London Reconnections reports that Heathrow Airtrack — the old proposal to link ready-built platforms under Heathrow T5 to Waterloo via the Windsor lines through Staines and Putney — has been quietly shelved. It was never a very interesting railway and, since I don’t anticipate using any airport in the foreseeable future, I have difficulty caring about its demise. But it’s a vaguely interesting story, I think, for the reason that it was dropped. Interesting to hardcore transport nerds, at least.
Because these railway lines out of Waterloo are already heavily used commuter lines, introducing a new Airtrack service to the system would require some difficult timetable shuffling and fiddling with routes to make everything fit in. Train times on the Chiswick/Brentford branch and on the Egham branch — lines that Airtrack itself needn’t even use — would have to change in order to open slots on the shared tracks around Waterloo and Staines. Those routes each have three level-crossings, which introduces a road/rail conflict.
The three level crossings on the Chiswick/Brentford branch are not important. They are all on unclassified residential streets with nearby main roads that have bridges. Probably they should just be closed and replaced with footbridges — I’m sure the budgetary and safety cases must be strong. Increased train frequency could lead to long block closures of these crossings during rush hour, and it wouldn’t matter. No bus routes use these roads. A few west London Chelsea Tractor drivers might get upset at the loss of a ratrun. Boo hoo.
What matters are the Egham crossings, all on relatively important roads into the town and its residential areas, without realistic alternative routes. The residents of Egham are adamant that, while Chiswick and Brentford residents shouldn’t need to run a car, out there in the wild rural isolation of Egham it’s simply not possible to survive without a Range Rover to take the kids to school (have you seen the state of the school bus and the sort of children who use it?). Lets not argue that one right now. There is much demand on the roads in Egham, and the changes to train times and frequencies caused by Airtrack could increase the length and frequency of crossing closures to the point where supply is insufficient to meet demand, and the queues become too long for the road phases of the crossing.
It’s a nice demonstration of why our transport system is in the condition it’s in: those clever solutions that you like to make up when you’re bored on a delayed train won’t work, because in such a complex and close-to-capacity system as the British railway network, any tinkering has massive knock-on effects elsewhere. Run another train here? Add a few carriages to that service? Build a new branch to Heathrow? It’s a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes building a whole new railway, like Crossrail or HS2, is cheaper and easier than trying to untangle the age old lines we already have.
Oh, but, why don’t they just build bridges over the railway in place of the level crossings, you say? Another of your excellent ideas, and that’s where we get to the really nerdily interesting bit. Currently, the presence of level crossings in the town make the ‘B’ roads that run south through it marginally less inviting to the motorist than the busy A30 and A320 bypasses. Replace the crossings with bridges and Egham becomes a ratrun. The minor inconvenience of waiting at the gates is the price the townsfolk pay for relatively quiet and livable streets. The extra road capacity would change the congestion profile of the main roads, and over time, change the business profile of the high street and the social profile of the town. In the chaotic complexity of the road network, a tiny tweak can set in motion slow but significant changes. So we can’t run trains from Waterloo to Heathrow because it would necessitate the creation of a ratrun for motorists through a town that the Heathrow railway wouldn’t even run through.
Resolving these road/rail and resident/ratrunner conflicts is, of course, just a political decision. Any decision will inconvenience a lot of people and have long term, surprisingly far-reaching, and not entirely predictable consequences. The politician’s job is to decide who to inconvenience more; which option is expected have less problematic consequences. There is no one objectively right answer.
It just happens, though, that Egham is in Runnymede & Weybridge, the constituency that elected our dear transport secretary. I didn’t say there weren’t any objectively wrong answers.