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level crossing barriers would remain closed to road traffic, due to a greatly increased number of services on routes operated by South West Trains. Gregory says: ‘We’ve listened to the concerns raised by local


residents about the impact of Airtrack and worked hard to try to resolve issues, including level crossings. ‘Despite our considerable efforts, including discussions with


Network Rail and the local highway authorities, we have been unable to develop solutions that fully address these concerns.’ Airtrack had been under discussion for 50 years, with serious


plans developed over the last two decades. The opportunity for rail access from the south will be a disappointment to travellers from a wide area. Rail connections at Reading would have replaced bus services for passengers travelling from the west and from south Wales. Passengers from the south coast would have had access via Guildford and Woking, replacing the Railair Link bus connection that runs from outside Woking station. Airtrack envisaged services every 30 minutes on each of three


routes from Terminal 5 via Staines: Waterloo via Richmond; Guildford via Woking; and Reading via Bracknell. A rail connection to Gatwick would have entailed a single change at Clapham Junction. It involved construction of 4km of new railway to connect the underground station at Terminal 5 to the Windsor line, with the building of a 400-metre chord in Staines. Airtrack’s backers argued that, with the southern rail link


in place, three out of four travellers to Heathrow could choose to arrive by train. They said it would create jobs and spread the economic benefits of the airport across a wider area, while meeting the government’s sustainability targets. It would, they said, strengthen Heathrow’s position as the UK’s only international hub airport and create inward investment. Studies by the Airtrack Forum of local stakeholders in 2004


and 2005 confirmed the economic and practical viability of the scheme. Its backers claimed it was the most cost-effective rail scheme under consideration anywhere in the country. By 2006 the current plans were largely in place. In 2009 Heathrow Airport submitted an application under the Transport and Works Act. A public inquiry was anticipated for 2010, but the spending review last September led to that being deferred to an unspecified date in 2011.


Heathrow’s hopes for improved rail connections now lie


with HS2 services to the north. The airport says that improving rail services remains a key objective. It says the priority now will be to ensure that Crossrail provides convenient connections for Heathrow travellers. It is having to work with an emerging government aviation


strategy that will include no new runways at any of the main south-east airports. For years Heathrow’s development plans revolved around a third runway, and it saw improved surface access as part of that expansion. Its new Wider Heathrow Integrated Rail Strategy argues that


there is a strong case for rail access from the west of Heathrow, providing a direct connection with Slough, Reading and the Thames Valley via the Great Western Main Line. As well as passenger access, this is seen as especially important for the tens of thousands of people working at, or close to, the airport. ‘We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to link Heathrow


with high speed rail, Crossrail and the national rail network, which will deliver benefits for businesses in the Thames Valley,


MAY 2011 PAGE 23


‘Airtrack had been under discussion for 50 years, with serious plans developed over the last two decades’


London and the whole UK economy,’ concludes Gregory. But BAA’s withdrawal from the scheme does not leave it quite dead in the water; Airtrack has been postponed before. An idea that has been around since the 1960s, and which makes such sense for the railway, will not be wiped out so easily. But it is now likely to remain dormant for many years, as the


airport concentrates first on Crossrail and then on a connection of some kind to HS2. For people who have to drive over level crossings on the


Windsor line that would have been closed for 30 minutes in every hour, this will be a welcome respite. But, for rail travellers to Heathrow from the south and west, this is a lost opportunity. For millions of people in an arc stretching from Sussex to Devon, Bristol, Cardiff and Gloucester, Airtrack could have become the service of choice when heading off on holiday or on business.


PAUL CLIFTON is the transport correspondent for BBC South: paul.clifton@railpro.co.uk


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