Friday 4 November 2011

Thames Hub and HS2

So much of the HS2 debate is loud, shouty and not very revealing, with fixed positions and closed minds. As such it is no surprise that the combatants missed the huge Thames Hub proposal and how it affects HS2.

Thames Hub is a proposal from Fosters, Halcrow and Volterra to utterly transform infrastructure in the UK. Unlike some previous plans, it is highly persuasive because of the sheer number of infrastructure problems it tackles.

The headline grabbing element is the new hub airport for the UK. This would be a 4 runway and 24 hour a day airport located in the Thames estuary on the end of the Isle of Grain. The site is chosen as it is close to the capital, yet still allows most flights to land over water. There are few if any other locations in the UK which can match this. (To serve the UK's population best, expanding Luton airport might make the most sense, but that would involve far greater aircraft noise disruption to far more people)

A new airport is nothing without access however. To achieve this, the proposal includes a high speed rail connection from HS1 in Kent, via the airport and around the M25, linking up with all the existing main lines, including potentailly HS2 (more on this later). Rather than driving to the airport, users would be encouraged to park and ride. (As a new line, it could potentially run 24 hours a day)

Not content with a new high speed line, the proposal links in freight traffic. There are huge container ports in the Thames estuary and not enough capacity on the railways to transport them. As such, there are far more lorries on the road than there need to be. The proposal suggests that the new railway line around the M25 would be 4 track, with significant freight capacity.

As part of the railway line, a conduit would be built to transport broadband and electricity. This removes miles of pylons from the countryside, surely a clear benefit.

And in the Thames itself would be a new Thames barrier, designed to safeguard more of London than the current one does. By protecting the land, it frees up huge tracts of East London for development (now they are safe from flooding). At a stroke this provides much of the housing land necessary to cope with the potential extra 10 million people the UK is projected to grow by. (Thus environmental concerns on the Isle of Grain must be balanced against the environmental impact of alternate sites for new housing on the edge of many UK towns and villages on green field sites.)

The potential closure (or major downgrading) of Heathrow would also relase more land for development. Other cities have moved their primary airport in the past, including Paris (1974), Munich (1992), Denver (1995), Oslo (1998), Hong Kong (1998), Kuala Lumpur (1998), Athens (2001), Bangkok (2006).

The sheer scope of the plan is breathtaking and would be utterly transformative for the UK.

The land for the airport itself is somewhere I've actually been too, a number of years ago. It is land of no great landscape quality and entirely suitable for change. Two villages would be destroyed, but with suitable generous compensation I believe that to be acceptable. There is a concern over birds, especially with aircraft, however this is something that can be overcome if the will is there.

As I always say, its important to look at the alternatives.

Heathrow is full and overflowing with just 2 runways (and no longer any possibility of a third), when Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Madrid all have at least 4 runways at their airports. It has always been in the wrong location for London as it requires planes to land over the heads of 7 million people. Heathrow simply cannot expand.

Gatwick, Stansted and Luton each have just one runway. Each one could be expanded, however doing so would face larger opposition than the estuary as planes would fly over more people. And its important to consider that one of the three would need three new runways adding to reach the four necessary for a UK hub.

Another approach is "Heathwick". This would link Heathrow and Gatwick with a fast rail line is essentially linking the worlds busiest single runway airport (Gatwick) to what is probably the worlds busiest two runway airport (Heathrow). Clearly that solves nothing.

The "spread" approach entails linking perhaps four or five airports (probably including Birmingham via HS2) to create some form of virtual hub. This appears to me to be the classic 'make do and mend' fudge approach. Bear in mind that Birmingham only has one runway.

Finally, there are, and have been, other plans for the estuary, including a site close by at Cliffe and a floating island further out. The principal difference to Thames Hub with these is the detail in the supporting proposals, including all the other infrastructure effects.

Looking at the alternatives, I think Thames Hub must be considered a viable option, and perhaps the best, since creating a four runway airport at Luton or Stansted seems unlikely.

But the big impact here is on HS2.

As I covered in my last blog, the HS2 route has been hugely influenced by a need to go "somewhere near Heathrow".

But the Thames Hub plans talk about closing Heathrow, or downgrading it to budget airline status!

It is patently nonsense to let "somewhere near Heathrow" dictate the route of HS2 when it is uncertain that Heathrow will survive in its current form.

It is utterly essential for Government and politicians to decide on airport policy before deciding on the HS2 route.

After all, if the "somewhere near Heathrow" constraint is removed, then the M1 route of HC-Midland suddenly looks far more sensible.

(Images credit to ThamesHub/Fosters/Halcrow/Volterra)