Rail link plans fall through but demand remains high

For the air transport industry to remain competitive with what is an increasingly ‘preferred’ mode of transport in the EU and beyond – rail – the air-rail link is, ironically, a saviour. In two recent cases such links have been postponed or called into question by a bidder, but there are still plenty of schemes in the pipeline, with Europe leading the way in this field.

The scheme that has been postponed is one at Dublin, Ireland, where the Transport Minister confirmed early in Nov-2011 that investment in transport infrastructure generally will be scaled back significantly over the next five years. Overall spending on transport capital will fall by almost 50% from EUR1.5 billion in 2011 to EUR0.8 billion in 2016. As part of this reduction, the Government will postpone the new rail link to Dublin International Airport. Prime Minister Enda Kenny stated, “We cannot afford to do all that we want to do. This plan is based on what the country can afford. We face a large budget deficit, dependent on support funding and operate in a very challenging international environment."

Transport spending falls by 50% in Ireland

With funding constrained and the private sector reluctant to step forward, the Metro North project, as it was called, never had a chance, leaving passengers to chance their arm on Dublin’s ridiculously congested roads to get to the airport in time for their flight. In fact voices were heard at the time of the opening of Dublin’s expensive second terminal, expressing the view that the money might have been better spent on the Metro. Now that it seems the EUR21 million project to introduce trans-Atlantic pre-clearance facilities at Dublin (and Shannon) has not delivered additional business, those voices appear to have been justified.

Meanwhile, in Paris, France’s Vinci SA, Europe’s largest builder and the preferred bidders to build and operate the rail link between Paris and Charles de Gaulle Airport, is reportedly abandoning the project. At the heart of the matter is an apparent inability to agree with the French Railways on methods of financing the EUR1 billion project and there is speculation the Government might try to revive the project with the national railways, the Paris metro operator, airlines and local governments.

In a tale of two cities, Paris and London, there are no such funding problems in the latter, which already benefits from a dedicated ‘Heathrow Express’ to Paddington Station on the western outskirts of the West End (where it will feed the now under-construction Crossrail through to the east of the city and the Olympic Stadium project); a similarly dedicated Gatwick Express link (though its timetable is being tinkered with); the ‘Stansted Express’, which isn’t really any sort of express; and the extension of the Docklands Light Railway to London City Airport. Apart from Crossrail, all are already complete.

Now the eminent architect Lord Foster, who designed London Stansted and Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airports and is backing the proposals originally emanating from London Mayor Boris Johnson for a new brown field Thames Estuary airport – albeit on a grander scale than that envisaged by Johnson – has included in his joint proposal with Halcrow Group and Volterra Consulting a high-speed rail line to connect passengers to London in 30 minutes. The airport, built over 15 years, would be capable of handling 150 million passengers p/a, almost three times the capacity of London Heathrow. Such proposals have been around since 1945 (though without high-speed rail links originally, since 1945 was firmly in the steam era).

A high-speed rail link between London’s two largest existing airports was also proposed as part of a wheeze to deflect adverse public opinion away from the Government’s failure to cater for greater airport capacity in the southeast of England. Dubbed ‘Heathwick’, it would run between Heathrow and Gatwick airports at a cost of GBP5 billion (which could possibly build a runway at Heathrow where it is most needed). A public consultation will be held in 2012. The 15-minute, 35-mile link between the two airports might also increase the price of landing slots at Gatwick and eventually force LCCs to move to (or back to) London Stansted Airport, which is operating below capacity, and which might do better if its present-day rail service was to be improved. Naturally, this immediately caused resentment amongst airlines.

Gatwick Airport’s CEO Stewart Wingate dismissed the idea. He said “any discussion on capacity is a good discussion”, but the concept is too expensive. “Surely you would invest that GBP5 billion into transport infrastructure to get greater benefits elsewhere," he said, adding the concept would be impractical in operational terms.

Johnson mangles his words over Heathwick

The plan appears to have the support of London Mayor Boris Johnson, the original proponent of the Thames Estuary airport but who now comments he is "not wedded to any particular solution" and it "may be that there are alternative ideas that people provide.” Echoing the more ambitious statements of the less than erudite George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, the Eton and Oxford educated Johnson added, “High-speed links between this or that airport creating a dual hub or whatever".

In fact, the UK is replete with such direct or indirect rail lines feeding airports. In addition to the London airports already mentioned, Luton Airport has improved rail access while a railway station has been built at Southend Airport, improving its prospects enormously and indicating it might seriously challenge Stansted Airport for passengers from the county of Essex. Southampton Airport is served by the nearby ‘Parkway’ station.

In the English Midlands, Birmingham Airport, situated next door to the National Exhibition Centre, has long had its own railway station servicing fast cross-country trains and is in line to be included on the first section (London-Birmingham) of the HSR2 high-speed rail line that will eventually (by around 2033, don’t hold your breath) continue to Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow.

