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Southern Heathrow Rail Link

Volume 678: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020

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

It is my great pleasure to open this debate and to have the opportunity to explore with ministerial colleagues and others the potential economic benefits of a southern Heathrow rail link. My belief is that a southern rail link fits exactly with the spirit of the times. It exemplifies the ambition set out by the Prime Minister that, after the pandemic, Britain will not only have a thriving future but one that is cleaner and altogether smarter than what went before.

This is not the first time that Members have sought to raise the issue of rail access to Heathrow from the south. Indeed, it is the very intractability of this question that causes me to bring it back to the House for further examination today, and I do so with the strong support of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord). With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to briefly cover that history, to look at progress since the announcement of the most recent Government initiative in 2018, to explain what economic and environmental benefits such a link could bring to the nation as a whole, as well as to my constituents in Guildford, and to provide my hon. Friend the Minister with the opportunity to bring us up to date.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing this Adjournment debate. She will know that this is an issue on which I have been engaged for over four years. In 2015, Hounslow Council put forward a proposed route for southern rail access to Heathrow from London and Surrey, including a station in Bedfont in my constituency. That was important to underpin regeneration proposals around Heathrow, and its benefit-cost ratio was very favourably assessed by Network Rail. Does she agree that this is a very opportune time to reconsider the economic benefits of such a proposal, not least in terms of the skilled jobs and greener infrastructure that we so desperately need and the direct link from Waterloo to Heathrow that could come from it? Along with my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who is on the shadow Front Bench, I also want to mention the opportunity to consider western rail access to Heathrow, which has had Government approval since 2012.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I agree with her that now is the right time to look at the economic benefits and the skills and jobs that this will bring. It is exciting that this sort of project could have bids coming in from a range of providers, and the competition would be very beneficial. The Heathrow to Waterloo link could be looked at in the wider scope of the project, but I am sure she will understand that I am keen to see a line go to my constituents in Guildford. I will come on to the western link later in my speech.

Members from outside the south-east of England often, and understandably, criticise policymakers for taking a London-centric view of issues. I would like to reassure them that London-centricity can work to the detriment even of other towns and cities in the south-east. Access to Heathrow is just one example of this phenomenon. It is possible to reach the airport by train on a number of services, such as London Underground’s Piccadilly line, the Heathrow Express, Heathrow Connect services and hopefully, before too much longer, the hugely impressive Elizabeth line, which will bring direct trains to the airport from City and docklands. However, it is nigh on impossible to reach Heathrow by train from a whole number of boroughs in south-west London or substantial towns such as mine in Surrey and Hampshire, even though it is possible to see aircraft taking off and landing from some of them.

Transport authorities serving many of Heathrow’s competitor airports, such as Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle, have long since understood that a major hub for flights should also be a public transport hub. In Heathrow’s case, people can arrive by train if they like, as long as they are coming from the east. That gigantic airport, one of our drivers of economic growth, tourism and investment in normal times, and undoubtedly again after the pandemic, effectively sits at the end of a branch line.

Clearly, there are other public transport connections to Heathrow that are not based on railways. It is served by a variety of coach and bus connections that are valuable to airline passengers and the many thousands who work in the wide range of businesses located there. Those services include a direct hourly coach link from Guildford that opened in the last two years. Nevertheless, however many buses and coaches are available, they fail to attract the substantial number of users who otherwise default to their own cars or taxis and private hire vehicles. Those vehicles congest still further the greatly overloaded road network that serves the airport, cause damage to economic efficiency and reduce the attractiveness of the region south of Heathrow to investment.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about an incredibly important topic. A direct rail link from Guildford to Heathrow would make a massive difference not only to her constituency but to mine in Meon Valley and beyond. At the moment, it takes up to two hours to get there by train and coach, as she has mentioned, but about 45 minutes or less—or half the time, anyway—by car. Does she agree that it will take cars off the road, which will have an incredible environmental impact on her constituency and the others surrounding Heathrow?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I could not agree more. The time spent in the car on those journeys to Heathrow from constituencies that are further down the line than mine and further away from Heathrow has an impact on the environment. Those cars on the roads generate vast quantities of noxious gases and particulate matter that are harmful to the health and wellbeing of our citizens, along with substantial volumes of avoidable carbon dioxide.

