Heathrow Airport: Western Rail Link

– in the House of Commons at 5:07 pm on 30 April 2024.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Paul Holmes.)

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports) 5:15, 30 April 2024

I am extremely grateful to your good self, Mr Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and the House authorities for granting me today’s Adjournment debate on the western rail link to Heathrow.

I was elected to represent the good people of Slough in 2017. In 2018, realising the immense importance of this rail link, I established an all-party parliamentary group with like-minded colleagues from across the Chamber. The House will therefore be aware that I have long championed the western rail link to Heathrow, which would link Great Western Railway’s network, and constituents in the Thames Valley region and beyond, to the rest of the world via Heathrow airport. This is not just a project for the Thames Valley or for the south-east of England; it is a levelling-up project that would benefit local, regional and national economic growth.

I wish to place on the record my gratitude to the western rail link to Heathrow stakeholder steering group, Heathrow airport, the Thames Valley chamber of commerce, Great Western Railway, Slough Borough Council, Network Rail, BAE, Transport for London, the Department for Transport, Slough Estates Group, Atkins and others for all their hard work, expertise and invaluable advice to our all-party group over several years. Indeed, as eloquently explained by the Thames Valley chamber of commerce, the proposed four-mile rail link to London Heathrow airport would connect 20% of the UK population to within one interchange of our nation’s main hub airport. This strategic development would facilitate more direct access for travellers, allowing constituents to travel direct to Heathrow, eliminating the need to travel first to London Paddington and then back out again.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Wales), Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on the work that he has done on this for a number of years. Does he appreciate that the project would benefit not just Slough and that area of England, but the west and Wales in particular? Many constituents of mine have done that journey to Paddington and then back out. I wish him well with the project and hope that interest from the Government will be forthcoming.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has eloquently put on record how the Welsh Government themselves have strongly supported the link. I know that he is a strong champion for his constituents, and he has been doing that work on a plethora of issues, but in particular within our all-party group. Importantly, greater connectivity to Heathrow would bolster jobs, growth, trade, tourism, education and regeneration.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I have been a member of the all-party group since 2018. Does the hon. Member also recognise that the rail link would benefit everybody from Bath to beyond? It would also have many environmental benefits, as people could choose the public transport option rather than travelling by car, which is what many of my constituents do.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I thank the hon. Member not just for her support and her membership of the APPG, but for her alliteration—as she said, the project will be of huge significance for Bath and beyond. I also want to outline the cross-party composition of our all-party parliamentary group. Whether we are members of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party, the Labour party or other parties, we realise the collective benefits to our constituents and the environmental benefits, which I will elaborate on shortly.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. He makes the essential point that this is not just a south-east issue; it affects Swindon, which I represent, and the western gateway. I rise in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the western gateway, which links Wales and the west. We fully support his efforts and the work of the Thames Valley chamber of commerce. He is to be commended for his work on this issue and has my full support.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I thank the right hon. and learned Member, whose membership of our all-party parliamentary group has given it strength. He illustrates how the benefits will have significant impact in not only the immediate Thames valley region, which of course benefits me, but Wales, the south-west, the midlands and the wider south-east.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

My hon. Friend has not yet mentioned the benefits that the train link would bring to Bristol, but I hope that it will make it easier for people to make the journey. Heathrow has an impact on the local environment, with surface transport playing a big role in contributing to air pollution and so on. If an easier train link can dissuade people from the west country from using their cars to drive to Heathrow, that would be very advantageous.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, because this has significant environmental benefits. She has done a great deal of work on the need to reduce our carbon footprint and get our constituents to access our main airport via public transport rather than by car.

Photo of Damien Egan Damien Egan Labour, Kingswood

I add my support for my hon. Friend’s debate. Kingswood does not have a train station, but Bristol stations such as Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads would be well served by the western rail link. Constituents tell me that in some cases they are getting taxis up to Heathrow. Does he also acknowledge that the rail link could open up more areas for employment, because it would be a big employer, as well as helping more people to get to Heathrow?

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I thank my hon. Friend, who has been a strong champion for his constituency since being elected. I had the distinct pleasure of conversing with many of his constituents while I was out in his area. The constituents of Kingswood do not have a train station, but the benefit of a direct rail link would be that it avoids individuals from as far away as Kingswood getting a taxi. That would reduce journey times and, as he points out, have a huge economic benefit for the wider region. I thank him for his support.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I give way to the co-chair of our all-party parliamentary group.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

As the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group, I commend the hon. Member, my neighbour and friend, for all the work that he does to make this happen. The rail link is about jobs, economic growth, boosting travel opportunities across the UK and boosting Heathrow airport. Does he agree that, in the year 2024, it is almost perverse that passengers coming from the west of England and Wales cannot travel directly to our major international airport hub? Does he also agree that the rail link will bring huge benefits to London itself?