It is unlikely that any decision will be made within the next two years on connecting HSR2 with a high-speed link into Heathrow Airport (not the existing Heathrow Express). The coalition government is not the fastest decision maker where infrastructure investment is concerned even though the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement focused attention on the need for more of it, to boost the moribund economy.

In the north of England, Manchester is similarly blessed with lines that run directly into what is (unlike Birmingham) a terminal station while there is a movement to create a new Leeds-Harrogate-York railway that would incorporate a ‘Leeds Airport Parkway’ station. A government decision is expected by the end of 1Q2012. Liverpool John Lennon Airport does not have a station in situ but the proximity of Liverpool South Parkway station (which is connected to the airport by a shuttle bus) has improved connectivity for passengers who do not own a private vehicle. A station within the airport would improve its chances of competing with Manchester. Even Durham Tees Valley Airport has its own rail station, though in this instance it is frequented by only one or two trains per week so hardly counts.

In Scotland, Edinburgh Airport appears to have the edge over Glasgow courtesy of the recent decision to confirm a new tramway that will link the city centre to the airport. Glasgow’s heavy rail line to the airport, which was supposed to coincide with the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, was long ago abandoned for cost reasons.

Europe gets its act together on air/rail

In Europe, the European Commission recently adopted a proposal to transform the existing patchwork of European roads, railways, airports and canals into a unified transport network (TEN-T). The new core network will connect 37 key airports with rail connections into major cities, 83 main European ports with rail and road links, 15,000km of railway line upgraded to high speed and 35 cross border projects. It is designed to remove bottlenecks, upgrade infrastructure and streamline cross border transport operations for passengers and businesses throughout the European Union (EU). It will improve connections between different modes of transport and contribute to the EU's climate change objectives. Further information can be found at: Connecting Europe: The new EU core transport network

The EU is also moving to hasten the implementation of integrated ticketing that would facilitate cross-border travel through the Union, while numerous airlines have already come to agreement with rail operators for integrated air/rail tickets.

Brussels positions itself as an alternative airport for Paris and Amsterdam

Mainland Europe already has numerous examples of fast rail services and now they are complemented by the first rail link between Brussels International Airport and Paris, since 30-Oct-2011. The connection is available once a day in the morning. The direct train service to and from Paris Gare du Nord (North Station) is the first step in a growing connecting network of Brussels Airport to European rail. The Brussels management considers it has a catchment area of 8.4 million inhabitants within a 60-minute drive and over 19.2 million inhabitants within 90 minutes' drive, which now presumably includes Paris, for which Brussels has become its third airport. According to the management, “With the opening of (another) new rail link from the airport to Amsterdam and Antwerp, we are likely to see a strengthening of Brussels’ positioning in Europe.” The airport has signed a partnership with Brussels Airlines and Jet Airways to offer the first combined ticket of rail and flight.

This is a fascinating development in which a mid-ranking European airport is attempting to position itself as an alternative airport for two other, neighbouring (and much bigger) capital city airports by encouraging high-speed rail journeys.

Meanwhile, in Madrid, a new railway station has opened at Madrid Barajas Airport, which has long been criticised for its poor access by public transport from the city centre, involving a journey on a bus from one of the least pleasant and most polluted underground central bus stations imaginable. Journey time from the centre of Madrid to Barajas International Airport has now been dramatically reduced with the opening of a new metro link to Terminal 4, the home of Iberia and its oneworld colleagues. Trains leave every five minutes from 06:00 to 02:00 the following day. Line 8 goes to the new Nuevos Ministerios Metro in the centre of Madrid, a journey of only about 12 minutes. The single fare is just EUR2.15, while holders of tickets for onward RENFE (the state national rail system) high-speed services travel for free.

It is rather poignant to add that it was the failure of a similar airport/high-speed rail venture at Ciudad Real Airport, around 100km to the south of Madrid and on the AVE line to Seville, Spain’s fourth largest city, that contributed to the demise of that airport, which is now reported to be closed, with no commercial services operating. The AVE line was supposed to ferry passengers briskly from Madrid to Ciudad Real (rather than them risking poisoning from the bus journey to Barajas), but instead it ended up merely making Ciudad Real a commuter satellite town of Madrid, with workers using the AVE to get into and out of Madrid, and its airport. There is a lesson there for the British Government, which thinks it will assist regional British cities economically by linking them to London (and possibly to Heathrow Airport) by the high-speed network HSR2.

