Heathrow-on-Sea travel hub inches towards Heathrow airport

18.10.2009   (Sunday Times)



PLANS to relieve congestion at Heathrow by building a sister airport in the Thames
estuary have moved a step closer.

The four-runway travel hub, nicknamed “Heathrow-on-Sea”, would be connected to
the existing airport by a 200mph rail line that would enable passengers to transfer
between flights in 45 minutes.

The project has been declared technically feasible in a report commissioned by
Boris Johnson, the London mayor. He has now appointed Sir David King, the former government chief scientist, to conduct a more detailed study.

The estuary idea has gained extra impetus because plans to cope with expanding
air traffic by building a third runway and new terminal at Heathrow could be mothballed,
despite being approved by the government.   The Conservatives oppose it and earlier
this month BAA, the airports operator, said it would not submit a planning application
before the general election.

The blueprint for the estuary airport has been drawn up by Douglas Oakervee,
the engineer who helped plan Hong Kong’s island airport.

King will look at the plan as part of a study into the future of airports in
south east England. “There is a fairly obvious attraction to Oakervee’s plan which
is that you essentially move that enormous mess of flight paths over London into
the estuary, with all of the noise and pollution that go with it”; he said.

“Is this a white elephant?    I wouldn’t be taking this on if I thought there
was a simple answer”.

King’s brief will include working out whether the new airport can be environmentally
friendly.  He will consider new   , which could generate 7% of the electricity needs of England and Wales and help offset the new airport’s emissions.

King’s estuary working group will include Oakervee, the architect Sir Terry Farrell,
Nick Raynsford, the former London minister, and Kit Malthouse, Johnson’s deputy.

Oakervee said:  “We’ve got to stop this short-termist mentality in planning.  If you do nothing to our airports by 2030, the shortfall will be massive.

“Even if you build runways at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick you’ll be two runways
short of what is needed.   Forget arguments about a third runway, by 2030 we’ll
need a new airport.”

Possible financing could come from the sovereign wealth funds of China and the
Gulf states. The £40 billion airport would be built on artificial islands three
miles long and a mile wide in the outer estuary north of the Isle of Sheppey,
Kent.     It could be built by 2029.

Although Johnson has said he eventually wants to close Heathrow, Oakervee instead recommends reducing the number of flights using it and linking
it to the estuary runways via high-speed rail
— in effect creating a six-runway hub for northwest Europe.

A second rail link would connect the airport to cities on the continent via the
existing high-speed line used by Eurostar, reducing the need for short-haul flights.

Oakervee’s report, which is to be published tomorrow, identifies &lquot;no overwhelming
obstacles&rquot; to building the airport.  It says concerns about bird strikes are overstated
because the runways would be several miles from the coastal mudflats where thousands
of migrating birds congregate, and shipping lanes would not be disturbed.

Oakervee acknowledges, however, that the project will be a “massive undertaking”
Building the two islands, measuring three miles long by one mile across, will
require 17 times more spoil than will be generated by excavations from the London
Crossrail project.

Reconfiguring London’s flightpaths will be complex; and a solution has yet to be found for how to remove the nearby wreck of the
SS Richard Montgomery, a second world war ship loaded with explosives and deemed
too dangerous to touch.

The project’s £40 billion price tag far exceeds the £9 billion cost of a third runway at Heathrow.

According to Johnson’s advisers, Gulf investors have already expressed an interest
in funding the airport and Oakervee believes costs could be dramatically reduced
by making the building site available as a &lquot;free dumping ground&rquot; for spoil.

Johnson’s decision to continue with the estuary project has failed to win over
his party’s leadership.  The Conservatives oppose expanding Heathrow, Stansted
and Gatwick but have yet to say how they will cope with the expected expansion
in demand for air travel.