Angela Richardson – 2020 Speech on the Southern Heathrow Rail Link

The comments made by Angela Richardson, the Conservative MP for Guildford, in the House of Commons on 22 July 2020.

It is my great pleasure to open this debate and to have the opportunity to explore with ministerial colleagues and others the potential economic benefits of a southern Heathrow rail link. My belief is that a southern rail link fits exactly with the spirit of the times. It exemplifies the ambition set out by the Prime Minister that, after the pandemic, Britain will not only have a thriving future but one that is cleaner and altogether smarter than what went before.

This is not the first time that Members have sought to raise the issue of rail access to Heathrow from the south. Indeed, it is the very intractability of this question that causes me to bring it back to the House for further examination today, and I do so with the strong support of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord). With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to briefly cover that history, to look at progress since the announcement of the most recent Government initiative in 2018, to explain what economic and environmental benefits such a link could bring to the nation as a whole, as well as to my constituents in Guildford, and to provide my hon. Friend the Minister with the opportunity to bring us up to date.

Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and congratulate her on securing this Adjournment debate. She will know that this is an issue on which I have been engaged for over four years. In 2015, Hounslow Council put forward a proposed route for southern rail access to Heathrow from London and Surrey, including a station in Bedfont in my constituency. That was important to underpin regeneration proposals around Heathrow, and its benefit-cost ratio was very favourably assessed by Network Rail. Does she agree that this is a very opportune time to reconsider the economic benefits of such a proposal, not least in terms of the skilled jobs and greener infrastructure that we so desperately need and the direct link from Waterloo to Heathrow that could come from it? Along with my wonderful hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who is on the shadow Front Bench, I also want to mention the opportunity to consider western rail access to Heathrow, which has had Government approval since 2012.

Angela Richardson

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I agree with her that now is the right time to look at the economic benefits and the skills and jobs that this will bring. It is exciting that this sort of project could have bids coming in from a range of providers, and the competition would be very beneficial. The Heathrow to Waterloo link could be looked at in the wider scope of the project, but I am sure she will understand that I am keen to see a line go to my constituents in Guildford. I will come on to the western link later in my speech.

Members from outside the south-east of England often, and understandably, criticise policymakers for taking a London-centric view of issues. I would like to reassure them that London-centricity can work to the detriment even of other towns and cities in the south-east. ​Access to Heathrow is just one example of this phenomenon. It is possible to reach the airport by train on a number of services, such as London Underground’s Piccadilly line, the Heathrow Express, Heathrow Connect services and hopefully, before too much longer, the hugely impressive Elizabeth line, which will bring direct trains to the airport from City and docklands. However, it is nigh on impossible to reach Heathrow by train from a whole number of boroughs in south-west London or substantial towns such as mine in Surrey and Hampshire, even though it is possible to see aircraft taking off and landing from some of them.

Transport authorities serving many of Heathrow’s competitor airports, such as Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle, have long since understood that a major hub for flights should also be a public transport hub. In Heathrow’s case, people can arrive by train if they like, as long as they are coming from the east. That gigantic airport, one of our drivers of economic growth, tourism and investment in normal times, and undoubtedly again after the pandemic, effectively sits at the end of a branch line.

Clearly, there are other public transport connections to Heathrow that are not based on railways. It is served by a variety of coach and bus connections that are valuable to airline passengers and the many thousands who work in the wide range of businesses located there. Those services include a direct hourly coach link from Guildford that opened in the last two years. Nevertheless, however many buses and coaches are available, they fail to attract the substantial number of users who otherwise default to their own cars or taxis and private hire vehicles. Those vehicles congest still further the greatly overloaded road network that serves the airport, cause damage to economic efficiency and reduce the attractiveness of the region south of Heathrow to investment.

Mrs Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) (Con)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about an incredibly important topic. A direct rail link from Guildford to Heathrow would make a massive difference not only to her constituency but to mine in Meon Valley and beyond. At the moment, it takes up to two hours to get there by train and coach, as she has mentioned, but about 45 minutes or less—or half the time, anyway—by car. Does she agree that it will take cars off the road, which will have an incredible environmental impact on her constituency and the others surrounding Heathrow?

Angela Richardson

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I could not agree more. The time spent in the car on those journeys to Heathrow from constituencies that are further down the line than mine and further away from Heathrow has an impact on the environment. Those cars on the roads generate vast quantities of noxious gases and particulate matter that are harmful to the health and wellbeing of our citizens, along with substantial volumes of avoidable carbon dioxide.