Obama steps up to the plate with HSR initiatives

It is interesting to note that, so far at least, there has been comparatively little apparent interest in high-speed rail/airport links in countries like the US and Australia. China already has numerous examples (such as Shanghai) while India’s infrastructure requires a massive and basic revamp first. Rather, what is happening – particularly in the US – is a political, Obama-inspired shift towards high-speed rail as an alternative to air travel within specific heavily populated corridors on the east and west coasts and in the Midwest. It has been heavily criticised on several counts and many State politicians have declined to make their state financially accountable for any of it, but it is making progress. As things stand, no public operating subsidy will be necessary for the rail system. Like successful systems around the world, California’s high-speed rail system (see below) will initially be built with public sector funds and when the system is operational, ridership (which has been “rigorously tested by a peer-review panel of international experts”) will drive revenues that, in turn, will attract further private-sector investment. At least that is the theory.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) just released a draft business plan that lays the foundation for an ‘economically viable’ state-wide rail system projected to create 100,000 jobs in the next five years and another one million jobs over a generation. The system is also expected to reduce (unspecified) emissions by three million tonnes annually. The entire project could cost USD98.5 billion over 20 years. The business plan increases the cost of the planned 220mph, San Francisco-Los Angeles train service considerably from USD43 billion. Construction is expected to commence in 2012 on a 130-mile length in the Central Valley, from north of Bakersfield to south of Merced. As work proceeds on this "Initial Operating Section", the agency will decide whether to move on with work on the south end of the line, heading toward the Los Angeles Basin, or the north end of the line, heading into San Jose (better known as ‘Silicon Valley’). The agency will look to convert existing commuter lines for its own use in those regions.

As the state’s population grows from 38 million people today to 60 million by mid-century, it is estimated that without high-speed rail California will need as much as USD171 billion (which is a little less than twice the new projected cost of the rail scheme) to meet its transportation needs. That means an additional 2300 lane-miles of highways, four runways (not specified where), and 115 airline gates will need to be built. The federally-funded system, the largest in the US, is expected to save Californians 146 million hours in travel time each year.

Each segment will complement the previous one while augmenting existing local and regional rail networks in a cooperative and coordinated fashion. Regional rail systems in both Los Angeles and San Francisco have been receptive to the idea of blending existing services with the new system.

California High-Speed Rail Authority artist's impression of a high-speed rail
car in California, strangely called ‘Fly California’

As might be expected in the world’s most litigious society, lawsuits are already flying around to block the construction of the first section before a spade has been turned. According to an editorial in the Washington Post, the scheme, which like the UK’s is due for completion in 2033, is “going nowhere”.

Missing the big picture?

On paper, it looks like an admirable scheme that aspires to "achieving a full high-speed rail system that spans the state, expanding our transportation options in a way that's safe, fast, clean and affordable,” said the Mayor of Fresno. But Airport investor Monthly worries if, in the rush to exercise his green credentials and at the same time encourage job-creating construction projects though not in aviation (again, echoes of the British here), President Obama is missing the big picture.

The fact remains that air transport, for all its problems, is the number one method of travel over long distances in the US, while private vehicle travel is favoured for shorter distances. That is unlikely to change any time soon. Rail travel lags well behind in both categories and is really only established in certain corridors, as it is in California. Indeed the national rail operator, Amtrak, does not serve some major cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix at all. Air travel, by the majors, their regional and commuter-affiliated LCCs is truly national.

California itself is much longer north-south than it is wide east-west but even so numerous significant townships will be by-passed by the north-south HSR line just as much of the UK will not be touched by that country’s HSR, which is touted by the Government as ‘national’. Meanwhile, access/egress to and from many US airports is not easy. Even Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) does not have an on-site rail station (although that is the intention); passengers need to be bussed to the ‘Aviation’ metro (light rail) stop some distance away and from which access to downtown, Hollywood etc involves a lengthy journey and several changes. In comparison, and quite apart from the aforementioned Heathrow Express, London’s Piccadilly Line (metro/underground) runs directly from all Heathrow’s terminals into and through the West End, with several change stations en route that permit a single change to much of the network.

The alternative at Los Angeles is immediate road access to the comprehensive Freeway system, which explains the plethora of taxi, shuttle bus and ‘shared vans’ playing their trade. It would be a great deal simpler if a short high-speed line could operate between LAX and downtown’s Union Station – which is a major Metro interchange – following the line of the LaxFlyaway bus, yet another example of road transport that adds further congestion to already gridlocked roads. Such a facility, LA’s answer to the Heathrow Express, would link the two major transport gateways into Los Angeles as well as facilitating onward journeys and surely at much less cost than a new set of rail lines that will have to cut through mountainous terrain in places, half the length of California.

Europe identifies a method of integrating travel

Despite the criticism it receives, the European Commission appears to have found an appropriate and cost-effective method of integrating travel with its TEN-T network and it is illuminating that so many airports have acted in advance of such encouragement by preparing for an implementation of HSR connections. Is this a method that other countries might want to evaluate?

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