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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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.