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Delivering a Sustainable Railway - White Paper CM 7176

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8. International


Britain is a trade-dependent island. The economy depends increasinglyon exporting services to pay for imported goods. The quality of international transport links is therefore vital.

Rail provides an important means of access to and from ports and airports. It is also, via the Channel Tunnel, an international transport mode in its own right.

Continuing growth in international movements has to be managed alongside the domestic passenger market. The South East and East of England represent a particular challenge, with three of the UK’s busiest airports and two of the UK’s busiest ports operating alongside commuting flows to London. But the opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in November 2007 will bring London to within around two hours of Paris and Brussels, and investment from the Transport Innovation Fund will improve rail links to key ports.

At the same time, the Government is at the forefront of European Union proposals to increase competition on rail networks across Europe. The Government believes rail performs best when its operations are open to competition, and will support European Union Directives that facilitate this.

Rail freight delivers significant environmental benefits over other modes, especially over the longer distances that operate across Europe.


8.1 Britain has long been a trade-dependent island. Its openness to international trade was a key factor in its rapid economic growth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Today, international trade contributes about 30 per cent of total GDP. [1]

8.2 The nature of Britain’s trading relationship with the rest of the world is changing. Globalisation integrates national economies more closely, but also reinforces the tendency for them to become more specialised in the goods and services they produce. As a result, service industries and high-value manufacturing are ever more important to the British economy, and there is an increasing reliance on imported food, raw materials and lower-value manufactured goods. Every day around 750,000 tonnes of goods are imported. [2] In an increasingly competitive global market, Britain’s economic viability depends critically on the quality of its international connections. Poor links would add to the cost of Britain’s imports and exports, and reduce its attractiveness as a business location.

8.3 The Eddington Transport Study therefore identified international gateways – and especially those showing signs of congestion and unreliability – as one of the three strategic transport priorities.

8.4 The primary role for rail, in this context, is to contribute to getting people to and from airports and goods to and from ports where flows are dense enough to make rail a viable option. Both markets are expected to grow. The challenge is to accommodate these movements of people and goods as efficiently as possible and in an environmentally sustainable manner.

8.5 This is a particular challenge in the South East. The concentration of major international airports and deep-sea ports generates rail demand that has to be accommodated alongside the already crowded commuter flows into London.

Access to airports

8.6 Air is the dominant mode for international passenger movements. It also accounts for 30 per cent by value of UK visible exports. The 2004 White Paper, The Future of Air Transport, noted that there had been a five-fold increase in air travel over the preceding 30 years. The Government’s most recent forecast is for a further doubling of demand by 2030. [3]

8.7 As the number of people using airports increases, so does the challenge of providing efficient and environmentally friendly connections, particularly between the major airports and the cities they serve. The larger airports are also significant travel-to-work destinations, with an estimated 70,000 people working at Heathrow, for example.

8.8 It is the Government’s view that any proposals for new airport capacity must provide surface access options that minimise environmental, congestion and local impacts. Rail is not always the best way of providing such access. It is only likely to make a significant contribution in the case of the larger airports, where the passenger volumes are large enough to justify the sort of high-frequency service that air travellers require.

8.9 The proximity of airports to major cities and their wide catchment areas creates tensions between the needs of commuters and air travellers. Airport operators and airlines have an understandable preference for fast, dedicated services to city centres. But, as noted in chapters 4 and 5, the urban rail networks are already under pressure from increases in commuter travel, and need to use capacity as effectively as possible. As a result, new dedicated airport services are unlikely on congested parts of the network.

8.10 The Route Utilisation Study for the Brighton Main Line demonstrated that it is not possible to provide trains exclusively for the use of Gatwick passengers in the peak hours, without a significant detrimental impact on other customers. The solution in this case is to deploy high-capacity trains that can contribute to the commuter service from a small number of stations in peak hours, while still leaving adequate seats and space available to accommodate airport passengers and their luggage. This was reflected in the recently announced decision to merge the Gatwick Express service into the Southern franchise. However, in letting this franchise, the Department for Transport will ensure that operators have a proper understanding of the needs of airport users and take account of this in the service they provide.

8.11 The funding of any airport-specific rail improvements will inevitably require careful consideration on a case-by-case basis. But the principle which the Government will apply is that the ‘beneficiary pays’. This means that costs of any enhancements should be apportioned according to those that benefit. It is likely, therefore, that airport operators and developers will have to bear a proportion of such costs. This underpins the ORR’s developing policy in this area [4] and the charging policy of the Civil Aviation Authority. The benefits of such schemes to other users would be funded through normal rail funding processes.

International rail passenger services

8.12 The southern third of Britain lies at the north-west corner of one of the most densely populated regions in the world, comparable with the north-eastern seaboard of the USA or the Pacific coast of Honshu, Japan. Approximately 100 million people live within the area covered by the map in Figure 8.1, which also contains five capital cities and the administrative centres of the European Union, as well as major commercial and industrial centres and ports.

8.13 It is a region in which mobility is facilitated by the increase in the range of international travel options available between the UK and the Continent. Traditional ferry services have been supplemented by a rapid expansion in air services and a reduction in the price of air travel, and by the Channel Tunnel, which provides a quicker crossing for cars and lorries as well as direct freight and passenger services between Britain and mainland European destinations. The Eurostar services and other onward services can provide more convenient connections than air in linking British and other European city centres.

8.14 The key constraint on growth of international rail passenger traffic is that there is well-established evidence that people will not use it for time-critical journeys of more than about three hours. That is why the provision of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link has been so important. Britain’s geography already provides competitive journey times between London and our major cities without further need for high-speed infrastructure. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link puts London within comparable rail journey times for some of the major cities in North West Europe as well.

8.15 The completion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and commencement of international services from St Pancras in November this year will cut London–Brussels journey-time from 2 hrs 15 mins to 1 hr 51 mins and the London–Paris time from 2 hrs 35 mins to 2 hrs 15 mins (Figure 8.2). It also facilitates interchange with domestic rail services to the North and the Midlands. The completion of the Dutch HSL Zuid (currently forecast for 2008) will cut London–Amsterdam journey times to 3 hrs 40 mins. By 2037, cross-Channel rail passenger numbers could double from the present eight million a year, [5] although such predictions are susceptible to a wide range of external factors. A greater recognition of the comparative carbon costs of air and rail travel and concentration on rail’s quality of service may push this boundary-line up to four hours. But, beyond a certain distance, rail cannot compete with air.

Image: Figure 8.1 - South-eastern England in relation to its nearest neighbours

Image: Figure 8.2 - Journey time 
isochrones by rail from London

[1]  Ports Policy Review, DfT 2006.
[2]  Eddington Transport Study, December 2006.
[3]  The Future of Air Transport Progress Report, DfT 2006.
[4]  The ORR is currently consulting on the Policy Framework for Investments. The ORR also published draft conclusions on a Rebate System for Investment for Large Scale Enhancements in December 2006.
[5]  Eurostar 2006.

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