In such circumstances, some might say, “Build more roads then,” but it was recognised by Highways England in 2016 that no amount of road building could overcome the problem. Its “M25 South West Quadrant Strategic Study” concluded that only a solution based on public transport investment could address congestion on this vital national motorway. Indeed, I understand that it is one of the most congested stretches of motorway in Europe.

With such a blindingly obvious need for rail access to Heathrow from the south, there have been a number of attempts to find an answer. The most significant of those was a scheme known as Airtrack devised by BAA, then owners of Heathrow, in the early years of this century. The fundamental, and ultimately fatal, flaw in the Airtrack proposal was that it was based on knitting together various sections of existing railway, with a few short additional stretches, and then greatly increasing the frequency of trains on those tracks.

The Victorian lines were built in an era when road traffic was horse-drawn, so they intersected at multiple locations with level crossings that now serve thousands of cars and lorries every day. The increased frequency of trains over those crossings would cause the level crossing barriers, and hence the roads, to be closed for unacceptably long periods. When the opposition of road users, communities, businesses and local authorities found voice through hon. Members of this House, the Airtrack project was doomed.

Airtrack had been conceived in part as an attempt to mitigate the major expansion of airline passenger numbers and employees at Heathrow associated with the opening of terminal 5. The one positive legacy of this story is that, beneath terminal 5, there sits in cavernous darkness a station awaiting the arrival of a railway from the south.

I understand that similar provision exists for a western rail link to Heathrow at terminal 5. The western scheme has been under development for as long as the southern route and would contribute to making Heathrow a public transport hub on the international model I described earlier. I know the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has been an energetic supporter of a western link for the benefits it would bring to his constituents and I am delighted to see his interest in the debate this evening.

Returning to a new railway for my own area, the prospect of a southern rail link to Heathrow was raised once again as part of the consenting process for the expansion of the airport by means of constructing a third runway. Without revisiting all the many powerful arguments for and against Heathrow expansion, it was noted, as part of the scrutiny of the proposal by the Transport Committee, previously chaired by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), that a southern rail link was urgently needed with even a two-runway airport, let alone with the third in place.

It was in that context that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) announced, as Transport Secretary in March 2018, that a southern rail link to Heathrow would be the pathfinder scheme for a radical initiative to attract private sector investment and ideas into the design and construction of new railway infrastructure. That was a widely welcomed announcement, as it opened up the prospect of not just businesses but local authorities and local enterprise partnerships helping to accelerate the development of vitally needed new railways, rather than having to wait in a queue with many other existing schemes being devised within the traditional rail industry process. Now, more than ever, we need to allow the talent and expertise in the private sector to contribute to our levelling-up efforts across the country.

I admire my hon. Friend’s innovative approach to championing infrastructure in her constituency. Does she agree that projects like this present an excellent opportunity for steelmaking constituencies like mine in Scunthorpe, where we make a number of world-class steel products, such as rail?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I could not agree more. Now is the time to champion British steel. She is not only a champion for British steel, but for the jobs that will bring in constituencies like hers. I would like to see that tie-up and opportunity.

We have a style of action now that has been adopted by the new Secretary of State for Transport and his colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who is replying to the debate, to invite proposals from a range of stakeholders to reverse the Beeching-era rail closures. Sadly, however, more than two years have now elapsed since the original invitation for promoters to bring forward ideas for a southern rail link to Heathrow.

Members across the House will appreciate that the machinery of Government has been disrupted by events since March 2018, but my key question for my hon. Friend the Minister is this: when will we see full throttle applied to this project? For in truth there is no conflict between this scheme potentially benefiting south-west London, Surrey, Hampshire and the wider south of England, and the Government’s levelling-up agenda for the nations and regions of the UK. Most of the infrastructure schemes envisaged for the north, the midlands and the south-west require significant amounts of public money, but the southern rail link to Heathrow does not. Private sector investors, backed by design and construction partners, are ready to get on and build this railway. I believe we should choose one of them to do just that.

From the perspective of my own constituency of Guildford, I have been grateful for information supplied to me by the directors of Heathrow Southern Railway Ltd, whose design proposal avoids the busy level crossings at Egham, which proved so tricky for Airtrack. They envisage frequent trains from Guildford reaching terminal 5 in just 29 minutes and then continuing on to Old Oak Common for interchange with HS2 and the long-awaited Elizabeth line, before terminating at Paddington. This will be transformative for my constituents and for the capacity of Guildford and other towns similarly served, such as Woking, Basingstoke and Farnborough, to attract investment. It is little wonder, therefore, that local authorities such as Surrey and Hampshire County Councils, as well as the Enterprise M3 local enterprise partnership, want to see urgent action taken by the Government.

