One of my photos

Blue sky thinking

January 19th, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Life/Technology · 4 Comments · Life, Technology

Having had some small involvement in aviation, rubbing shoulders with fellow members of the LGA’s aviation special interst group and the Gatwick area consultative committee, I am on nodding terms with the theory of hub airports.  As a result I can sympathise with notion that Heathrow as it stands will not be able to compete with Schipol, Roissy or Frankfurt as it stands and could effectively lose its status as a hub airport, leading to a downward spiral.   I can see how a third runway would keep the airport in business, but that doesn’t mean we need to build one.  I have a cunning plan you see…This cunning plan is to have a London airport with seven terminals and three runways without expansion.  There has been much talk of having high-speed rail networks to airports, but not enough of having high-speed rail links between airports.

The distance between Heathrow and Gatwick is about 25 miles as the crow flies.  On the current roads you could travel between them in an hour if you were very lucky.  On a direct road you could do it in half an hour.  On a direct rail link you could do it in as little as 6 minutes.  Theoretically.

I’m not talking about something like the Gatwick Express that just puts different rolling stock on the same tracks as existing services with a little bit of separation of platforms, but a purpose-built, absolutely straight, state-of-the-art rail link.  Possibly even using maglev technology, preferably in a straight tunnel.

You cut come corners, and cause a bit more disruption, by using a deep cut & cover tunnel instead of boring as far as possible, but it would have to be dead straight so the trains can get to a fast cruising speed quickly and stick at that speed.

Maglevs are easily capable of over 300mph,((4000mph if you put them in a vacuum but that is a bit ambitious and not necessary))  but even an average of 250mph for the whole journey would mean a 6-minute trip.  That is not a train journey: that is just a shuttle between terminals.  With that sort of link you could treat Gatwick and Heathrow as a single airport and its combined number of terminal and runways would let it function as a decent hub.  If I remember rightly, it can easily take a lot more than 6 minutes to get from one gate to another in Singapore airport.  I reckon you should aim for speeds that would enable a PR-friendly 5-minute journey, but personally I would be happy with 6.

Not only that, but it would reduce a lot of congestion on the south-west bit of the M25 and surrounding areas as those people living near Gatwick who got transferred to Heathrow could just go to their nearest airport and shuttle across – they could even do it by an expanded Fastway instead of driving.

Drawbacks?  Well it would be very expensive, but an investment for the future as long as the link was more future-proofed than Birmingham’s ill-fated maglev.  It would also cause a shift in certain air traffic over time.

If the scheduled flights that rely on a hub-based network did expand, as predicted, they would force out some of the charter flights which would take up any unused capacity at Stanstead or Luton.  Very bad for those of us living in the shadow of Gatwick who may want to take a holiday sometime, but a serious upgrade of the ‘Thameslink’  line from Gatwick to Luton would help there, as would a more direct link to Stanstead.   But that is a selfish view from a local: most people outside Sussex, Surrey and this end of Kent would find it just as easy to get to Luton or Stanstead if that happened.

If the other predictions hold true instead – that air traffic will not grow in the way the airlines and governments say – then we still have a lot more flexibility, a world-beating transport link and the other potential benefits to anybody working at Heathrow or Gatwick rather than a white elephant runway.

So whichever of the opposing groups are right with their forecasts it would be a good thing.

Needs a more rigorous feasibility study than the one I did on the back of a fag packet, but I like the idea.  Far more practical than most of my transport ideas. ((The less said about the pogo zimmer frame the better I think))

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Laurence E. Blow

    Unless you build the rail line as a straight track, you might have a slightly higher trip time than six minutes. For comparison, the Transrapid maglev running in Shanghai covers the 19 miles between the Pudong International Airport and the financial district in 7 minutes, thirty seconds, for an average speed of 152 mph.

    If the track were dead straight, it should take 5.6 miles and two minutes, thirty seconds to reach a 250 mph travel speed (see — look for “maglev technology” on the home page, then click on “comparison charts” on the bottom banner, go to “acceleration” chart). The remaining 19.4 miles could be covered at roughly five minutes, thirty seconds, including braking to a stop, from what I can figure. Total trip time? Eight minutes. Average speed? About 188 mph.

    Good idea, though. Good luck with it.

  • Skuds

    I did stress the preference for a dead straight line.

    No reason why a brand-new system should not build on knowledge from what has gone before and be even faster – its just that for such a short distance you are not going to get much below 6 minutes without coming up against the problem of accelerating to rapidly for passenger comfort.

    Which makes me wonder whether the acceleration quoted by transrapid is the best it can do or most it thinks passengers can take. Having driven a 5.3 litre V8 doing 0-90 in not many seconds I can vouch for how uncomfortable rapid acceleration can be!

  • skud's sister

    Less practical but a monorail would also give you the chance to look down on the traffic stuck on the M25 and pretend you were in an episode of Thunderbirds. Probably be more expensive, slower and never work though…

  • Skuds

    Monorails can still be maglevs of course – though not easily the vacuum variety. Maybe not strictly monorail, but overhead tracks, which is the most arresting and SF feature of monorails.

    Would be deeply unpopular – but I really like them. The one in Sydney is brilliant when it goes from one side of the street to the other, brushing by buildings.

    Thinking about it, if a line was dead straight AND dead level it could combine surface, monorail and tunnel sections.