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Heathrow (Southern Rail Link)

Volume 615: debated on Thursday 20 October 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Heather Wheeler.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to address this topic, which is of enormous importance to my constituents in Feltham and Heston, to London and to the entire south of England.

Providing southern rail access is a welcome proposal to connect areas that lie to the south of Heathrow to the airport by rail. However this is not just about getting people to their plane on time; the right scheme has the potential to transform public transport provision and regenerate areas with some of the highest levels of deprivation not just in London but in the country. In the nearby wards in my constituency where this development would take place—Bedfont, Hanworth, Feltham North, Feltham West—over 30% of children live in poverty.

To me it is scandalous that the world’s busiest airport is not connected to south London and the whole of the south for want of a few kilometres of track linking Heathrow to Waterloo, intermediate stations in Hounslow and the whole of the south-east and south-west.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. My constituency as well as hers would benefit from the proposal, particularly those living in Chiswick, Brentford, Isleworth and Hounslow. It takes roughly an hour to get from this place to Heathrow airport, by various different routes. One of the slightly longer ones is via Waterloo station, Feltham and by bus, but with my hon. Friend’s proposal of southern rail access, one could get from here, via Waterloo to Heathrow in less than 45 minutes.

My hon. Friend is right. I will talk about the proposed Hounslow link from Feltham via a new station in Bedfont. That could see journey times directly from Waterloo to Heathrow of about 40 to 45 minutes depending on which route is chosen, and possibly going through my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Various options for addressing this missing link have been proposed over the years, such as the airport-led Airtrack scheme, which was dropped in 2010. None has yet proved technically or politically deliverable. In 2011 Network Rail again identified that connections to the west and south of Heathrow were a strategic gap in the rail network. The Airports Commission recommended in December 2013 that the Department for Transport instruct Network Rail to conduct a feasibility study as part of its short and medium-term measures, to improve airport accessibility irrespective of airport expansion.

In 2015 Network Rail completed its early feasibility study. I wholeheartedly support its strategic objectives, which are as follows: to reduce highway congestion at and around Heathrow through an increase in rail mode share and reduced environmental impact of existing travel patterns; to improve productivity and outputs from the UK economy through enhanced local connectivity; to reduce deprivation and increase labour productivity through greater access to employment at Heathrow and surrounding areas; and to connect communities where no reasonable public transport option currently exists.

Following a market study, Network Rail identified four indicative options through which it concluded it was feasible to deliver the necessary infrastructure and service patterns. The estimated benefit-cost ratio of this project is extremely high at around 16.4:1, representing exceptional value for money. That is pretty much unheard of among rail schemes. For comparison, HS2 and Crossrail 2 both have benefit-to-cost ratios of around 2:0. However, the work that Hounslow Council has been undertaking into a possible link from Feltham to Heathrow, which could also unlock huge regeneration, was not considered.

Today, I wish to present the arguments for the suggested option in Hounslow Council’s work and seek the Minister’s support in getting the Hounslow option on to an equal footing with other indicative options. Following this, I believe that the whole project should be considered a priority by the Department for Transport for full funding to allow it to progress to a full GRIP—Guide to Rail Investment Process—1-2 assessment. If that were achieved, we might have a stronger chance of attracting private finance to help to move the project forward.

Let me outline Hounslow’s proposal. Last year, Hounslow Council commissioned its own study from the respected transport consultant WSP-PB to review the possibility of a new rail alignment between Heathrow terminal 5 and the south-western main line immediately to the west of Feltham station. This would include a new station at Bedfont, in the vicinity of the successful Bedfont Lakes business park and near to the Clockhouse roundabout on the A30. Hounslow’s proposal tries to ensure that this nationally important infrastructure does not just deliver passengers to Heathrow. The inclusion of a new station in the Bedfont area, which would be placed on a new spur railway line running from Feltham to Heathrow airport, would allow for direct services to Heathrow from London Waterloo.

