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The lost railways of Heathrow

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To support the new runway at Heathrow, Andy Milne argues for a comprehensive strengthening of the airport’s rail links.

The choice of building a third runway at Heathrow at first glance appears foolhardy. Public opinion in London is against it. The airport already creates noise, gridlock and pollution. Nearby roads and motorways struggle to cope with the volume of traffic as it is. The prospect of more domestic flights hardly fits with environmental aspirations of a greener, cleaner Britain.

That said the choice of Heathrow if developed responsibly could lead to a net gain for the economy. Railways pressed into the front line of Heathrow’s supporting infrastructure can mitigate the impact of increased passenger volume on the environment. The secret lies in making more effective use of the lost railways that shadow Heathrow’s roads and runways.


Contemporary experience attests the wisdom of expanding railways to access Heathrow. Locally the railway is already delivering thousands of passengers to and from London Heathrow. The Heathrow Express has become a phenomenon in its own right – easier to use than a cab and faster – 15 minutes from Paddington. Trains are run by well-informed often multi-lingual staff. Heathrow Connect, its sister service, brings new trains and fast services to intermediate stops between the airport and the suburbs of west London.

Similarly London Underground’s Piccadilly line first reached Heathrow in the late 1970s. Plans for its upgrade – the Deep Tube Programme – include new driverless rolling stock, fully air conditioned and digitally controlled – creating extra capacity for more trains. This is still 10 years off but will at least be running by the time the third runway is ready.

The lesson from the London Underground and Heathrow Express experience is that people will flock to airport railways with enthusiasm. Just connect them up as the name suggests. It’s time to stop the dilatory approach to railway projects and open up the throttle.


The completion of the Great Western Electrification scheme presents a great opportunity for Heathrow. Traditionally the problem Heathrow has with railways was underground railway safety legislation which banned the use of diesel traction underground. Unfortunately the airport stood by one of the last unelectrified lines in the UK.

The section between Paddington and Heathrow was electrified specifically for the Heathrow Express. However, with hindsight, the creation of a London-facing junction at Stockley Road was myopic. The rather flimsy excuse that the lake to the west stood in the way won’t do.

Trains cannot run westward out of Heathrow. Various erstwhile transport secretaries, including Philip Hammond and Justine Greening, have admitted the mistake of this. Railway managers and, to their credit airport executives, warned that this was  shortsighted, back when the spur was under construction. Network Rail, with admirable prescience, has been getting on with public consultation – an interminable process which will go on throughout next year.

Then the scheme goes to the Secretary of State for approval, another potential delay. Undaunted, Network Rail already has a secret convocation of junctionnaires ready and poised to put in a left turn at Stockley.


The Crossrail project strengthens the Stockley Junction argument. By the time the third runaway opens, the Elizabeth line will be operational and connecting the Thames Valley with the hinterlands of Essex.

Trains will run to and from central and east London to Heathrow – largely replacing Heathrow Connect. Once again, the question arises: could provision be made to run trains direct into Heathrow to and from Reading or is the only way Essex?


Happily the Welsh Assembly is already on the case lobbying hard for a Welsh Connection at Heathrow. Trains from the airport – given a link at Stockley – could connect Cardiff with airport terminals in under two hours. Great Western Railway (GWR) recently named a train ‘The Welshman’ in recognition of the pre-electrification work done in the Severn Tunnel.

How about naming another The Flying Welshman… and bringing a little more pressure to bear on DfT ground crews at Marsham Street? Imagine a Welsh Connection opening up Heathrow to the west generally – Bristol, Swindon, Penzance, Exeter.

The Welsh Connection articulates another argument for Heathrow’s railway expansion. Any major transport development originating in the south-east has to identify advantages for the rest of the UK. London’s economic ripple effect will be borne westward by rail. The Government can best demonstrate its determination to bridge the gap between regions and the capital by putting rail in play at Heathrow.


An emboldened Heathrow has to benefit the north country and Scotland. Not with the chaff of terminal-clogging domestic flights but by connecting Heathrow to Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and a host of other cities by rail. This is well within the compass of current railway dynamics.

Heathrow has a little known rail connection with Scotland and the North. The Great Western Main Line (GWML) is connected to the West Coast Main Line (WCML) via Acton Yard and Willesden. Admittedly trains have to snake through at low speed but it can be done. Euston can be similarly accessed by this route.

Plans exist but are gathering dust, drawn up when the railway aspired to run Heathrow Express services to Euston down through Primrose Hill Tunnel. The GWML and WCML are just a few hundred metres apart at Old Oak Common. This route, if developed and expanded, can also give access to HS2 at Euston and HS1 at St Pancras.


Heathrow Airport has long argued for a southwest rail link connecting it to the commuter hinterlands of south London and Surrey. Much of the workforce lives down here. Once dubbed Airtrack, no fewer than 10 feasibility studies examined the scheme. The idea is to connect Terminal Five – which already has space for two Surrey-in-a-Hurry platforms – with the Staines and Windsor Line along the route of the old West Drayton and Staines railway.

The link will effectively connect the airport with Waterloo. Unhappily the scheme was shelved in 2010 even though forward thinking aeronauts at Heathrow had done the legwork for a Transport and Works Bill in a game attempt to focus ministerial minds. Glum passengers on flights can actually see this railway as they look south on take off. A Third Runway makes such a link an imperative. A shame it was not progressed in 2010 – a case of who’s Surrey now?


To sum up London Heathrow, if it is to flourish it needs re-calibrated rail links with Surrey and the southwest, Wales and the West, HS1, HS2, Scotland, the Midlands and the North. Before Marsham Street succumbs to a fit of the vapours at the cost of all this, consider what Heathrow represents. It’s one of the biggest business opportunities in the game.

The revenue from the new runway will be healthy indeed. Like it or not, the world wants to come to London. Part of post-Brexit policy has to be to make it easy for that to happen. Anticipating projected revenue from the airport can inform the arithmetic of build, running and maintaining rail links.


Although this article is called the Lost Railways of Heathrow the truth is we all know where they are. Myths and legends abound – all pointing to the eminent practicality of developing Heathrow’s forgotten railways.

A Eurostar secretly sneaked into Heathrow Airport under cover of darkness back in 1998, so old rail hands attest.

A Gatwick Express train – back in the days of the Class 73s – once threaded its way round the West London Line from Victoria to St Pancras. This was to mark the day National Express first braved the metals, proud custodian of two franchises, Midland Main Line and Gatwick Express. I know, I was on that train.

The Government under Theresa May and long-standing transport strategist, Chris Grayling, has taken a difficult decision over Heathrow. Complementing an enlarged Heathrow with a comprehensive railway support structure will draw the sting of national criticism and lodge Europe’s most important airport at the heart of the most successful, can-do, industry in the UK.

The lost railways of Heathrow hold the key to a successful third runway. The Orange Airforce is standing by.

Photo: shutterstock.com