A quarter of air passengers already use rail to access London's three major airports. Vernon Murphy, Managing Director of BAA Rail, told Richard Hope that only a high-quality dedicated shuttle to the city combined with an expanding web of multi-purpose trains will entice more travellers out of their cars

TUNNEL BORING MACHINES completed in January the four drives under London's busiest airport required to divert the Heathrow Express from Terminal 4 to the new £4·2bn Terminal 5. Here they will share a joint station with the Underground's Piccadilly Line from 2008.

Further rail services to Heathrow are also in prospect if the Crossrail east-west tunnel under the capital goes ahead, and plans for AirTrack offering direct services to Reading, Woking and London Waterloo come to fruition.

The tunnels are short: 1·6 km for Heathrow Express and 1·2 km for the Underground. But the rail element in T5 - which BAA plc (the former British Airports Authority) is funding in full - was costed at £370m when the project was approved.

As Managing Director of BAA Rail, Vernon Murphy is responsible for the non-stop HEx operation between Heathrow and London Paddington. Similar 15min interval shuttles serve BAA's other London airports. Gatwick Express - a direct descendant of the world's very first airport rail link - operates into Victoria, and Stansted Express into Liverpool Street. Both are franchised to National Express Group.

Murphy is also tasked with promoting new rail services, not just to cope with rising numbers of air travellers, but at the same time to increase the proportion using public transport to 40%. The latest data for Heathrow shows that in 2003 rail handled 25% and bus 12%. At Gatwick, the respective figures were 26% and 7%, and for Stansted 27% and 10%. So the 40% target implies a 10% rise on current numbers, multiplied by whatever growth in air travel occurs in coming years - and UK air travel has increased five-fold since 1975.

'It is quite clear if you look at the government's December 2003 aviation white paper that one of the key requirements for the licence to expand Heathrow is handling the surface access issue', Murphy points out. 'There aren't going to be new motorways between any of the three main airports and London.'

As he sees it, 'modal share of public transport has to grow if the airports are to expand'. Also, 'air pollution must keep within mandated European standards - and air pollution around Heathrow is very largely about the M4 and M25 motorways. It is not about aircraft.'

Main emphasis on rail

T5 will have its own bus and coach station accessed directly off the M25 orbital motorway. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 clustered around the central HEx and Underground stations are already served by the second or third busiest coach station in the UK, which is reached through a congested road tunnel under the north runway. 'But having said that about coaches, there is no doubt that the main drive is on rail', says Murphy.

Until 1998 Heathrow's only rail link was LU's Piccadilly Line. 'Rail is successful if the type of service is appropriate to the type of market. The Piccadilly Line handles more people into Heathrow than HEx, and always will, because it connects into all the Underground services around London', he concedes.

But it is not enough, Murphy insists, 'because a lot of people who use HEx would not use a metro-type service into London. Two-thirds of HEx passengers came off the roads - limousines and taxis. One-third came off the Piccadilly Line. But the people who told us no, they won't use the Piccadilly Line, they would pay for a taxi, they went to HEx because of the premium service.'

Newly-arrived foreign visitors in particular shy away from pushing their way on to a commuter train or metro. It is this group that finds HEx so attractive because it is simple and 'safe' in the personal security sense. Many take a taxi from Paddington to their destination.

Murphy explains that official data understates HEx use by air travellers because, understandably, it is obtained by asking departing passengers how they came to the airport (a fact) rather than how they expect to leave it (conjecture). Thus HEx carries 5·2 million passengers a year but with more inbound to London than outbound. 'The imbalance is nearly 1% of total air passengers', says Murphy, or about 400000 a year.

HEx runs every 15min between Paddington and T4, calling at Central (T1,2,3). The next development is Heathrow Connect, a half-hourly semi-fast service also funded and operated by BAA that is due to start running this summer (RG 6.04 p334). Heathrow Connect will call at all stations from Paddington to Heathrow Central. More trains to and from the west will stop at Hayes &Harlington to interchange with the Connect services in and out of Heathrow.

When T5 opens in the spring of 2008, Murphy says 'we will run all four hourly HEx into T5. Heathrow Connect will go into T4 twice an hour, and there will be two shuttles an hour from T4 to Central, also run by Heathrow Connect. On the Piccadilly Line they will be running about 10 or 11 trains/h to T5, and about 4 trains/h to T4. That's the sort of mix I think they are contemplating.'

