Nearly 30 years on, will Glasgow Airport finally get its rail link?

Glasgow Airport: note the lack of trains. Image: Wikipedia.

Glasgow Airport serves over 8m passengers and 100,000 planes every year. It’s the eighth busiest airport in the UK, and the second busiest in Scotland.

But on one not entirely flattering measure, it ranks as number one: it’s the largest airport in the country without a fixed rail link.

This is, all told, a bit rubbish: getting from the airport to the city centre, 10 miles east, either involves driving, getting a cab, or taking the Glasgow Airport Express bus, which runs back and forth to Buchannan Bus Station at all hours of the day or night.

First Group, which runs the latter, has done its best to make it as un-bus-like as possible, offering free wifi, USB charging points and so forth. But you are still, fundamentally, on a bus on the M8, which is not necessarily what you want after a long flight.

And the convenience of that motorway, which lies immediately south of the airport, is “both a blessing and a curse”, says Ross Nimmo, the head of planning and development at Glasgow Airport. “That motorway is pretty busy. You can’t tell if it’s going to take you 20 minutes or 1 hour and 20.”

So, for several decades now, the local authorities have seen the addition of a new rail link as the key to growing the airport’s traffic. The first feasibility studies into the project were published all the way back in 1990. By 2006, that had evolved into a proper plan to build a new spur of the railway line from Paisley.

By 2009, with the global economy burning around us, the Scottish government had cancelled the project again. Which is just great.

The 2006 plan. Image: Scottish Government.

As it happens, finding around £200m to pay for it wasn’t the only problem with the scheme. There were concerns that it would chew up a lot of land currently occupied by much-loved things such as playing fields in the northern part of Paisley, as well as increase congestion on an already crowded line. It would also do a poor job of plugging into the broader Scottish rail network: Glasgow Central is served by trains from south and west of the city, but is annoyingly inconvenient for much of the rest of Scotland.

So when the project was revived as part of the £1bn Glasgow City Deal, the authorities decided to take a different approach. Instead of bog standard heavy rail, the new link will be a tram-train. At Paisley, it’ll diverge from the existing line onto a new light rail route to do the last kilometre or so to the airport.

That way, it’ll swallow less land in Paisley, so be less disruptive to the locals. It’ll also be cheaper, costing an estimated £144m, significantly less than the £210m+ the heavy rail link was expected to cost ten years ago. It won’t, best one can tell, but any more convenient for destinations beyond Glasgow Central in the short term, but the fact tram-trains can switch to on-street running means it is at least possible to connect it to other parts of the city centre at some later point.

Artists impression of the new link. 

The four tram-trains per hour will cover the distance between the airport and the city centre in just 16.5 minutes, stopping once at Paisley Gilmour Street en route. Which definitely sounds a lot better than that stuck-in-a-bus-on-the-M8 thing.

There is one downside, though: the new link is not expected to be operational until 2025. As Nimmo points out, Paisley is at time of writing still in the running to be the UK City of Culture in 2021. “To then wait four years for the rail link…” he says, rolling his eyes.

Would it be possible to build it any quicker? “All the land is owned by a national transport agency, local authority or the airport itself. The budget is there. The figures are fantastic.” We shall see.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.

The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.