The new station and the associated bus routes that would be developed to serve it would enhance the public transport accessibility level of the site from level 1—very poor—to about level 4, which would be good. In practice, this would mean a significantly enhanced public transport service, benefiting those who live and work in the area as well as opening up the potential for sustainable development and much-needed housing. Through work completed at its own cost, Hounslow Council has estimated the benefit-to-cost ratio of a station in the Bedfont area to be between 2.78:1 and 5:1. Again, this represents very high value for money.

The benefits to the community would be enormous. Around 50% of people in my constituency have jobs directly or indirectly connected to Heathrow. A recent local plan master-planning exercise undertaken by Hounslow Council identified the potential to create a whole new front door to the airport, which would be unlocked by this new rail alignment and station. This vision is finally starting to put meat on the bones of what the Heathrow opportunity area, as set out in the London plan, might look like.

It is clear that any significant growth in this area would require new transport infrastructure to be both viable and deliverable. The Government therefore have a golden opportunity to deliver a step change to Heathrow’s accessibility from the south, and to help to unlock the potential for up to 13,000 new jobs and more than 7,000 new homes on London’s borders. The Minister will also be aware of the need to curb emissions around the airport in order to combat climate change and improve air quality. The newly elected Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has championed the need to improve air quality, even during his first few months in office. Heathrow’s submission to the Airports Commission argued that this proposal would also reduce road journeys to the airport by 3%, improving air quality and reducing congestion.

I am therefore pleased that Hounslow Council has this year commissioned Network Rail to review the WSP-PB report, advise the council on its feasibility, run the proposal through its models and highlight the infrastructure and environmental risks as it sees them. It is a shame, however, that we are having to play catch-up. When Network Rail undertook its research, local stakeholders were deliberately not engaged in relation to the options being considered. Indeed, it was not until after the project’s completion that Hounslow Council was informed that its proposal was not being included and would need to be considered separately.

I understand that the consultation being undertaken by Network Rail at the time was curtailed by the Department for Transport due to concerns about the potential impact on the Davies commission process. The reasons were never clear, but my view is that more could have been done, even within the constraints of the Davies commission, to include the local voice. I am therefore concerned that the process did not make the best use of public money. The report did not achieve as much as it could have done had it engaged with local leaders in a more collaborative manner, which they would have been willing to do. As a result, Hounslow Council is paying Network Rail £51,000 from limited reserves to peer review the Hounslow proposal and test it to the same level as the other indicative options proposed. While I acknowledge and appreciate the more constructive working in recent months with the DFT and Network Rail, that financial commitment is testament to the seriousness with which Hounslow Council takes this proposal. The council wants urgently to ensure that the alignment is taken forward as an option on a par with other proposed options for southern rail access into the next stage of feasibility, where it could be considered and potentially combined with other options when further work is commissioned.

As mentioned before, Network Rail has estimated the benefit-cost ratio of southern rail access to be in the order of 16.4:1, but it is worth noting that some changes have recently been proposed to how the DFT is looking to appraise such projects. The changes will place greater importance on the wider economic benefits of such schemes, in particular their role in unlocking new jobs and homes. Given that and the wider benefits of Hounslow’s proposal, that benefit-cost ratio is likely to be even higher than estimated.

In conclusion, improved rail access to the airport from the south is a pressing need regardless of whether Heathrow expands. The southern rail access to Heathrow project, with more direct and quicker links to Waterloo and the south, will make a huge difference for my constituency, for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for London and for the country. Hounslow’s proposal would meet the DFT’s strategic objectives for southern rail access by reducing congestion, improving the environment, increasing connectivity to the airport, and enabling much-needed regeneration of the local area.

I will therefore be grateful if the Minister answers the following. What steps need to be taken for the proposal to be formally included in the industry advice to be issued in 2017? What progress needs to be made for the indicative options for the southern rail access scheme to go forward into the next funding rounds for control period 6—2019 to 2024—if not before? What would the funding options be? What strategic role would the Government play in moving the project forward to the next stage of feasibility, after which securing private development funding may be a more likely option? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak on this topic today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this debate on a matter that is of great importance to her constituents. She touched on the subject of surface connectivity to our airports, which is an issue of national importance, and on how public transport can address inequality across the nation and in her constituency.

