Chris Heaton-Harris – 2020 Speech on the Southern Heathrow Rail Link

The comments made by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, in the House of Commons on 22 July 2020.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I would like to start by thanking everyone who has contributed and by extending further congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) on securing this debate on the economic benefits of a southern rail link to Heathrow airport. I also congratulate all others who have contributed, including my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer), the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), who is unrelenting in her passion for her town and its core industry, as I think she will find we are in the rail industry, too.

The question my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford asked about the economics of a southern Heathrow rail link is, as she outlined, one that my Department has been considering for some time. Our Heathrow rail access programme was established in December 2016, with the aim of providing a step change in the accessibility of Britain’s busiest airport.

Unless travelling from central London, the current public transport offering to Heathrow is poor. Many people choose to use their own cars instead, leading to the traffic congestion that my hon. Friend outlined. Improving transport links to the airport would open up access for many regions of the United Kingdom, and a southern access scheme would open up new markets across the south-west of London and, indeed, the south-east of the United Kingdom, providing an attractive alternative to the heavily congested road network.

Although demand for air travel has fallen dramatically due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are supporting and want to see the recovery of the aviation industry. Thus we recognise the importance of major schemes such as this in encouraging people back to air travel, as well as in supporting passengers as they return.​

The scheme my hon. Friend mentions would be part of the Government’s plan to build back better, build back greener and build back faster. We want to rebuild Britain and fuel the economic recovery across the United Kingdom. As she knows, this Government have committed to building a Britain with world-class infrastructure and have established Project Speed, ensuring that we are building the right things better and faster than before. Project Speed is an ideal method of dealing with some of the delays with the southern link.

The Heathrow rail access programme comprises two major schemes: the western rail link to Heathrow, serving Reading to London Paddington via a new tunnel to Heathrow, is the other one. I, too, am pleased to see the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) in his place. Not only does he give proper scrutiny to everything I try to do in the Department; he is also passionate about making sure that the western rail link to Heathrow actually comes about and does what it says on the tin for his constituents and others. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford, I am pleased to see him in this debate.

The southern access link is at a much earlier stage of development than the western rail link project. It is intended to link terminal 5 directly to the south-west of London, potentially as far out as Surrey and Hampshire. I know that that is welcomed not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Guilford but by a whole host of people across Surrey.

Seema Malhotra

The Minister and I have spoken briefly on this matter since he took up his post. May I make a request to him because I think there is an opportunity in this world of projects to move forward? Sometimes there has not been a coherent debate, a proper assessment and proper criteria against which to evaluate a scheme. In the interests of the hon. Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson), who wants to see support for her constituents, in the interests of regeneration, and knowing that it takes two buses sometimes to get one and a half miles to Heathrow for my constituents as well, for work or for travel, is it time to convene a small cross-party taskforce in this place to look at how we might break through some of that and give those perspectives from our constituencies to help move this forward for the Minister?

Chris Heaton-Harris

As I hope I will outline, this project is moving forward at a decent pace, but, on extra scrutiny from this place, there will be barriers. There will be people who rightly want to scrutinise any decisions made on this and I think that would be a valuable suggestion to take forward, as the project moves forward.

It is an important project. It is currently led by my Department. It is a pathfinder project, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford said, seeking to harness all innovative forms of delivery and technology from the private sector to deliver a better service for passengers and ensure better value for money for the taxpayer.

As my hon. Friend said, only about 21% of all passengers travelling to Heathrow airport from the south use public transport instead of private road vehicles, and for areas such as Surrey and Hampshire, and Guildford especially, I am told that the figure is lower still, so we know that a market exists for this. In contrast, almost half of passengers and airport staff travelling to Heathrow airport from London and to the east of the airport do so by public transport.​
Good progress is being made. Following the publication of the strategic objectives in November last year, my officials are currently finalising the pre-instituting outline business case—my Department loves a bit of jargon—to outline the case for change and the need for a scheme such as this, and to set out practically how the scheme could and should be taken forward. They continue to work closely with commercial advisers to develop commercial and financial models, with the intention of working alongside the private sector to fund, finance and deliver this scheme.

The scheme is in its infancy and as yet no route or mode has been selected, and there is also the possibility of more than one type of intervention to boost transport options. It can, however, be assumed that heavy rail will play a major part in the southern access to Heathrow.

It is clear that there is a strong case for improving transport links in the region, as I have described, and not just for airport passengers and employees, but for those who live in the wider area and would benefit from the roads being freer around Heathrow and, indeed, the extra public transport options this would bring. So while there are many different options for the scheme, we know the potential benefits are clear. First and foremost, it encourages people from their vehicles on to public transport, reducing congestion. We know this can be achieved through the creation of new and accessible high-frequency, reliable transport links with the interchanges and step-free access this scheme would bring. It also helps us to reduce the environmental impact of aviation and the associated carbon emissions, an important step on the path to net zero, and not only by providing new environmentally friendly journey options but also by utilising sustainable construction methods and materials. It will take into account any key environmental undertakings in that area being developed in collaboration with the relevant local authorities and local enterprise partnerships.

Obviously, this should—this could—help to connect communities, boost economic growth and encourage regeneration. It could provide—it would provide—greater connectivity and journey choices in south-west London, Surrey, and Hampshire to central London and help us with capacity across the south-west rail network as well. It would seek to employ the local workforce and source its apprentices locally, and look to improve trade links locally, nationally and internationally. And not just through passenger trains, because freight is also an important part of this equation, providing a much-needed boost and connection for the local and national economies.

As I said, this scheme is very much in its infancy and there is still much to be developed, but the work carried out to date and the work under way demonstrate that, if ​we get this right, it will be a really positive step towards the development of transport in the south of the UK and alleviating many of the pressures outlined in this debate, working to meet the needs of so many passengers and to improve the prospects of so many locally and nationally, across the whole of the UK, who travel around that part of our country.

A scheme such as this does not come without challenges. To ensure the safety of passengers, road users and pedestrians, we will not want to increase the usage of level crossings; level crossings are a bind for any rail Minister who has ever stood at this Dispatch Box. The new platforms at terminal 5 are underground, so it will be necessary to excavate tunnels, and the scheme will be required to integrate with new and existing infrastructure, both at terminal 5 and on the south-west main line—to name but a couple of the challenges.

There is, however, already strong market interest from the private sector. Several of the groups interested have developed scheme proposals to varying degrees. The Government tested market appetite in late 2018 and, although many organisations showed interest in developing and delivering a southern scheme, none was able to progress without some form of Government support. So my officials continue to work closely with these scheme promoters, operators, construction companies and capital investors, along with the wider private sector, to harvest the innovation and insight that they can provide, and that we can learn from to build a process for securing the best, and the very best value, scheme possible. The Department will continue to develop the southern access to Heathrow scheme, working alongside Network Rail and Heathrow Airport to integrate it with the western rail link and other major transport projects, ensuring the most efficient design and delivery of the whole scheme.

I am very aware of the strong benefits a southern access to Heathrow scheme will provide, not only to the passengers and employees of Heathrow airport, but to the people living in the surroundings of south-west London, Surrey, Hampshire and beyond. I look forward to working with all who are interested in developing this scheme and I am keen to move forward at pace.

I thank everybody who has taken part in this debate for emphasising the importance of this scheme and of aviation to our country. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford on securing the debate on the economic benefits of the scheme. I wish her, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all who work in the House a peaceful and healthy summer recess.