The UK's hub airport isn't London Heathrow. It's Amsterdam Schiphol

Amsterdam, the UK's real aviation hub? Image: Getty.

BAA's campaign to persuade the world to expand Heathrow Airport has been based on one major assumption: that the UK needs a hub airport, and that Heathrow is it.

Look at the data, though, and there are six very big reasons to think that Heathrow isn't the UK's hub airport at all.

1. You can't get a train there.

You can get a train to Heathrow from just one UK city; London. You can get a direct train to Manchester Airport from almost every city in the north of England, a good chunk of north Wales, and the two biggest cities in Scotland. There's even a tram from Manchester Airport to most parts of Greater Manchester if you want to get a proper Eccles cake before you fly.

2. You can't fly there.

When I last checked you could fly to seven places in the UK from Heathrow. From Manchester you can fly to thirteen. How can Heathrow’ be a hub airport if you can't use it as a hub?

3. There's a better hub across the sea.

Manchester may be better connected to the UK than Heathrow but there's an airport that easily beats them both.

You can fly from Amsterdam Schiphol airport to a whopping 24 airports in the UK. You'll soon be able to get a train there from London, too.

They speak great English, the liquorice is delicious, the airport is efficient, and you can buy tulip bulbs and cheese while you wait for a connection.

4. The UK uses Schiphol not Heathrow to connect to the world.

The best option to fly to the world from most places in the UK is to fly via Amsterdam. The data proves it.

I used Google's QPX Express Airfare API, and looked for the "best" one-way flight, two weeks in advance, from 15 airports in the UK & Ireland to 17 airports I selected around the world. This is the script (PERL) that I used to do it. Here are the results in a spreadsheet.

In a huge majority of cases, the best option was a flight via Schiphol.

I also did a further search in which I asked Google to find slightly faster flights, even if they cost a lot more. These points are called Heathrow (fast) and Manchester (fast) respectively.

5. It's cheaper to fly to the world via Amsterdam.

A big airport with lots of flights means lots of competition: I wasn't surprised that the cheapest flights are from Heathrow.

What did surprise me was that flights from Manchester are just a few pounds more. In fact they're cheap enough to tempt almost all passengers from Liverpool, Leeds, and Sheffield to jump on a train to Manchester, and never expensive enough to push them to travel via Heathrow.

Guess where half of the flights from Manchester go via? Amsterdam.

6. It's quicker to fly to the world via Amsterdam.

The UK city with the fastest connections to the world?

Norwich.

That shouldn't surprise you by now, because it's the closest airport to Amsterdam. Of course you can get places a bit faster from Heathrow if you're willing to spend a lot more money – but it's not that much quicker, and certainly not quick enough to make it worth the whole of most of the UK to travel via the south east for.

Why does this matter?

This issue gets to the heart of what we must fix if we are to preserve the United Kingdom as a strong and united country. Most coverage of Heathrow's national role has come from the BBC (in London), the national print press (in London), and the Airports Commission (in London). This is leading to a lot of great answers, and some awful answers, to the wrong question.

The Airports Commission’s question boiled down to, “How can we keep the UK well-connected to the world via a hub in London?” But that's a very different question to, “How can we keep the UK well-connected to the world?”


Heathrow is a national asset, in the sense that the hub-and-spoke model of UK air transport with Heathrow at its core was cemented during an era of nationalisation. When the airport was privatised, it was sold well below its true value, because it was stuck with a system that pegs landing charges at well below the market rate: that, in effect, puts a cap on the amount of profits any new owner could make.

This is effectively a subsidy from the poor north of England (which shared in the costs of under-pricing Heathrow) to the rich south (which gets all the economic benefits).

That may be a sensible approach; I'm tempted by the argument that the UK was, and may even still be, best served by a single huge airport of global significance, than by seven medium-sized airports of no global note. This is the "dividend of Union" we started to discuss in the UK, thanks to Scotland's referendum.

But we must also discuss the other side of that dividend – and whether the bargain that parts of the UK away from the capital are making is being honoured.

Last week we learned that the electrification of Leeds’ critical, but slow and overcroweded, railway link to Manchester Airport will be indefinitely delayed. In the same month, the tunnelling for Crossrail, the UK’s huge investment linking Heathrow with central London, was completed and paraded in front of the world. There is an understandable feeling that the dividend of union is not currently well-shared.

For the past few months Heathrow has been spending a lot of the subsidy it gets from northern taxpayers on adverts in the north of England. I've seen them in Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool. They've bought so many impressions in online local media that on one day recently I noticed that three of eight adverts in the Yorkshire Evening Post were adverts for Heathrow's expansion.

I think that Heathrow airport should expand. But I also think that London should decide. Like many in the North, I resent London telling me what to think. I doubly resent paying it to do so.

As a nation we need to be honest about what Heathrow represents and what kind of imbalances it causes. Far greater than the public spending its expansion will require in the already over-funded south is the imbalance in where the £100bn of predicted growth that it creates in the UK economy will accrue.

We know that the south will benefit far more than the north. That's fine. But we must acknowledge that, and redistribute those gains. That means far more southern money being invested in future growth in the north in return for northern sacrifices now. It requires the beginning of a much more respectful and honest debate about both the dividends and the costs of our current Union.

There's an outside chance I might be wrong

You can explain why in one word: freight.

Data about passenger flights is publicly available for a small fee; I spent less than £20 in API costs getting the flights data I present here. Data about freight is harder to find, and more expensive to buy. I can't afford it.

Someone who can afford it is Chris Giles at the FT and he thinks that "Heathrow holds key to UK trade revival". Chris is an excellent journalist and I don't think he's any more biased towards London, where he lives and works, than I am towards the north of England, where I live and work. He spent time looking at this and he thinks Heathrow is the answer.

Two points in his favour: Heathrow deals with the vast majority of the UK's air freight; the majority of that air freight travels underneath the seats of the wide-body jets that fly out of Heathrow airport. The small jets that fly between Amsterdam and the UK's airports carry less cargo.

He may be right, I'd love to have a chat about it, but until then here are three reasons why I disagree.

1. Economics. Yes, wide-body jets that fly long routes from Heathrow carry more cargo per person than the narrow-body jets that fly short routes from the UK's airport to connect to Amsterdam. But if the Heathrow approach was much more efficient, the cargo income would subsidise passenger income and it would be much cheaper to fly from Heathrow than from Manchester airport. I've shown that the difference is tiny.

2. There are lots of long-haul destinations from Manchester. Wide-body jets fly from Manchester to hubs in America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East from where cargo can be forwarded. Direct flights from Manchester to the world's largest cargo hub in Hong Kong started this year, and have been a huge success.

There are even huge jets flying from smaller airports like Newcastle and Glasgow direct to Dubai once or twice per day. When I heard the CEO of Newcastle City Council Pat Ritchie speak at last year’s Northern Futures conference in Leeds, she was overjoyed at the boost this had given her region's exports. She seemed like a very smart woman.

3. Moving air freight from most locations in the UK to Amsterdam or Paris is not much more difficult than moving it to Heathrow. For rail freight, the Eurotunnel connects the UK to Europe. For lorries there are regular ferries to Holland from Newcastle, Hull, and Harwich.

There’s a lot of politics when it comes to airport expansion. I think Heathrow should expand. I just think that London should decide and pay for it.

In any case, the North will still be travelling via Manchester – from an airport that receives much less government assistance than Heathrow, has attracted huge foreign investment to expand, and is desperate to help even more of the UK grow and prosper.

Tom Forth is an associate at ODILeeds and runs a small software company in Leeds called imactivate.

Images: author's own.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.