Surrey Council Ends Heathrow Airtrack Opposition

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Surrey County Council have agreed, in principle, a package of works that would see the local authority end its formal opposition to the Heathrow Airtrack scheme.

Although the Council have always agreed with the scheme in principle, they are one of several parties to have registered their opposition to Airtrack. In Surrey’s case, this was largely due to the negative impact the increased rail traffic would have on a number of key roads in the Egham area – roads where long closure times at level crossings are already an issue. Further rail traffic, the Authority believed, would lead to unacceptable levels of disruption to bus and emergency services and excess traffic congestion, particularly in the Thorpe Road, Vicarage Road and Station Road areas.

Since registering their objection last year, the Council have been one of a number of agencies in discussion with the BAA over possible means of mitigation. As the Council itself admits, a negotiated settlement may well yield a better response to their major points of contention than the full Public Enquiry that is currently slated to begin in spring next year. This would also avoid the Council incuring the £300,000 costs it estimates it might incur if it is an active opponent during the enquiry, and also remove the risk of it ultimately seeing its objections thrown out completely by the Enquiry without any recourse.

The situation surrounding the issue of level crossing congestion in the Egham area affected is more complex than many may think.

It is easy to assume that the most effective recourse would be to build bridges or underpasses at key points (such as at Vicarage Road). Doing so, however, would not necessarily solve the problem or would require an economic investment far greater than the benefit that would be gained.

In instances like this such improvements can also have an unwelcome knock-on effect. This is that although they initially reduce congestion at individual sites, the traffic flow through the area increases relatively quickly to pre-change levels.

In Surrey’s case, this is likely because the area as a whole is bounded by various major roads that are also already subject to heavy traffic levels – the M25, M3, A30 and A320 – and traffic, like electricity, takes the path of least resistance. Clear one road in the area, therefore, and there’s a significant risk it simply turns into a “rat-run” – a route where local traffic levels fall but long-distance levels rise to fill the gap. Basically you either replace all crossings in the area with bridges and underpasses as a whole – a far too costly operation – or you achieve nothing at all.

Indeed a report to Surrey Council last month ultimately concluded that, based on their traffic modelling, this is exactly what would happen were an underpass to be constructed at Vicarage Road:

The results show that the provision of an underpass with associated traffic calming [at Vicarage Road] does not offer a material benefit to local traffic movements during peak periods. In addition, any attempt to increase capacity elsewhere to reduce journey time on Vicarage Road has the effect of diverting longer distance traffic from the main road system onto Vicarage Road.

The conclusion therefore is that an underpass at Vicarage Road would not materially improve traffic conditions for local traffic within Egham and Staines, and indeed could make local traffic conditions worse than they currently are.

The scheme could not be sustained at Public Inquiry and does not pass the Government’s tests for the funding of major transport schemes.

In short, an underpass, although technically possible in terms of alignment (albeit with a speed restriction and to a reduced design standard) does not work in terms of mitigating the impacts of Airtrack.

In light of the above, therefore, the package of works Surrey have provisionally agreed with the BAA (at a likely cost of £11m of which the BAA will pay the full sum) makes interesting reading.

To begin with, they have accepted that improving downtimes at the relevant level crossing sites simply isn’t possible, although they will continue to apply pressure to Network Rail to improve and modernise crossings and signalling in the area. The objective here, however, will be to mitigate the coming disruption by reducing the journey times in the area overall instead.

With that in mind, the package’s first goal will be to ramp up efforts to bring about a modal shift in the journeys people make over and around the level crossings of Egham. This will include “soft” elements such as better travel planning, web pages and signage, but also “hard” elements such as walking and cycling improvements and footbridges where necessary. Additional land would be purchased where necessary to help facilitate this and/or the management of Staines Moor would be improved. Rights of Way in the area would also be refined.

Overall, the council’s research has suggested that 60% of all journeys in the area are less than 5km in distance, and thus that a shift to cycling and walking on those would have a significant impact.

For road users, improvements would be focused on improving various other choke points around the Egham crossings.

The council’s studies established that 40% of all traffic using the crossings uses the Runnymede Roundabout. Thus this will get a major reworking, reducing delay at the roundabout to compensate for the increased delay at the crossings.

The junction of Vicarage Road/The Avenue/High Street will also get an overhaul to better regulate traffic. Currently, this suffers greatly due to the platooning (the release of traffic in large, sporadic blocks) caused by the Vicarage road level crossing. The approach roads to Rusham Level Crossing will also receive a major overhaul (both for traffic flow and safety measures) in order to compensate for the fact that increased crossing times elsewhere will likely lead to greater amounts of traffic trying to cross the railway here.

To help ease Airtrack’s impact on the local bus network, bus priority measures and works at other traffic pinch points in the area would be carried out to compensate for the increased delays at the Egham Crossing. The success or failure of these may well prove particularly important, as several major routes to and from the less-well-off areas are beyond two crossings in Egham, and the Council have indicated that local bus companies have argued that these routes would need rerouting away if Airtrack proved disruptive. Similar pinch-point and bus priority works would also be carried out at Addlestone level crossing.

Finally, the package looks to address the likely impact that Airtrack will have on parking congestion in the area – something that Surrey had also indicated they felt was a major issue.

Controlled parking will be implemented around Chertsey and Staines station (which will both likely see a traffic increase), but the Council believe further measures will need to be looked at to mitigate issues in the area, as there will be a propensity for these additional rail users to park on adjacent roads where there is not controlled parking. This would affect the amenity of residents and result in road safety issues. Additional Cycle parking slots will now also be built at all Airtrack stations in the Surrey area as well, in the hope that this will encourage local users away from driving to (or being dropped off at) the stations.

Overall, the package of suggested works is an interesting one. Surrey Council seem to make no bones about the fact that it represents a pragmatic approach to Airtrack rather than an idealistic one, and it will anger some opponents of the scheme. Indeed, the BBC already quote some unnamed opponents as commenting that the works in the package would just be “cosmetic tweaks”.

There is a risk that were Surrey to continue their opposition through the Public Enquiry, however, that they may not get anything out of it at all. Indeed, whether Airtrack goes ahead or not, traffic on the railway will likely still increase over the coming years anyway. Both those scenarios would leave the council holding a hefty bill for improvements with no desperate developer to pick up the bill – something that is not a particularly inviting prospect in current economic climes.

As the Council’s own report reluctantly concludes:

We cannot accurately predict what would happen if we were to reject this offer of funding and argue for a higher amount or a different package of measures at a Public Inquiry. This offer could be the best that we can secure.

Given the current financial situation, the schemes that it would fund could not realistically be funded by any other means.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, and whether we’ll see other opponents – such as Spelthorne Borough Council and Runnymede Borough Council begin to take a similar approach.

Written by John Bull