Potential investors make contact about a proposed "M25 for high-speed trains"

“You don’t need to be big, to have big ideas,” says the designer and strategic planner who is leading the charge for a new transformative high-speed railway which would connect the major airports of the UK and provide a link for the north and Midlands to the capital and further beyond to the continent. 

Alistair Lenczner is the director of Expedition, the London-based engineering consultancy which is behind the HS4Air project, that proposes to connect the existing HS1 rail line to the planned HS2 rail line along a route that passes via both Gatwick and Heathrow airports. The project would also provide fast and direct rail access from major cities north and west of London including Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff, while “dramatically reducing journey times”.

Those behind the scheme believe HS4Air would provide welcome relief for London’s rail network, the M25, the number of domestic flights involving Heathrow and Gatwick and better value for investments currently being made in the UK. 

The 140km-long proposed network would run between its connections with HS1 at Ashford and its proposed connection with HS2 near Denham. Approximately 20% of HS4Air would run in tunnels to avoid adversely impacting on environmentally sensitive areas such as the Surrey Hills.

The Expedition boss says that the thinking behind HS4Air is about joining-up projects around the country which remain unconnected and describes it as a “high-speed railway version of the M25 around London, except that it allows much faster journey times with no congestion and with far less impact on the environment”.

The major infrastructure project proposal remains in its early stages, but the idea has already received national media attention and has led to numerous interesting parties coming forward to learn more about the possibilities. While Lenczner is keeping his cards close to his chest on who exactly discussions might be with, public bodies and consultants involved in previous large infrastructure projects have been suggested.

He added: “We’ve had all sorts of people in contact with us and I imagine it’s because potential investors or organisations can see it makes a lot of sense and could provide a vital network for the country. For example, the idea became headline news in Kent when they heard they could be arriving into Gatwick with half an hour, it would have a big impact on peoples’ lives. We are having discussions over the next few weeks and months with various people and the feedback we’ve had has been extremely positive. Expedition is a fairly small team so this is not something we can deliver on our own.”

The seed of the idea for the scheme came from a proposal Lenczner worked on when he was at Foster and Partners. The group created the Thames Hub infrastructure proposal which featured a high-speed orbital railway around London that passed through a major hub airport. However, Lenczner sees the HS4Air proposal as a perhaps more pragmatic proposal that responds to current and committed infrastructure plans.

The motivation to create something that could connect London and beyond was reignited late last year when Heathrow Airport went out to consultation again. The Expedition chief said it encouraged him to start thinking whether there was a way of optimising national infrastructure, rather than just looking at airports and HS2. With no obvious solution to connect HS1 and HS2, the designer said he simply started looking at the map, the terrain and topography and sketching lines for possible connections. 

Like any other major infrastructural network, funding is a key question. The cost has estimated to be around the £10bn mark, based on HS2 phase 1 costing models as done by the National Audit Office. 

“We didn’t enter a bottom-up pricing model to get to this figure,” Lenczner said. “It’s based on HS2 phase 1 costing and doing the comparisons in terms of how much tunnelling cost, stations that were built and track price. Adjustments based on this were how we go to £10bn. I’m not saying it’s cheap or a little amount but compared to other schemes, you get a lot of bang for your buck. If you’re going to spend £10bn on infrastructure then the benefits are spread across the country, not just London reaping the awards.”

Lenczner believes SMEs like Expedition have a big role play to in influencing bigger organisations and governmental departments when it comes to delivering infrastructure that could benefit the UK. 

“Independent voices like ourselves who can play the role of agent provocateur to shake things up in the process are vital,” he added. “Especially when working with government departments or big organisations who will present more of a corporate image.  You don’t need to be big to have a big idea. We’ve dropped a pebble and the ripples have spread far away; we are demonstrating the possibilities and looking for partners to make it a reality.” 

The designer believes that the time has come for the UK to take a more long-term approach and hopes decision-makers will become more inclined to take on board proposals.

“One of the big things that the UK has been poor at post-war has been planning national infrastructure. If you go around the country, you cannot show me a long-term approach. Network Rail work in as much as five-year periods and react to whatever party is in power at the time. There is no plan though for 30 or 50 years and what it may look like. The French, Germans and Dutch have long-term plans in plans which are less susceptible to changes of government. The Department for Transport is made up of civil servants who won’t always have the vast expertise in delivering infrastructure projects so I think it’s encouraging if they are willing to listen and be receptive to outside ideas.”

An interesting and timely development for the project has been a subsequent government announcement which came just over a week after Lenczner fronted Expedition’s plan. Transport secretary Chris Grayling announced in March that the government was seeking third party involvement for proposals for a new southern rail link to Heathrow. 

It’s suggested it would be one of the first projects under government plans to invite private investors to fund rail projects. It provided a big statement of intent moving forward and an indication of how the government sees large rail projects being funded in the future. Grayling argued the new approach would “relieve the burden on taxpayers and fare payers”.

“It certainly got a few more emails being sent out around the office,” Lenczner said about the government’s announcement. “We are looking to see how we can respond to that window of opportunity and it definitely put the cat amongst the pigeons. The current government obviously want to get non-public funding into infrastructure and my suspicion is that internationally the money and interest is there, but investors need to see a clear path for it to be deliverable in the UK.”

Moving forward, Lenczner says he has been extremely pleased by the positive response from both the public and media. He says he hopes discussions will continue throughout the year and is desperate to ensure the high-speed rail network progresses from drawings to something real. 

He added: “HS4Air provides multiple benefits within one project. By connecting HS1, HS2, Heathrow and Gatwick in one project, the numerous benefits offered are greater value for money. But like anything else, we rely on more support from the public and government and have to formulate funding models that can achieve it. But the benefits spread across the country, the biggest barrier between the north, the midlands and Europe is not the Channel Tunnel, it’s London and this network solves that. By creating HS4Air, you are gifting more space to the London network for Londoners. Take out the freight trains and take out the people who don’t want to be travelling there in the first place then you might have 10% further capacity for Transport for London to work with.”

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