The hon. Lady’s points raise some eternal truths of both transport and urban policy. Cities with good airport rail links are more productive than those without. The shorter the access time to the airport, the more productive that city is.

Anyone who is here today hoping to discover our decision on airport capacity can move along because there will be no clues—I am no wiser than Opposition Members. Whatever the decision, however, this subject is always at the forefront of my mind because it will ensure the continued growth of our nation as a whole.

It is also clear that there has been a long-suppressed need for improved access to Heathrow from its south. Many passengers still access the airport by road, and uncompetitive rail journey times do not help with that. I used to traverse the hon. Lady’s constituency on many occasions on the 285 bus trying to get to Heathrow, and I took a very circuitous route around the airport perimeter and sundry car parks—it took an awful long time. That does little to encourage a modal shift off the road and on to rail, and it certainly does not do much to improve air quality in her constituency, to which she rightly drew attention.

The feasibility study that Network Rail carried out has to be a key part of how we consider improving southern access to Heathrow, and it is worth just thinking how access to Heathrow has changed over the decades. Just 25 years or so ago, only 20% of Heathrow’s passengers used public transport to get to the airport. The Heathrow Express opened in 1998, following on from the start of the Piccadilly line trains running there in 1977, and so by 2015, more than 40% of passengers were reaching Heathrow by public transport. That is a great step forward, but those people are still not coming from the south of the airport, which is a point the hon. Lady is trying to make.

Such statistics fuel our aspirations to do better and to have a better connected United Kingdom. I recognise that we can and need to do far more. The Government have come to power with a strong infrastructure mandate, particularly regarding rail, where customer numbers have doubled and freight has grown by 75%. More people are travelling by rail than ever before. We are spending £40 billion between 2014 and 2019 to support a larger and more mobile population. The hon. Lady lives somewhere that is a key part of not only her local transport network, but an international transport network. We are under no illusions about what a huge challenge we face in upgrading a network that, in many cases, has not seen improvements since the era of steam engines in the 1950s. We are trying to fit our improvements into a relatively short timeframe, on a network that is used more intensively than ever before. That gives us limited scope for how we put into the network complicated enhancement projects that risk disrupting ongoing rail services for customers in the here and now. We have to bear that in mind, too.

It will not be long until Crossrail opens in full—in 2019—which will bring not just the heart of London’s financial district, but much of east London to within 60 minutes of Heathrow. That will dramatically improve passengers’ experience of train travel, with services carrying up to 72,000 passengers an hour through London during the peak periods. That improvement of surface access will be replicated to both Luton and Gatwick thanks to the Thameslink programme. We are going to be improving substantially surface access across the UK, which is one reason why London TravelWatch has identified southern rail access to Heathrow as a particular gap, which we still need to focus on. That is why Network Rail is developing its proposals on the western rail link into Heathrow, off the Great Western railway. Subject to a satisfactory business case, funding in the next control period and the agreement of acceptable terms with the Heathrow aviation industry, that will also open up new journey opportunities by providing four trains an hour between Reading and Heathrow airport.

Southern access to Heathrow is certainly at a less mature stage of project planning, but it is absolutely part of our considerations for the long-term strategic vision for the railway. As I said, the absence of adequate rail infrastructure in this part of London was a key finding in that London TravelWatch report, and we should not forget that. I am always conscious that when we talk about such infrastructure projects that we tend to focus on economic benefits to the nation as a whole. I certainly hear what the hon. Lady says about the regeneration of Bedfont, Feltham and other areas, and I do not doubt what she has to say for one moment. We have learned that good planning is vital and that before every decision we really have to ask how it will benefit customers. We need to show a clear link to user benefit. These things must be good value for money, affordable and deliverable, but they must also be the right solution. As a Minister, I want to start not by identifying what the output is in terms of a piece of infrastructure or kit, but by understanding properly what the problem is, and what the solutions to it are. After that comes the answer on infrastructure investment, and that was why we were very clear in asking Network Rail in its initial feasibility study to identify whether there was a potential market. That might seem self-evident—to me, it certainly is self-evident—but we need to understand the size of that market, the flows of that market and what success would look like in terms of meeting the needs of that market. Network Rail looked at a range of options, with which the hon. Lady is familiar, and found very clear, strong demand for routes from Richmond and further out into Woking and Surrey, as well as inland from Waterloo.

