Why approving a Southern Rail Link to Heathrow would fit with post-Brexit, post-Covid, “Building Back Better” Britain

By Chris Stokes, Chief Executive, Heathrow Southern Railway Limited

There is much talk of the UK Government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson being reset in the wake of the departure of former chief strategist Dominic Cummings.  At Heathrow Southern Railway Limited, we’d already been using England’s second lockdown to think deeply about how our project fits in with not just a political relaunch but also with the wider restructuring of Britain’s economy and society after the end of the Brexit transition period and the Covid-19 pandemic.

A sceptic might legitimately ask why we need a new railway to an airport when there is scarcely anybody using either trains or ‘planes.  Here are three reasons.

Firstly, Heathrow Airport is always going to be important to the economy of the UK and, in particular, to its most commercially powerful region – London and the South East of England.  The Government has been reluctant to provide tailor-made bailouts to the aviation sector in general or Heathrow in particular during the pandemic, perhaps conscious that overseas owners of many of such assets did very nicely during the relentless growth of flights and journeys over the past couple of decades.  Nevertheless, when the nightmare of Covid-19 finally ends, the rapid recovery of civil aviation is likely to be an important engine of economic recovery, even if the sector takes many years to regain its earlier volumes.

Heathrow will face an especially challenging time as the New Year may see the final demise of its expansion plans based around a third runway unless  the Supreme Court upholds the airport’s owners’ appeal (an application in which the Government has deserted its erstwhile ally). If the Appeal Court ruling is upheld, Heathrow will be confined in all probability to the permanent constraints of operating with just two runways.

Whilst there will be joy amongst many of Heathrow’s neighbours at such an outcome, those same neighbours are often the first to recognise the importance of the airport to existing local jobs and overall economic buoyancy.  The Government should in early 2021 be looking urgently at what can be done to secure the future of Heathrow’s international competitiveness within its existing air traffic movement constraints.  One obvious and long overdue announcement would be to accelerate the improvement of its surface access which, to the south, is non-existent other than by road.

The second reason for approving a southern rail link to Heathrow is that, in the aftermath of the pandemic, it is clear there is no desire to restore the status quo ante in respect of the negative environmental effects of human activity.  Our Prime Minister and US President-Elect Joe Biden may gently mock each other on who came up first with the expression ‘Build Back Better’ but in truth they – and many other world leaders – actually mean it.  So also do increasingly large numbers of members of the public.  

For a while, it seemed that Climate Change might be dismissed as just a  fashionable cause but the relentless operation of the laws of physics has meant that our planet has continued to grow warmer even during the temporary reduction of our daily carbon emissions due to lockdowns.

Consumers are becoming more and more aware of how their own choices have environmental consequences, and will expect to be able to undertake end to end journeys by the most sustainable means possible.  This will translate into the simple equation that an airline passenger will be more likely to choose an airport which can be accessed by zero-emission public transport.  Heathrow is desperately lacking in this regard.

Post-Brexit Britain needs its only hub airport to the destination of choice to environmentally-aware global business customers for whom Zoom or Teams are not a complete substitution for personal contact, and it needs Heathrow to be the sustainable gateway for direct flights bringing travellers, tourists, explorers and students for whom virtual reality will not replace actually being in our country.

And then, thirdly, there is the Dominic Cummings effect.  Mr Cummings reportedly had an obsessive focus on the former “Red Wall” northern constituencies, micro-measuring tiny changes of opinion about the Government’s performance there whilst dismissing the Conservative heartlands of southern England as bastions of liberal Remainerism.  This fixation strongly influenced the Government’s economic strategy and its priorities for infrastructure investment.

Yet when given the chance to express an opinion – as happened in the House of Commons on 22 July – southern Conservative MPs said how important acceleration of a southern rail link to Heathrow would be for their constituencies.  This led to a Ministerial pledge to move forward with such a project “at pace” – although it’s not yet clear whether the pace was that of a cheetah or a sloth! 

With the departure of Mr Cummings, the pendulum of power in Downing Street has now swung in favour of advisers associated with Boris Johnson’s time – widely regarded as successful – as London’s directly elected Mayor.  MPs of all parties representing South West London constituencies as well as those in Surrey, Hampshire and more widely across the South East now have every reason to renew their representations for a southern rail link to Heathrow.

For the beauty of the Heathrow Southern Railway that we propose is that it will not take a single penny of public investment away from other parts of the country. The project is privately financed and user funded and the business case is strong enough for us to build the railway using private money exclusively.  We can also bring in private sector expertise from around the world to ensure the mistakes of other recent major infrastructure projects are not repeated.

Let’s make a Southern Rail Link to Heathrow an early and tangible output from the reset of Boris Johnson’s premiership.