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

The hon. Gentleman undersells himself. He was the vice-chair of our all-party parliamentary group, but he has recently been elevated to co-chair, taking on the role of Laura Farris, who was herself elevated to the Government Front Bench. He highlights that the link would benefit people not just in the south-east, the west, Wales and the south-west, but in London, because it would decongest roads, as well as London Paddington, as I will explain shortly.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Conservative, Windsor

We are in danger of having a love-in here, but I will not disabuse the House of that notion, because across the House, on the Conservative and Opposition Benches, there is agreement on this. My constituents would join this love-in were the western rail link to go ahead, because it would remove congestion from the roads of Windsor, as far afield as Ascot, and even in the constituency of my hon. Friend James Sunderland. I think it is a really good move and one on which the House can unite, because it will help all our constituents, it will help the environment, and, most of all, it will unclog Windsor.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I hope that the Minister is hearing the unanimity of support—or the love-in, as my constituency neighbour has pointed out. It is important to decongest our roads. People in Windsor and Slough get in their cars, or get a taxi, to go to Heathrow—that is predominantly what happens—so it is important that we provide this four-mile rail link. Indeed, my Slough constituency, which is home to more UK corporate headquarters than anywhere else outside London, is a huge business hub, and for those key industry leaders, this vital four-mile rail link remains the No. 1 infrastructure priority. In fact, it is the No. 1 infrastructure priority for the whole of the Thames valley region.

The scheme, which has been identified as a nationally significant infrastructure project by the National Infrastructure Commission, promises to decrease train travel times, offer a consistent service of trains in each direction, vastly improve connections from across the great western network, and bring destinations within the “golden hour” for foreign direct investors. The western rail link to Heathrow would provide four trains per hour to the great western main line; significantly enhance accessibility for millions of people, from Swansea to Swindon, Cardiff to Exeter and Reading to Bristol; offer direct links to Heathrow; and shed half an hour off many journey times.

Delivery of the western rail link scheme holds the key to overcoming the barriers to growth that currently face the region, and would drive investment and unlock huge economic benefits. According to analysis from Heathrow airport, the western rail link is projected to add £800 million to the gross value added, create 42,000 new jobs and facilitate an estimated 20% shift from road to rail, as many hon. Members have highlighted. Additionally, it promises £1.5 billion in efficiency savings for businesses through reduced travel times and costs.

When Conservative Ministers announced that they would be build the four-mile western rail link to Heathrow and that it would open in 2020, the excitement in Wales was such that the then First Minister Rhodri Morgan described it as

“one of the most important announcements in the last 50 years.”

But it was yet another broken promise. The Government had invested £47 million into planning western rail before the pandemic, and, having committed to it more than a decade ago, it is about time that they built the western rail link to Heathrow for the benefit of the local, regional and national economies.

Let me outline the environmental benefits that my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy and Wera Hobhouse touched on. The extensive benefits of this pivotal rail initiative extend beyond stimulating growth, inward investment and connectivity; it will also play a crucial part in our carbon reduction efforts. The western rail link to Heathrow is a carbon reduction project that will take cars off roads, reduce carbon emissions, and diminish passenger overcrowding at London Paddington.

The increased rail options for commuters in the Thames valley region would significantly reduce congestion on some of the UK’s busiest roads, including the M4, M3 and M25. That would reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to those generated by approximately 30 million road miles per year. By helping to shift journeys from private cars to public transport, the western rail link initiative will underpin our transition to net zero and help to deliver the UK’s climate change and carbon reduction targets, as well as being a key support to levelling up in the region.

The proven business case for this project is predicated on a two-runway scenario. If a third runway were to be built, the scheme would become critical to providing surface access to the airport. The western rail link to Heathrow is a scheme of considerable importance to hon. Members in various regions of the UK and their constituents, as we have heard from the invaluable contributions to today’s debate.

Indeed, there have been various apologies from hon. Members who hoped to attend this debate, including my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra, a former treasurer of our APPG, and my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury, a former vice-chair. They have also expressed their support for the scheme, but as we enter the 12th year since the Government first committed to building this vital four-mile rail link, disappointingly, not a single spade has yet been dug into the ground.

Despite the Government’s failure to deliver on their promise, there remains robust cross-party support for the scheme in Parliament, as well as from business chambers across the UK. The all-party parliamentary group on the western rail link to Heathrow is a strong advocate for the economic merits of this critical infrastructure and its importance in enhancing the connectivity of residents of the Thames valley region to the UK’s main airport via rail. It is in the interest of all hon. Members to deliver tangible results for our constituents, and as MPs representing diverse constituencies, we are all acutely aware of the considerable advantages that our constituents stand to gain from this project.