In conclusion, may I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the station is waiting at Heathrow? Let us lay down the tracks, enable the building of a southern rail link to Heathrow, and stoke the engine of prosperity in Guildford and beyond.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) and the Minister for allowing me to speak in this debate. I also admire my hon. Friend for the strong case—it was a tour de force—she made for a southern rail link, which would provide a local economic boost and create and support jobs in Runnymede and Weybridge at a time when they are sorely needed. It would deliver greater connectivity between Heathrow and London and my constituency, and cement my constituency’s status as one of the best places to live and work—alongside, of course, her constituency of Guildford.

A southern rail link would improve our local infrastructure and economy, but, crucially, it would also help us meet our environmental targets. Air pollution and noise pollution from the M25 and M3 affect Runnymede and Weybridge badly. We want people to use public transport, but the infrastructure needs to be in place. This would support the aviation sector, which both directly and indirectly supports many jobs and businesses in Runnymede and Weybridge. A new train track to Heathrow airport would not just help those who want to head off to Lanzarote—dare I say it, but I think everyone in this country could do with a holiday? It would also create jobs in the sector and help those in those jobs to get to work, day in, day out.

At a critical point in our country’s economic recovery from covid, a southern rail link would help us to not just bounce back but bounce higher.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I would like to start by thanking everyone who has contributed and by extending further congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) on securing this debate on the economic benefits of a southern rail link to Heathrow airport. I also congratulate all others who have contributed, including my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), who is unrelenting in her passion for her town and its core industry, as I think she will find we are in the rail industry, too.

The question my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford asked about the economics of a southern Heathrow rail link is, as she outlined, one that my Department has been considering for some time. Our Heathrow rail access programme was established in December 2016, with the aim of providing a step change in the accessibility of Britain’s busiest airport.

Unless travelling from central London, the current public transport offering to Heathrow is poor. Many people choose to use their own cars instead, leading to the traffic congestion that my hon. Friend outlined. Improving transport links to the airport would open up access for many regions of the United Kingdom, and a southern access scheme would open up new markets across the south-west of London and, indeed, the south-east of the United Kingdom, providing an attractive alternative to the heavily congested road network.

Although demand for air travel has fallen dramatically due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are supporting and want to see the recovery of the aviation industry. Thus we recognise the importance of major schemes such as this in encouraging people back to air travel, as well as in supporting passengers as they return.

The scheme my hon. Friend mentions would be part of the Government’s plan to build back better, build back greener and build back faster. We want to rebuild Britain and fuel the economic recovery across the United Kingdom. As she knows, this Government have committed to building a Britain with world-class infrastructure and have established Project Speed, ensuring that we are building the right things better and faster than before. Project Speed is an ideal method of dealing with some of the delays with the southern link.

The Heathrow rail access programme comprises two major schemes: the western rail link to Heathrow, serving Reading to London Paddington via a new tunnel to Heathrow, is the other one. I, too, am pleased to see the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) in his place. Not only does he give proper scrutiny to everything I try to do in the Department; he is also passionate about making sure that the western rail link to Heathrow actually comes about and does what it says on the tin for his constituents and others. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, I am pleased to see him in this debate.

The southern access link is at a much earlier stage of development than the western rail link project. It is intended to link terminal 5 directly to the south-west of London, potentially as far out as Surrey and Hampshire. I know that that is welcomed not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Guilford but by a whole host of people across Surrey.

The Minister and I have spoken briefly on this matter since he took up his post. May I make a request to him because I think there is an opportunity in this world of projects to move forward? Sometimes there has not been a coherent debate, a proper assessment and proper criteria against which to evaluate a scheme. In the interests of the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson), who wants to see support for her constituents, in the interests of regeneration, and knowing that it takes two buses sometimes to get one and a half miles to Heathrow for my constituents as well, for work or for travel, is it time to convene a small cross-party taskforce in this place to look at how we might break through some of that and give those perspectives from our constituencies to help move this forward for the Minister?

As I hope I will outline, this project is moving forward at a decent pace, but, on extra scrutiny from this place, there will be barriers. There will be people who rightly want to scrutinise any decisions made on this and I think that would be a valuable suggestion to take forward, as the project moves forward.

