The Mayor of London has indicated his support for a southern rail link to Heathrow Airport and suggested that there could be progress on getting something started.
Although Heathrow is very accessible by rail from the north and the east, plans to improve rail access from the west were put on hold due to the pandemic, and plans to improve access from the south have been talked about for several decades.
It currently takes around 2 hours to reach Heathrow by rail from Guildford, or 45 minutes by car – and so the argument put forward is that rail upgrades would help reduce car use. Unsurprisingly, barely a fifth of people heading to Heathrow from the southwest use public transport.
One of the difficulties of rail upgrades is that they can’t easily be bolted onto existing lines which are already packed full, but also due to the high number of level crossings in the south-west region, more trains would mean more delays for road users.
A number of proposals over the past 20 years have attempted to square this particular circle without success.
In a recent Mayor’s Question Time, Caroline Pidgeon AM asked the Mayor, Sadiq Khan if he supports the Southern Access to Heathrow Airport project and what discussions he has had with the Government and the private sector about this project?
In a written answer the Mayor said that he welcomes “the useful role that a Southern Rail Link to Heathrow could play in supporting a shift to sustainable modes, while transforming access to Heathrow Airport for passengers and staff from South London, Surrey and Hampshire.”
He added that “The Greater London Authority and Transport for London maintain regular dialogue with a broad range of interested stakeholders as we look to resolve the issues which have obstructed progress to date, while ensuring that any scheme meets the needs of Londoners and does not impact the reliable operation of the railway network.”
More intriguingly, the written response added that he is “aware that a number of factors coming together in recent months have increased the prospects of a scheme moving forward.”
What those factors might be is not elaborated on.
The lobbying group, Heathrow Southern Railway (HSRL) has been proposing a partially tunneled link which would avoid many of the level crossing problems that have prevented previous schemes from getting started.
When building an underground railway, one of the largest costs isn’t the tunnel – it’s the railway station. Fortunately, when Terminal 5 was built, it included two additional, and still empty platforms for future expansion. That will help to reduce the overall cost of a southern rail link, if they go for the tunnel option.
The rail journey times projected by HSRL would be 19 minutes from Woking to Heathrow, 29 minutes from Guildford to Heathrow and 6 minutes from Staines to Heathrow.
The Mayor’s London Plan, published in December 2020, notes that both the southern and the paused western rail links will be needed if Heathrow Airport builds its third runway, although the same report says that the Mayor will oppose the expansion if it increases environmental harm or negative public health impacts.