Crossrail and AirTrack

A Hybrid Bill was deposited on February 22 for the long-planned RER-style tunnel under central London known officially as Crossrail Line 1 (p185). The western portal will be close to Paddington, and while some trains will turn back there at least four an hour will continue to Heathrow. However, there is still a large funding gap, and the construction of Crossrail by 2013 is by no means assured.

Crossrail would carry air passengers to the financial and business centres in the City of London and around Canary Wharf in the former docklands before heading out into the eastern suburbs.

Despite the much wider spread of destinations Crossrail offers, Murphy says BAA will continue to run HEx to its present terminus. 'Paddington is a good location for the West End hotels', he insists. A major development is rising alongside the station, and 'this was built on the back of HEx. Paddington Central is the only development in London that is balancing Canary Wharf; although it's not as big as Canary Wharf it is very big.'

Murphy is quite emphatic about the attraction of the dedicated HEx shuttle service. 'Look at Paris', he says. 'Paris tried to fit the RER into Charles-de-Gaulle. It hasn't worked, and they are now building an airport express' (p219).

But that does not mean mixed-use trains are unwelcome at Heathrow. Within Terminal 5, passive provision is being made for two platforms where trains from Waterloo, Guildford and Reading via Bracknell could terminate, accessing the airport from the west via a disused branch line. Murphy says this 'is under reasonably active discussion between the AirTrack Forum and the SRA'.

He sees AirTrack as 'the best opportunity to shift up rail's modal share of air travellers by 3% to 4%. It also has the advantage that it would serve both staff and passenger catchment areas. It's not Waterloo itself. It's Clapham Junction, Putney, Richmond and Twickenham where you've got both staff and passengers to consider', he explains.

Compared to Crossrail, Murphy says 'there is no doubt that AirTrack would give rail a bigger increase in modal share in and out of Heathrow.' As to the cost, George Burnett of Surrey County Council says the infrastructure would be around £400m after adding the Treasury's 40% 'optimism factor' for rail project cost over-runs. Even so, a study by Atkins Rail put the benefit:cost ratio at 2·7.

Murder of the Gatwick Express!

A year ago, the Strategic Rail Authority began consultation on its Route Utilisation Strategy for the Brighton Main Line, which serves Gatwick Airport. In addition to the non-stop Gatwick Express to London Victoria, the airport is served by trains to South Coast towns from Hastings to Bournemouth.

With capacity at a premium, SRA proposed abolishing Gatwick Express so that more 12-car commuter trains could run. Murphy was outraged. 'I am enormously warmed up about this, and I don't mind saying so, because I was running Gatwick when Gatwick Express came in.

'When you mix commuters and air passengers on the same train, as they used to, there was a growing tide of complaints. The Transport Department was getting fed up with the surge of complaints about it. Gatwick was growing at that time as London's second airport, and it needed the capacity to handle air passengers into London.'

Under the aviation white paper, Murphy notes, Gatwick is to grow 'from 30 to 45 million passengers a year on a single runway by 2010-11', with the option for a second runway if Heathrow cannot expand further. 'Meanwhile, we are currently spending about £800m to expand Gatwick's capacity.'

Murphy explains that 'GEx traffic is very different to HEx. It's about 80% leisure, and nearly half that is foreign. Leisure tends to come in groups, and it has a lot of hold baggage. This is why GEx gets top rating in opinion surveys of rail passengers, and is one of the most punctual operations.

'What the leisure passenger wants is ease of access to the platform and the train, they want somewhere safe to put their hold baggage, they want somewhere to sit together in groups. They don't want to be split up in a commuter train with two kids at one end of a coach, the wife in the middle and the husband at the other end. In short, they want a reliable, comfortable service, and that's what GEx delivers.

'What SRA did was look at performance in 2003. That was heavily affected by 9/11, so GEx was not having a good time. It was particularly affected in the early morning rush hour when the American flights were coming in half-empty, and some just disappeared altogether.

'Where we fall apart [from SRA] is that the aviation strategy for Gatwick is to grow to 42 million, and the public transport modal share to 40%' from 33% in 2003. 'So you have to get a bigger share of more people on to rail. And if you take GEx out, it's not going to happen.'

Murphy points out that GEx traffic is 10% up in 2004-05 because the air mix is changing. 'The charter business is in a long-term decline, and what is coming into Gatwick in its place is a mix of low-cost scheduled operations, and premium long-haul scheduled operators who provide limousines, so you have to have a good quality rail product to compete. And GEx can compete with limousines - GEx has a very high appeal. If you take GEx out now you will never get it back.'

GEx competes on price with the Southern and Thameslink franchises. To increase market share Southern offers £8 single fares, plus an £8·50 off-peak return. GEx charges a £12 single fare in order to fund the SRA premium payments, which make the franchise unprofitable, according to NationalExpress.