I commend the leadership of the Thames Valley chamber of commerce; in partnership with key stakeholders, including our APPG, and without any public subsidy, it is co-developing solutions, and sustaining its efforts to ensure that the project remains at the forefront of all minds. That private sector commitment should speak volumes to all of us in this esteemed House. It is the private sector that has subsidised, and continues to subsidise, the Department for Transport’s work. That should be a wake-up call to the Government, showing them that this rail project simply needs to be funded and built.

There was a significant financial commitment from Heathrow airport prior to the pandemic, but the Government’s lethargic approach over the years has squandered that vital investment opportunity, bringing us all back to square one. The Government must go beyond the hollow words of support spoken over several years—words that Ministers have failed to take tangible action on. They must finally step up and make the financial commitments that will ensure the timely delivery of their promised western rail link to Heathrow. Just a few months ago, the Minister assured me in the Chamber that

“The Government remain committed to improving rail access to Heathrow”—[Official Report, 26 October 2023;
Vol. 738, c. 955.]

He claimed to “recognise the importance” of the western rail link. I convey my gratitude to him for recently taking invaluable time out of his day to meet members of our APPG, but the shocking fact remains that in the 12 years since the Government first pledged to fund this vital piece of infrastructure, not a single spade has hit the ground.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Does the hon. Member agree that there is strong cross-party consensus across the House, which includes colleagues I have spoken to from Wales, western England and the midlands? It is great when the House comes together. They are all as one in wanting this project to happen. Does he share my hope that, in a minute, the Minister will outline at the Dispatch Box the preconditions for the Government taking the bold step of underwriting the project?

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

That was very eloquently put, and that is what we hope for from the Minister, who is, I know, a good chap and a great champion of rail, but unfortunately for several years we have faced an impasse. I have been a Member of this esteemed House for the last seven years, and there have been lots of promises. Indeed, my first ever Prime Minister’s question to my constituency neighbour Mrs May was on this very issue. There have been many promises, but we are yet to see a timeline, and I do hope we will hear one from the Minister. Indeed, that is what the business community is expecting.

In conclusion, the importance of building the western rail link to Heathrow cannot be overstated. It would open up significant opportunities for growth, and enhance the travel experience and connectivity to Heathrow. The scheme will bring evidenced returns on investment to the Exchequer, help boost the UK’s productivity, and improve economic stability. After 14 years of consecutive Conservative Governments, and the plethora of broken promises and economic failures along the way, we need—my Slough constituents need—this vital stimulus more than ever.

Twelve years after the Government first committed to funding and building the western rail link, we are unfortunately no closer to the goal. When will the Government stop obfuscating, and provide the people of my Slough constituency, the wider Thames valley region and beyond with a clear timeline for when we can expect the project to be finally set in action? We have had various consultations over the years, we have run through various rigmaroles, and it seemed as if we were getting to the promised land, but we are still very far away from it.

The western rail link initiative is about more than just improving journey times. It signifies the strengthening of UK-wide and global links, and of our Union; a firm Government commitment to levelling up; significant steps towards reducing carbon emissions; and the unlocking of immense potential.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 5:37, 30 April 2024

I begin by congratulating Mr Dhesi on securing this debate—or cross-party love-in, as he put it, albeit with a few digs into my heart—on a western rail link to Heathrow. He has been a strong supporter of this scheme for some time, particularly, as he referenced, in his capacity as chair of the western rail link to Heathrow all-party parliamentary group. I know that the scheme is of great importance to him, his constituents, the hon. Members who have intervened, and their constituents.

I turn first to Heathrow airport, which has a key role to play in boosting our global connectivity and the UK economy. It was ranked as the second busiest airport in the world for international passengers in 2023, handling an estimated total of 79 million passengers travelling to 214 destinations across 84 countries on 89 airlines. In 2024, this number is expected to increase to 82.4 million passengers. The Government remain supportive of airport expansion where it can be delivered within our environmental obligations. However, we have always been clear that Heathrow expansion remains a private sector project that must meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change, as well as being privately financed, affordable and delivered in the best interests of consumers. The Government also recognise the economic benefit that airports can bring to their area. Increasingly, airports are becoming regional transport hubs that support multiple businesses, labour markets and population centres. Reliable and efficient surface access connections are an important part of achieving that.

