Improved rail connectivity in the South-East is crucial for boosting economic growth, writes Henry Smith MP.
As a successful trading nation we rely on aviation and our commerce relies on connectivity. The government's economic strategy rightly sees the UK improving links to key emerging markets. UK businesses trade 20 times as much with countries where there are daily flights than with those with less frequent or no direct service. Ministers correctly want to boost growth through increasing inward investment and boosting exports. Improved international connectivity is critical, therefore, if we are to do this.
Heathrow, the UK's largest and major hub airport, is effectively full. Gatwick, however, currently operates at approximately 78 per cent of capacity, allowing the potential to boost passenger numbers through Gatwick by a quarter without the need for an additional runway.
Surface transport links are key to airline choice and encouraging full use of existing capacity. International airlines want to come to London but surface connectivity to London is crucial. If we want new international air links to these markets, good rail access to the airports that can provide them is critical.
Gatwick has already acknowledged this fact and has undertaken a £53 million re-vamp of the airport's rail station, in addition to a further £1.2 billion worth of improvements throughout Gatwick more generally.
The trouble is that Gatwick already has the busiest airport rail station in the UK with further substantial growth in demand forecast. Along with Gatwick's substantive growth, the number of ordinary commuters that use the same rail links is forecast to grow by 29 per cent to 2026. The Brighton mainline, Gatwick's main rail 'artery' is already near capacity. Peak services on the line were already over 80 per cent full in 2009.
The new Thameslink project will help the airport. Already, it is quicker to get to the City of London from Gatwick than it is from Heathrow. The airport should see a doubling in train frequency from 2018 through Thameslink. However, further improvements are essential.
In addition, over the past few years, Gatwick has lost direct links to Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Watford and Kent. Due to decisions taken under the previous Government, the Gatwick Express is under threat. On-board ticketing has been discontinued. 25 year old carriages have replaced new ones and, at peak times, the Express is no longer a dedicated airport service, carrying significant numbers of commuters from Brighton. Trains arrive at the airport at peak time with no space on them for air passengers. Perhaps of most concern is that Network Rail's proposed discontinuing of the express as a non-stop service into London, by inserting a stop at Clapham junction.
This threatens Gatwick's ability to compete with Heathrow, and through that, reduces potential for its growth.
In the short term, proposals for a high quality, dedicated rail link put forward by Gatwick Airport offer a cost-effective, environmentally friendly solution. Further improvements in the airport's rail links more nationally would help secure the Airport's longer term competitive viability.