unfortunately, Boris, a Classical scholar with no great knowledge of the history of transport planning, appears to have been shown a graph by someone and is hoping this and his ‘charm’ will allow him to move the message from whatever group are pushing this further up the chain.  That this plan, should it succeed, will jeopardise the prospect of high speed rail in the UK (which not-coincidentally damages the aviation industry, of course) is probably a feature, not a bug.  I’m 99% convinced this is a plot by anti-rail interests in the aviation community.

Finally, linking this in with the Hammersmith and Fulham poor-clearance schemes, what is it with Tories wanting to depopulate west London?  Shouldn’t they be, you know, asking us west Londoners what we want?

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2 Responses to The Times Still Flogging A Dead Airport

  1. They just don’t seem to have any grip on reality , major engineering projects can take tens of years to plan and even longer to execute, or the sheer cost of the tory’s lofty maglev aspirations, which would cost around £25-35m per KM. So while theyre all sitting patting each other on the back what great expensive plans they have Stansted has the go ahead for G2 and would go from be able to go from 23million to 68 million passengers a year and would be a medium term solution to the lack of capacity of London airports all for the sake of 450 hectares of land in a place there already is aircraft traveling frequently.

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