The Government are committed to improving access to Heathrow airport in ways that work for passengers and address decarbonisation objectives. For example, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Elizabeth line services now run from Reading, through Maidenhead, on to Paddington and through central London to the City, Canary Wharf, Shenfield and Abbey Wood further in the east. Passengers from the west on the Elizabeth line can change at Hayes and Harlington for services to Heathrow airport, and in a few years’ time, they will be able to connect to the airport, once the Old Oak Common HS2 interchange station is built and becomes operational; that will become the largest new station we will have built. That will enable even faster journey times and more connections than ever. These improvements are on top of Piccadilly line and Heathrow Express services, which connect the airport with London’s public transport network, enabling journeys from across the country.

Although I have so far talked about connections for passengers, I appreciate that the issue is also important to local stakeholders, including those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is an issue not only for passengers, but for the many thousands of people who work in and around Heathrow or provide services to the airport, many of whom will be constituents of Members who spoke this afternoon. The airport provides direct employment to 76,000 people. It is important that the transport network can get those people to work, as well as millions of air passengers away to their destinations.

Let me turn to the western rail link to Heathrow scheme and the question of Government support. We have always recognised the potential benefits of the proposal, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The western rail link scheme proposes a four-mile link between the Great Western main line and Heathrow airport. It is promoted by local authorities and business groups in the area. It is important to note that the Government’s position has always been that any Government funding would be subject to agreement on a significant third-party financial contribution. The position pre-pandemic was that only 50% of the cost would be funded by Government. Moreover, the scheme complemented the planned construction of a new third runway and the expansion of Heathrow, forming part of the proposals to deliver better surface access and addressing the environmental impacts of a busier airport—the airport would of course have been busier if the third runway had been built.

However, Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd is now not actively pursuing expansion, given its focus on recovery following the impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector. That has of course had an impact on the financial contribution from the private sector. As I understand it, promoters—primarily the Thames Valley chamber of commerce—are keen to revive the scheme as a majority privately funded proposal. Officials continue to work with stakeholders to support them in updating the business case for the scheme. This work is focused on updating the designs for the scheme, refreshing the cost estimates to take account of inflationary pressures over the last few years, and understanding whether there is demand, given changes in travel patterns following the pandemic and the current economic context. I expect to receive an update on that work later in the year.

The Government remain committed to investing in rail, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s Network North announcement, which detailed an unprecedented number of commitments. We are taking forward affordable yet transformative growth plans to increase connectivity and capacity on the railway, and have spent £2 billion a year upgrading the railway across England and Wales, including reopening previously closed sections of the network.

Given the hon. Gentleman’s points about rail investment, I remind him that since 2010, the Government—the taxpayer—have put forward over £100 billion of investment in rail. Of course, as rail Minister, I am very proud of that and support it. However, the significant changes to travel patterns after the pandemic and the challenging fiscal environment rightly require consideration of the rail infrastructure investment portfolio. Just running our railways over the last few years has cost every single household in this country £1,500, so it is absolutely right for taxpayers that we ensure that all schemes are affordable. The prioritisation of schemes and the allocation of funds in the portfolio is managed and updated on an ongoing basis.

I thank the hon. Member once more for securing this debate. Heathrow airport is an important international travel hub for the country and one of the busiest airports in the world, as I have said. That is why this Government recognise the airport’s requirement for good surface access connections.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Exports)

I thank the Minister for his response. He referred to “later in the year”. We do not seem to have a timeline, or urgency. Because of the lethargic approach taken by his predecessors prior to the pandemic, a significant contribution from the private sector was not realised. We then had the pandemic and went back to square one. Can the Minister outline a more precise timeline than just “later in the year”?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

It is important to recognise what has occurred over the past few years. First, we have had the pandemic, which means that rail finances are 80% of what they were pre-pandemic. An awful lot of money is being put in. When we talk about delivering new railway, we have to take into account how to fund the existing railway. Other matters have changed. As a member of the Transport Committee, I was heavily involved in the scrutiny of Heathrow. The decision of the House was that the third runway could proceed, but after the pandemic, that decision moved. A lot of the benefits of the scheme are wide, as the hon. Gentleman has detailed, and I support them, but they also go towards the mitigation that a third runway would need. Obviously a third runway is now looking as though it will not go ahead, which makes the business case for the scheme that bit harder.

To reassure the hon. Gentleman, I hope that the case can be made, funding from the private sector is found, and we can give positive news to him and all the other Members who have spoken in this debate, and who champion this project. I end by giving him another commitment. If he, the members of the all-party parliamentary group and the Thames Valley chamber of commerce want to meet me, we can set out a timeline for the decision and what needs to be done. I can set out what is required from a private sector financing perspective, because I need to know that the money will be there if we are to do the work within Government. Let us all work together, and let us sit down and have that meeting. I will be open and transparent with him and other Members, as I always am, and we can work out whether we can get this project delivered. It has great merit, and I like to see projects like this, where the private sector and the taxpayer work together to succeed for the betterment of the whole country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.