Heathrow North – a Radical Suggestion

Anyone familiar with flying will be aware that Heathrow is suffering considerable congestion – not just at the terminals themselves, but more seriously in the air as well. Problems ground-side will hopefully subside somewhat when Terminal 5 opens next year – but what about the congestion in the skies?

There have been discussions about a 3rd runway at Heathrow – being based to the north of the A4 road. This is controversial, not just with the usual anti-airline lobby groups but also with local residents who object to having their homes demolished. It seems that a 3rd runway is undoubtably needed, but it is politically difficult – and any attempt to build one will not only be hugely expensive, but also would be delayed by years of planning enquiries and appeals.

Is there an alternative?

Well, some people say increasing capacity at other London airports is an option, but that ignore the “hub” benefits that Heathrow offers and also ignores the air congestion over the South-East of the UK.

In conventional terms, a person wanting to travel to London – or use Heathrow as a transfer hub would object quite strongly to being forced to use an airport in another part of the country – such as Birmingham airport.

What if Birmingham and Heathrow could be somehow brought closer together?

That might not be as crazy an idea as it sounds. At a basic level, London and Birmingham are roughly 120 miles apart – so could we find a way of connecting the two airports in super-fast time? Yes as it happens – we can.

Maglev railways are a super-fast railway service of which the German built version typically achieve speeds of 280 miles per hour and are already in use in China. A train linking the two airports would result in a transfer time of around 35 minutes. A direct link from the center of Birmingham Airport to the center of Heathrow would be frankly, comparable with a slow transfer between Terminal 1 and Terminal 4 at the moment.

The Shanghai Maglev has in fact managed a top speed of 310 mph – which would push a transfer time down to about 25 minutes!

This proposal has quite considerable benefits over building a 3rd runway at Heathrow itself. Firstly, the biggest advantage is political – as a 3rd runway at the West of London is hugely controversial. Any attempt to build one would be sunk in years of protests and planning appeals, which apart from the time delay is also very expensive to deal with.

There is also an air congestion problem over the South-East of the UK, and by moving some traffic away from “Heathrow South” to the new Northern Terminal, you can get the double benefit of increasing landing capacity while also reducing congestion over the South East.

Birmingham currently has one main runway – and over time, it is probable that building a second runway at Birmingham is probably going to be easier than doing the same at Heathrow – so the long term capacity increases are likely to be more viable.

Cost

Isn’t a Maglev railway expensive? Well, it certainly isn’t cheap – the Shanghai Maglev railway cost around £650 million for a 20 mile stretch. For a Heathrow-Birmingham railway, we can cost in a presumed bill of around £4 billion. I am presuming that while property/labour costs will be higher in the UK than in China, technology developments and the sheer size of the project will allow bulk buying to lower the costs as well.

Ouch – that sounds a lot. Well – maybe not when you consider that Terminal 5 is slated to have cost around the same by the time it is finished. So, for roughly the same cost of a new runway/terminal at Heathrow airport, you could build a sexy high speed railway link between Heathrow and Birmingham and use that as the new “Heathrow North” airport.

I am sure that extensions from Heathrow to London and Birmingham Airport to the city would be possible as well, further increasing traffic and paying customers. I would not expect transfer traffic between the terminals would be paying customers frankly, so long as they are swapping between flights.

Sexy

Finally, you cannot deny the sheer sex-appeal of a Maglev railway. I would confidently say that a proposal to land at Birmingham and transfer to Heathrow via one of the world’s fastest railways would generally not be met with dismay by customers – but indeed be a very attractive proposition.

Conclusion

The construction of a Maglev railway linking Heathrow South to the new Heathrow North would be price-comparable to building a 3rd runway and terminal at Heathrow right now. It would almost certainly be much faster to build than the huge delays a 3rd runway at Heathrow would face. It moves some traffic away from the congested airspace over the South-East, bringing considerable benefits to travellers and business. And finally – a Maglev railway is a lot more exciting that another terminal building – regardless of how exalted the architect is who designs it.

There are bound to be holes in my proposal – as it is just a “back of the napkin” concept and vastly more detailed research is needed to see if the idea is viable.

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