For the time being at least, Heathrow remains Europe's most important airport, yet rail connections to it from anywhere other than west London are still poor. To transfer from the West Coast Mainline to Heathrow, you need to take a connecting bus from Watford Junction - that is, if your train calls there in the first place. Otherwise you face a trundle through the tube network, using stations that were never designed to allow the easy transfer of luggage from one platform to another.
It is likely that Crossrail will do far more to improve access to Heathrow than the Heathrow Express has so far, as Crossrail will bring so much more of London within an easy direct train journey of Heathrow. For the first phase at least, HS2 will connect with Crossrail at Old Oak Common, providing a fast direct link to terminals three and four, and possibly to terminal five if Heathrow Express is rolled into the Crossrail programme, or if it also stops there.
However, It seems unlikely that the costs of a direct spur into Heathrow from HS2 will be justified, and certainly not in the early stages. Politicians of all parties have clearly seen the attraction that such a link may provide, by looking at airports on the continent, particularly Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
However, these airports are usually serviced as part of a through route, rather than by having long-distance services terminate there, especially when doing so would mean that trains otherwise heading for central London would terminate at Heathrow instead. Despite Heathrow's busyness, the reality is still that far more people want to travel from northern England and the Midlands to London than to Heathrow.
The other serious problem Heathrow faces when compared to an airport like Frankfurt International, is that the terminals are predominantly in the midfield (between the runways) part of the airfield, and they are also incredibly tightly packed in – with one estimate putting the cost of a station serving the central area alone at £4bn.
Furthermore, whereas Amsterdam Schiphol for example manages to combine all of its airlines under one terminal roof, Heathrow has three separate terminal areas, all with their own stations. Despite this infrastructure already existing, even the “classic compatible” trains would be far too long to squeeze into these stations.
The current outline suggestion from the DfT is that an hourly train could be provided into terminal five. As HS2 would face its own pressure for “slots”, it would probably not be feasible to run a more frequent service – so trains from Manchester and Leeds would split and join at Birmingham Parkway Station.
This would be very unattractive for airport passengers – airport shuttles need to operate at high frequency, as even if a flight arrives “on schedule”, the time taken to taxi to the gate (if it is available), to unload passengers, pass through immigration and retrieve baggage can be very unpredictable.
Also, such a service heading to Heathrow would be dependent on both trains from Leeds and Manchester being on-time – if one is late, both are late, otherwise the operating company would be heavily penalised for taking an additional track path.
Despite these drawbacks, it could still have some appeal for people taking long haul flights, and even if only hourly, it would still offer a better service than the current offering of feeder flights from Manchester to Heathrow, whereas Leeds Bradford airport no longer offers a Heathrow shuttle. However, a twice hourly flight using a 150 seater transferring into an hourly train service which could fit that capacity in just two coaches is going to result in a lot of empty seats.
If the infrastructure was already there, then adding this service on top might be sustainable – providing easy onward train connections elsewhere were available. But the infrastructure has been estimated to cost in the region of £4bn, and that would only be for a route serving Terminal 5 – which, as it happens, also cost just over £4bn.
The likely reality is that, were such a train service proposed, every other airline at Heathrow would complain that it gave British Airways an unfair commercial advantage.
The DfT have also proposed that such a service might offer a through check baggage facility from the boarding station. Such services have struggled when offered from a single terminal station (e.g. Paddington). It is highly unlikely that they could work from a range of stations, especially given the pressures train managers will be under to keep station dwell times to a minimum.
In the longer run it would seem to make more sense to look into a high-speed train service through Heathrow as part of a longer route at least as far as Bristol Parkway. This at least would be on the same east-west access, unlike HS2, which heads north and west.
At this stage, a simple spur could be provided onto this route, as it would also enable fast through services from the Midlands and the North to Reading, Bristol and so on. Adding a fast connection from HS2 into Heathrow and on to the Great Western line whilst it remains a conventional track would offer little benefits, as it would still be quicker to take the cross-country route through Reading.
So whilst the politicians’ desire for Heathrow Airport to become a high speed rail hub as well as an aviation hub is natural, the practicalities show that this cannot be viable under the current plans.
Meanwhile, a far more pressing need which has nothing to do with HS2, but which shows yet again how we lack in joined up thinking is to provide a “left turn” out of Heathrow, and on to Reading, from where numerous onward connections are already available. This can’t be done at present as there is no facility to extract diesel fumes in the tunnels, but once Crossrail is built, this becomes technically possible – although Crossrail would need to be extended to Reading to make it worthwhile.