Rail campaigners target Heathrow’s ‘absurd’ domestic flights

30.6.2008     (Guardian)

Dan Milmo

The campaign for a British high-speed rail network has gained further momentum
after it emerged that 2.5 million transfer passengers a year fly into Heathrow airport from British destinations.

Transfer passengers, who fly into a hub airport in order to connect with a long-haul
flight, have become a battleground in the debate over building a third runway
at Britain’s largest airport.

Opponents of the proposals claim that the latest figures prove that many Heathrow
slots are used for unnecessary flights that could be replaced by high-speed rail

“If the case for domestic flights diminishes then the case for a third runway
is also weakened,” said Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrats’ transport spokesman.
“It’s absurd to have large numbers of people taking short-haul flights in this
country when there is much more extensive use of high-speed rail in other European

The transfer passenger figures – which represented about 4% of all passengers using Heathrow last year – were revealed in a parliamentary answer by transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick.
He reiterated government support for a third runway last week, saying Heathrow’s
status as a hub airport was vital for the UK economy and could be threatened if
it did not expand.

Baker dismissed those fears: “If there were fewer transfer passengers maybe they
would lose flights to odd places around the world, but they will not lose flights
to Washington, Beijing and Delhi. The argument is a weak one.”

Executives at airport owner BAA have admitted privately that the transfer passenger
debate is crucial in the PR battle over a third runway, with Tory leader David
Cameron among the influential figures who believe that connecting travellers add
nothing to the UK economy.

Network Rail announced last week that it is examining the need for five new rail
routes on the east coast and west coast lines, the Great Western route, Chiltern
line and the Midlands mainline route between London and Bradford. A 180mph line
on the west coast route would halve the journey time to London for people living
in Glasgow and Manchester, according to backers of the proposals.

Willie Walsh, British Airways’ chief executive, warned last week that backing
high-speed rail at the expense of a third runway would be a mistake. He said:
“The reality is that, apart from Paris, Brussels and Manchester, there are very
few destinations where a rail alternative is feasible from London for passengers
wanting to travel and return on the same day.”

Supporters of high-speed rail claim that connecting a fast west coast route into
Heathrow would at least remove the need for an inbound flight, and thus relieve
the pressure on runway capacity at Britain’s busiest airport.