It is an important project. It is currently led by my Department. It is a pathfinder project, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford said, seeking to harness all innovative forms of delivery and technology from the private sector to deliver a better service for passengers and ensure better value for money for the taxpayer.

As my hon. Friend said, only about 21% of all passengers travelling to Heathrow airport from the south use public transport instead of private road vehicles, and for areas such as Surrey and Hampshire, and Guildford especially, I am told that the figure is lower still, so we know that a market exists for this. In contrast, almost half of passengers and airport staff travelling to Heathrow airport from London and to the east of the airport do so by public transport.

Good progress is being made. Following the publication of the strategic objectives in November last year, my officials are currently finalising the pre-instituting outline business case—my Department loves a bit of jargon—to outline the case for change and the need for a scheme such as this, and to set out practically how the scheme could and should be taken forward. They continue to work closely with commercial advisers to develop commercial and financial models, with the intention of working alongside the private sector to fund, finance and deliver this scheme.

The scheme is in its infancy and as yet no route or mode has been selected, and there is also the possibility of more than one type of intervention to boost transport options. It can, however, be assumed that heavy rail will play a major part in the southern access to Heathrow.

It is clear that there is a strong case for improving transport links in the region, as I have described, and not just for airport passengers and employees, but for those who live in the wider area and would benefit from the roads being freer around Heathrow and, indeed, the extra public transport options this would bring. So while there are many different options for the scheme, we know the potential benefits are clear. First and foremost, it encourages people from their vehicles on to public transport, reducing congestion. We know this can be achieved through the creation of new and accessible high-frequency, reliable transport links with the interchanges and step-free access this scheme would bring. It also helps us to reduce the environmental impact of aviation and the associated carbon emissions, an important step on the path to net zero, and not only by providing new environmentally friendly journey options but also by utilising sustainable construction methods and materials. It will take into account any key environmental undertakings in that area being developed in collaboration with the relevant local authorities and local enterprise partnerships.

Obviously, this should—this could—help to connect communities, boost economic growth and encourage regeneration. It could provide—it would provide—greater connectivity and journey choices in south-west London, Surrey, and Hampshire to central London and help us with capacity across the south-west rail network as well. It would seek to employ the local workforce and source its apprentices locally, and look to improve trade links locally, nationally and internationally. And not just through passenger trains, because freight is also an important part of this equation, providing a much-needed boost and connection for the local and national economies.

As I said, this scheme is very much in its infancy and there is still much to be developed, but the work carried out to date and the work under way demonstrate that, if we get this right, it will be a really positive step towards the development of transport in the south of the UK and alleviating many of the pressures outlined in this debate, working to meet the needs of so many passengers and to improve the prospects of so many locally and nationally, across the whole of the UK, who travel around that part of our country.

A scheme such as this does not come without challenges. To ensure the safety of passengers, road users and pedestrians, we will not want to increase the usage of level crossings; level crossings are a bind for any rail Minister who has ever stood at this Dispatch Box. The new platforms at terminal 5 are underground, so it will be necessary to excavate tunnels, and the scheme will be required to integrate with new and existing infrastructure, both at terminal 5 and on the south-west main line—to name but a couple of the challenges.

There is, however, already strong market interest from the private sector. Several of the groups interested have developed scheme proposals to varying degrees. The Government tested market appetite in late 2018 and, although many organisations showed interest in developing and delivering a southern scheme, none was able to progress without some form of Government support. So my officials continue to work closely with these scheme promoters, operators, construction companies and capital investors, along with the wider private sector, to harvest the innovation and insight that they can provide, and that we can learn from to build a process for securing the best, and the very best value, scheme possible. The Department will continue to develop the southern access to Heathrow scheme, working alongside Network Rail and Heathrow Airport to integrate it with the western rail link and other major transport projects, ensuring the most efficient design and delivery of the whole scheme.

I am very aware of the strong benefits a southern access to Heathrow scheme will provide, not only to the passengers and employees of Heathrow airport, but to the people living in the surroundings of south-west London, Surrey, Hampshire and beyond. I look forward to working with all who are interested in developing this scheme and I am keen to move forward at pace.

I thank everybody who has taken part in this debate for emphasising the importance of this scheme and of aviation to our country. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford on securing the debate on the economic benefits of the scheme. I wish her, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all who work in the House a peaceful and healthy summer recess.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.