Murphy notes that Southern gets a large subsidy to run its overcrowded trains, while GEx has spare seats - and is threatened with closure by SRA because it is wasting capacity. 'Well what do they expect?', he demands. 'What other country in the world does that?'

Murphy believes the issue 'will go to the Secretary of State now because he is creating aviation policy, and is taking responsibility for rail from SRA. After all, GEx is still looked at as one of the benchmarks in the world for airport to city centre links.'

Stansted expands fast

While air travel through Heathrow declined from 45 million in 2000 to 40 million in 2003, Stansted's throughput climbed from 13 to 16 million, seemingly unaffected by 9/11. It is now 20 million. Murphy points out that 'if the second runway gets planning approval, then it will put the capacity up enormously, and that will have to be matched by rail development.

'We are looking at two schemes, but we have to work in conjunction with the Deputy Prime Minister's Office which has strategic plans for more housing along the Cambridge line corridor.' At present, Stansted Airport is served by a short branch off this line, constrained by a single-track tunnel under the runway.

'We're looking at a new double-track line from Harlow into the airport, or to sort out a bottleneck at Bishops Stortford. Those two studies are being worked on at the moment, and we need to take a decision before the summer. On top of that, there will need to be extra track on sections of line between Harlow and Tottenham Hale. Four tracks from Broxbourne Junction to Cheshunt is one that's being looked at.

'The important thing to recognise is that if rail is too expensive it might not happen. BAA is going to have to bear a large element of the cost, and you know better than I do how you can ratchet up from tens of millions into hundreds of millions on rail. So the cost has to be something which the airport as a whole can work with.

'The other thing we want to do is develop a semi-fast service into Stratford [for Docklands]. In the same way as Heathrow, you would then have a fast service into London and a semi-fast via Stratford. That very much fits again with the housing development, because there isn't enough demand at Stansted Airport to justify a Stratford service by itself. If you look at the population growth as well you have a viable product.

'What we have to do in the intermediate stage is make sure that Stansted's rail capacity grows to match the airport. We recognise the fact that planning approval to expand airport capacity to 25 million passengers a year will oblige us to put some money into enhancing the rail product. That could mean lengthening one or two platforms on the line.'

  • CAPTION: The first of five Siemens Desiro EMUs which will operate the Heathrow Connect stopping service due to be launched this spring was delivered to the UK in December following commissioning at Wildenrath
  • RIGHT:Tunnelling contractors Morgan and Vinci held a celebration in January to mark completion of boring work on the last of the four rail tunnels to carry the extension to serve Heathrow's Terminal 5
  • CAPTION: Carrying all-over advertising for Continental Airlines, one of the eight GatwickExpress Class 460 Alstom Juniper EMUs passes East Croydon on a non-stop run to London Victoria

T5 rail tunnels already bored through

Four single-track tunnels that will allow BAA's Heathrow Express trains and London Underground's Piccadilly Line to serve Terminal 5 from 2008 were bored through in January. The twin HEx bores are of 5·7m internal diameter and 1·6 km long, whereas the Piccadilly Line tunnels are 4·5 m diameter and 1·2 km long. Both have evacuation walkways.

On January 6 the single-track loop that took Piccadilly Line trains to T4 before serving the central station at T1,2,3 was closed for 20 months to enable junctions to be formed with the T5 tunnels. Until September 2006, Piccadilly trains are terminating at T1,2,3 as they did before T4 opened. Passive provision for T5 was made at the Heathrow Central HEx station by driving short blind headings, so this service continues to provide rail access to T4.

From 2008, all HEx and most Piccadilly trains will terminate in a common station under T5. Passive provision is being made for the planned AirTrack service to enter the station from the west, and to run through the HEx tunnels if required in the future.

Balfour Beatty Rail Projects in conjunction with Balfour Kilpatrick secured a £95m contract to supply and install 10 km of track for both HEx and Underground trains, along with 13 turnouts and connections to existing track. The contract also covers traction, signalling and other power supplies for tunnels and stations, 11 large diameter ventilation fans, water supplies for fire fighting and pumps for drainage.

Balfour Beatty has also been responsible for upgrading a freight branch to the west of T5 so that 30 trains a week can deliver aggregate, cement, steel reinforcement and pulverised fuel ash for construction of the new terminal.

In addition, an internal peoplemover will carry air passengers to a satellite terminal designated T5B, at which time the main building becomes T5A. This can be extended in the future to a site designated for T5C.