I heard some of the hon. Lady’s comments about the way in which Network Rail went about this, and she mentioned the “Guide to Rail Investment Process”. It is important to stress at this stage that, in that particular report, Network Rail was trying to define both the scale of demand and how that demand could be met with a series of indicative proposals. I do not think that, at this stage, there is any thought of excluding any one proposal, or even of recommending a particular proposal.

The hon. Lady mentioned the initial industry advice, which is yet to reach Government. Network Rail is part of the rail delivery group that is putting together this industry advice. I know that it has met her and that it is closely liaising with Hounslow Council. Her proposal is now on the industry’s radar, so I have no doubt that it will be under consideration as part of the initial industry advice. There will be a series of options and investment opportunities that Ministers will be able to consider. Once again, this is about defining the problem, the outputs that could solve that problem, and the varying benefits and disbenefits of a whole range of options. I recognise that the council’s presentation has its merits, and that it needs to be included and considered as part of that process. I am sure that the industry will be doing that. I look forward to hearing the initial industry advice before we take our decisions further.

To progress the scheme further, I recognise that additional funding for further development will need to be secured. That will allow Network Rail to develop possible infrastructure solutions and to understand the costs and outputs of the scheme so that funding decisions can be taken. The Wessex route study—the feasibility study—will be taken into account in the initial industry advice, as will the Hounslow scheme, to form a coherent and integrated funding strategy. Businesses such as Heathrow Express, Great Western Railway, MTR Crossrail and TfL are all playing a role in drafting the initial industry advice, but the work is being led by Network Rail, which is helping to form the funding decisions.

The Minister makes some important points about the reach of southern rail. I am listening intently as Southampton airport is in my constituency. I understand the importance of the Wessex route study and connectivity to Gatwick and Heathrow. In the work that we are doing around new franchises, I would like to see us being really bold about opportunities for Network Rail.

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. As a former resident of the royal borough of Richmond upon Thames, I am always conscious that, for many of the residents there, Southampton was often an easier airport to reach than Heathrow, and the journey was actually better value and more convenient. Given the physical gap between the two places, that says a lot about the absence of rail connectivity to Heathrow. I hear what she says in light of the re-franchising that will be occurring.

I am delighted that Hounslow Council has taken the initiative to develop its own proposals and engineering solution. I know that Network Rail has met the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston and the council to take this matter forward, providing more expertise to highlight some of the key risks and issues that will need to be considered, as well as evaluating both journey time and train planning proposals. Any proposals to add trains to a network always involve complicated timetabling challenges that certainly elude my limited brain power in working out what fits where. We should always check whether we can fit things on the network before we start to over-promise what we cannot deliver. None the less, I welcome the work that is going on.

In the event that we can secure additional funding to take this forward to GRIP 1-2, we must consider it alongside other engineering schemes such as—but not limited to—those proposals that are also in the Network Rail feasibility study. We must derive maximum benefit from each and every investment decision that we make. We also have to take stock of what we are doing now to lay the groundwork for future investment. I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware of the work that is about to start at London Waterloo to vastly expand its capacity there, along with longer platforms for longer trains at a number of stations on the Reading line.

Work is not yet due to begin at Feltham, I know, but we are working through the complicated issue of a level crossing there. There will be 30 brand-new trains providing 150 extra carriages, and more Crossrail to come, as I said earlier.

There is a lot of good news in the hon. Lady’s constituency regarding rail investment, but I recognise that there is a particular gap in our network around Heathrow, so I welcome her contribution today. I hope I have reassured her that her proposals are on the Government’s radar and certainly on Network Rail’s radar. I look forward to receiving the initial industry advice and I am sure that once we have wider decisions about south-east airport capacity, this debate will take shape and grow, so I thank the hon. Lady for her time today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.