The Case for a Thames Hub Transport Interchange

We are pretty lucky here in Hong Kong. We have a strong transport infrastructure which is modern, clean and efficient. If you want to fly somewhere you know it is a simply 25 minute train journey to the airport followed by a 5 minute immigration security check before you are sitting at the gate waiting for your flight. You can even check-in in town, saying goodbye to your bags until you reach your destination – many of us in Hong Kong check-in then go grab a bite to eat in town and then make a leisurely trip to our flights. The whole set up is easy and stress free.

We recently came across an article written by Lord Norman Foster which argues for the creation of a “Thames Hub” in the Thames Estuary. This would be a modern airport in a similar style to Hong Kong’s which would be built on reclaimed land away from London but connected to a new High Speed rail network linking the hub to the rest of the UK. Unsurprisingly this has generated an uproar/backlash that accompanies most new ideas in the UK and will ultimately probably de-rail (no pun intended) the plan – or at least tie it up in government red tape for decades.

We therefore thought it would be interesting to post up the article by Lord Foster – we would particularly like to highlight his point regarding the 4 years it took to get Beijing’s new airport built, 6 years to demolish a mountain and create Hong Kong…and 24 years to build Stansted Airport! In light of Hong Kong’s current plans to build a 3rd runway, we would be willing to wager that this will be approved and completed, along with a 4th, long before anything comes out of the Thames Estuary. But when we look at the facts and arguments in the article, as expats from the UK, who are used to a modern transport infrastructure in Hong Kong (and Asia for that matter), we can’t help but wish that the UK would just give it a go so people can see what it can be really like to use a modern airport and train system!

‘Why I back the Thames hub’: The architect behind some of the world’s greatest airports outlines his ambitious vision for Britain

by Lord Foster – originally published by Daily Mail – original link here

I welcomed reports last week that the Government is considering the case for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Retaining the UK’s aviation hub status is vital if we are to reassert Britain’s role as an international gateway.

But to benefit the whole country, a new airport must be part of an integrated plan to transform the country’s infrastructure. Our Thames Hub vision is a UK-wide initiative bringing together high-speed rail, freight logistics, aviation, energy, a new Thames Barrier for flood protection, green tidal energy production and regional development. The proposal was met with a mixture of enthusiastic support and criticism from opponents who claim it would be too expensive and damaging to the environment. One local councillor even denounced it as ‘pie in the sky’. I disagree totally. Not only could it be accomplished far more efficiently and economically than critics fear, I do not believe we have a choice.

If we are to establish a modern transport and energy infrastructure in this century and beyond, and remain competitive as a nation, we need to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th Century forebears.

What do we mean by ‘infrastructure’? It has many components, from transport to energy supply and waste disposal. In cities, the infrastructure of metro systems, bridges, public squares, parks and streets provides the ‘urban glue’ that binds the buildings together. The quality of infrastructure determines the quality of our daily lives, although we probably take it for granted. In Britain, we have a long tradition of transforming the utilitarian, of giving a civic or beautifying dimension to heroic works of infrastructure – think of the Thames Embankment and historic railway viaducts. The planning of infrastructure is an act of confidence – in ourselves and generations to come. Nineteenth Century innovators anticipated growth and future needs which they could not even define at the time. Their foresight was exceptional and we have traded on this for far too long. So much of our inheritance desperately needs renewal, investment and upgrading. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to plan and build boldly for the 21st Century and beyond. It is a miracle that George Stephenson’s rail track and William Barlow’s St Pancras station have adapted to the high-speed Eurostar and that Joseph Bazalgette’s Thames Embankment sewage system still functions, even though it now occasionally overflows raw waste into the river (ironically the very circumstance that led to its creation 150 years ago).

What are the challenges? We have excellent ports, but congested roads thwart the movement of containers. The railways are creaking. Our power stations are approaching obsolescence; and thousands of new pylons and hundreds of miles of new overhead cables threaten the countryside. Broadband access is still not available across the nation. Going north out of London, unemployment is high and growth slow. The South East needs more housing and a new Thames Barrier for flood protection.

To stay competitive the UK needs a hub airport – Heathrow is at the point of saturation. Its location blights the lives and security of the five million people who live under its final approach path. Even a third runway does not change the picture – sticking-plaster solutions can no longer be sustained. There is an opportunity to bundle all of these separate issues together and address them holistically, to make a considered leap forward that would be a model of excellence – an inspiration to the world.

