Forget about a third runway at Heathrow – let’s improve our railways!

Why might we need to build a third runway at Heathrow?

The first public railways opened in the UK during the early 19th century, and ever since, they’ve been a key part of our transport infrastructure, allowing us to ferry people and freight all around the country. In the early 20th century, when the railways became electric, trains also became a more environmentally-friendly mode of transport.

Shortly afterwards, KLM and Qantas launched the world’s first commercial airlines, making travel quicker and cheaper, and expanding globalised trade. The subsequent growth of the industry changed the lives of ordinary people, allowing them to travel to any destination they desired. In the past 20 years, air travel has become common in our lives due to lower flight costs, and with the growth of budget airlines, now demand is higher than ever.

In fact, demand has been so high that the government has decided to reconsider building a third runway at Heathrow as part of their effort to meet demand for air travel and kick-start a faltering economy.

In this blog, we look at some of the factors that the government should consider prior to building this additional runway.

The current state of Heathrow airport

The first point to consider is whether building a third runway would actually create more problems that it would solve. Sure, it would allow more planes to land and take off, but as anyone who has travelled at peak times knows, Heathrow cannot even manage current demand well due to poor infrastructure and staffing. In other words, the project would need to go far beyond simply building an additional runway – it would need to completely upgrade the entire infrastructure supporting Heathrow.

Secondly, by expanding the existing terminal buildings and runways at Heathrow, the government will be once again focusing the main economic infrastructure of the UK on London, at the expense of supporting more balanced economic growth in our more northern cities.

Thirdly, those living beneath an already crowded flight path would have to suffer further noise pollution from the additional runway, as well as more air pollution. It was revealed on Saturday that the US Senate has already passed a motion allowing US airlines to bypass EU emission reduction targets, which means that the planned reduction in plane emissions is unlikely to become a reality.

How can we still promote the UK as a global transport hub, while not damaging other parts of the nation, or the countryside around Heathrow?

You may have noticed when looking at the arrivals / departures board that there are an awful lot of internal flights between the major cities in the UK. So, there’s clearly a potential case for improving rail connections between major cities in the UK. This would reduce the need for internal flights, and allow these slots to be replaced with the international flights, thereby improving the efficiency of operations.

It is already possible to jump on a train at King’s Cross and travel 280 miles to Newcastle in under three hours (which works out at roughly 100mph). Could we build super-fast railways to alleviate some of the pressure on airports in the Southeast? There are trains in Japan and France that go in excess of 200mph, which means the journey from Kings Cross to Newcastle would take just 1hour 30mins. This compares favourably with air travel when you take into account the tedious check-in and security procedures.

Could this work in the UK?

The current state of our railways

In the early 1960s, the Beeching Report identified 5000 miles of railway line for closure due to the vast cost maintenance. Since then, railways have been in steady decline, not only in terms of physical degradation, but also in terms of the number of passengers enjoying the service. This led to governments in the 1980s and ‘90s trying to dispose of these loss-making assets through privatisation.

The production of new rail services has been sparse. After the Channel Tunnel ended up far over its original budgeted cost, the proposed High Speed 2 rail link between London and Birmingham has lost some support, partially due to the fear of costs spiralling out of control.

Moreover, cheaper car production has led to more people owning cars. This in turn gave travellers and commuters more independence from both train schedules and the limited destinations offered by rail companies. During the 1990s, the cost of flying fell dramatically, and at the same time our roads and airspace have become ever more gridlocked.

For much time, successive governments have taken on a rather laissez-faire attitude to transportation infrastructure improvements, backed up by public opinion that was against expenditure, as it did not guarantee a fair deal for the tax payer. Yet public opinion was also happy to support airline and road traffic expansion, despite the fact that this expansion has proved costly due to congestion and environmental pollution, which we all now know is unsustainable.

So what next…

We currently find ourselves at a crossroads. On the one hand, there is an argument to raise taxes on polluting air travel. On the other hand, air travel is still considered strategic to ensuring the UK trades successfully with the rest of the world and maintains its status as an international tourist destination and business hub. I don’t think the answer is really building more runways and terminals but it is to effectively use the current assets that we have, such as Birmingham/ Midlands, Manchester, and Glasgow airports, to take some of the burden out of the south east. I think linking all these places by a high speed rail service would really help to achieve this. The argument against a third runway isn’t just environmental: it’s also about fairly distributing the opportunities of international trade to the rest of the UK.

As a nation, we have to try to spend sensibly in these current economic times, with the limited resources we have. The best way to shift stagnant economic growth is to drive infrastructure-led spending on such things as high speed railways and potentially green energy projects such as solar commercial power plants, the Severn Barrage, wave energy hubs and offshore wind.

In addition, we need to introduce specific railway measures:

(1)  We need to really back High Speed 2, just as we did when delivering the Olympic Games. If we can divert some airline traffic to the Midlands to relieve congestion in the Southeast, then surely it is a good thing.

(2)  We need to back other railway projects that have already started, such as Crossrail. The prospect of making east and west of the city more connectable will make sure that London remains competitive and a good place for business. It also means we can cut some of the road traffic pollution that would have otherwise existed if this piece of infrastructure weren’t planned.

(3)  By creating a superfast railway service between Heathrow and Gatwick, we would make the existing airport resources even more efficient and reduce the immediate need to make the airports any bigger.

(4)  Expand the current London Overground network to cover the lack of public transport rail from the north-west of the city to the west and south-west, as there is a current lack of coverage in these areas.

(5)  Innovate a railway solution that would divert transportation volumes from the centre of London.


If all else has fails and some of these projects become too expensive to carry forward, then why not look at making the existing airports more energy-efficient and less polluting? New greener fuels are the focus of much research, and this could lead to a massive reduction in air pollution going forward. In addition, the airports themselves could be targeted with sustainability measures to increase their energy efficiency.