In such circumstances, some might say, “Build more roads then,” but it was recognised by Highways England in 2016 that no amount of road-building could overcome the problem. Its “M25 South West Quadrant Strategic Study” concluded that only a solution based on public transport investment could address congestion on this vital national motorway. Indeed, I understand that it is one of the most congested stretches of motorway in Europe.​
With such a blindingly obvious need for rail access to Heathrow from the south, there have been a number of attempts to find an answer. The most significant of those was a scheme known as Airtrack devised by BAA, then owners of Heathrow, in the early years of this century. The fundamental, and ultimately fatal, flaw in the Airtrack proposal was that it was based on knitting together various sections of existing railway, with a few short additional stretches, and then greatly increasing the frequency of trains on those tracks.

The Victorian lines were built in an era when road traffic was horse-drawn, so they intersected at multiple locations with level crossings that now serve thousands of cars and lorries every day. The increased frequency of trains over those crossings would cause the level crossing barriers, and hence the roads, to be closed for unacceptably long periods. When the opposition of road users, communities, businesses and local authorities found voice through hon. Members of this House, the Airtrack project was doomed.

Airtrack had been conceived in part as an attempt to mitigate the major expansion of airline passenger numbers and employees at Heathrow associated with the opening of terminal 5. The one positive legacy of this story is that, beneath terminal 5, there sits in cavernous darkness a station awaiting the arrival of a railway from the south.

I understand that similar provision exists for a western rail link to Heathrow at terminal 5. The western scheme has been under development for as long as the southern route and would contribute to making Heathrow a public transport hub on the international model I described earlier. I know the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has been an energetic supporter of a western link for the benefits it would bring to his constituents and I am delighted to see his interest in the debate this evening.

Returning to a new railway for my own area, the prospect of a southern rail link to Heathrow was raised once again as part of the consenting process for the expansion of the airport by means of constructing a third runway. Without revisiting all the many powerful arguments for and against Heathrow expansion, it was noted, as part of the scrutiny of the proposal by the Transport Committee, previously chaired by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), that a southern rail link was urgently needed with even a two-runway airport, let alone with the third in place.

It was in that context that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) announced, as Transport Secretary in March 2018, that a southern rail link to Heathrow would be the pathfinder scheme for a radical initiative to attract private sector investment and ideas into the design and construction of new railway infrastructure. That was a widely welcomed announcement, as it opened up the prospect of not just businesses but local authorities and local enterprise partnerships helping to accelerate the development of vitally needed new railways, rather than having to wait in a queue with many other existing schemes being devised within the traditional rail industry process. Now, more than ever, we need to allow the talent and expertise in the private sector to contribute to our levelling-up efforts across the country.

​Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe) (Con)

I admire my hon. Friend’s innovative approach to championing infrastructure in her constituency. Does she agree that projects like this present an excellent opportunity for steelmaking constituencies like mine in Scunthorpe, where we make a number of world-class steel products, such as rail?

Angela Richardson

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I could not agree more. Now is the time to champion British steel. She is not only a champion for British Steel, but for the jobs that will bring in constituencies like hers. I would like to see that tie-up and opportunity.

We have a style of action now that has been adopted by the new Secretary of State for Transport and his colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who is replying to the debate, to invite proposals from a range of stakeholders to reverse the Beeching-era rail closures. Sadly, however, more than two years have now elapsed since the original invitation for promoters to bring forward ideas for a southern rail link to Heathrow.

Members across the House will appreciate that the machinery of Government has been disrupted by events since March 2018, but my key question for my hon. Friend the Minister is this: when will we see full throttle applied to this project? For in truth there is no conflict between this scheme potentially benefiting south-west London, Surrey, Hampshire and the wider south of England, and the Government’s levelling-up agenda for the nations and regions of the UK. Most of the infrastructure schemes envisaged for the north, the midlands and the south-west require significant amounts of public money, but the southern rail link to Heathrow does not. Private sector investors, backed by design and construction partners, are ready to get on and build this railway. I believe we should choose one of them to do just that.

From the perspective of my own constituency of Guildford, I have been grateful for information supplied to me by the directors of Heathrow Southern Railway Ltd, whose design proposal avoids the busy level crossings at Egham, which proved so tricky for Airtrack. They envisage frequent trains from Guildford reaching terminal 5 in just 29 minutes and then continuing on to Old Oak Common for interchange with HS2 and the long-awaited Elizabeth line, before terminating at Paddington. This will be transformative for my constituents and for the capacity of Guildford and other towns similarly served, such as Woking, Basingstoke and Farnborough, to attract investment. It is little wonder, therefore, that local authorities such as Surrey and Hampshire County Councils, as well as the Enterprise M3 local enterprise partnership, want to see urgent action taken by the Government.

In conclusion, may I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the station is waiting at Heathrow? Let us lay down the tracks, enable the building of a southern rail link to Heathrow, and stoke the engine of prosperity in Guildford and beyond.