We propose a North-South spine, via a new orbital rail line around North London, linking HS1 (the Channel Tunnel rail link), HS2 (the planned high-speed link to the Midlands) and the Great Western, West Coast, Midland, East Coast and Anglia railways. This would establish a fast and direct link from the Channel Tunnel to the northern cities of the UK. On separate tracks, the spine would combine high-speed rail with freight and commuter routes and could also be integrated with new networks for utilities. In areas of great sensitivity or dense urban settlement, it would be invisibly tunnelled. Elsewhere, with the tracks cut into the landscape and the excavated soil heaped either side, it would appear as a low banked mound, inspired by our tradition of 18th Century landscaping. This green buffer would absorb power transmission, broadband and other utilities – eliminating pylons and gantries and saving transmission loss. Waste-to-energy plants along its length could add more green power to the system. As well as being visually unobtrusive, the spine would also absorb noise and incorporate gentle cycle paths and hiking trails. Bypassing London as a northern orbital, it would continue to the Thames Estuary and connect to a new hub combining airport, a rail interchange, tidal power station, Thames Barrier and river crossing. This spine would unclog our road systems by siphoning off 30 per cent of containers on to a better integrated rail system. It would protect our countryside by reducing urban sprawl and by encouraging the rejuvenation of our cities with better civic amenities, manufacturing and job opportunities and less dependence on the car.

It would help us confront the housing needs of a 20 per cent population increase in the next 20 years. The tidal power stations and barrier could power 250,000 homes in the newly protected estuary, or drive the entire airport with clean, renewable energy. For the first time, our prime UK airport would be a true hub for connecting trade and welcoming visitors to and from the emerging markets, as well as the established ones. In a competitive world we would reverse the downward trends decisively back in our favour. The problems become opportunities. A loss of eight square miles of wetlands would be translated into the gain of 24 square miles of nature reserve. Bird strikes, an issue raised by critics, are no more an issue than at many other international airports and new technologies are reducing that. The shipwrecked SS Richard Montgomery, a US wartime ship packed with unexploded bombs and shells lying off the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the Thames, is stable and no more a risk than it is to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes close by. Heathrow could be closed and become the site of a model community of 250,000.

The market is about confidence and there would be no shortage of investors for such an optimistic venture, as in our Victorian past. However, like then, it would need political backing and encouragement. Although the proposed airport site on the Isle of Grain is one of the least populated and more deprived areas, it is home to communities whose needs would have to be addressed with compassion, sensitivity and generosity. Of the 12 listed buildings affected, half can be absorbed into the new urban fabric and the others relocated.

Our experience in Beijing and Hong Kong, where we have built airport and transport projects on an epic scale, reinforces the point that clear lines of decision-making are essential. In Beijing it took just four years from winning an international competition to opening the new terminal in time for the Olympic Games. This is bigger than all of the Heathrow terminals combined plus a sixth. In Hong Kong it took just six years to demolish a mountain, build a new island complete with runways, new bridges and a railway link to the centre of the city and create an airport consistently voted the best in the world. In Britain it took us 24 years to decide to build and then construct the new Stansted Terminal, due to endless political rows. Of those many years only four were for construction, and once the political decision had been made less than an hour was needed to debate and grant planning permission. Even planning inquiries do not begin to account for the vast time differences.

The £20billion cost of a Thames Hub airport can be met by private funding and, with an appropriate approvals process, can be built before HS2, which is due for completion in 2026. Our team combines engineers and architects who thrive on deploying their knowledge in the service of emerging economies. It would be a tribute to the collective experience, gained through so many international projects, if those design and construction skills could be deployed in the interests of the UK itself.


6 Responses to The Case for a Thames Hub Transport Interchange

  1. ..and you would sweep aside without consideration the environment damage to this internationally important wetland, recognised under the Ramsar Convention and protected by EU legislation having no less than 5 of England’s 84 Special protection Areas. You would send a clear an concise message to the third world that it is OK to trash what we who live in the 21st century consider precious and vitally important to the survival of our planet.

  2. A strong opinion for sure which we more than welcome – any other thoughts and comments from people?

  3. In 2003 government concluded in its conclusions to the then proposals to build an airport at Cliffe (not actually at Cliife but so named as it would have been the only remaining village on the northern half of there peninsula) that the site was 12 times more likely to suffer bird strike than any other Major airport in the UK.

    Since that time the the UK Birdstrike committee has reported that the incidence of Bird strike has increased drastically. Furthermore any new civil public aerodrome in the UK would need to satisfy the safety requirements based on the Chicago Convention to which the UK is a founding member.In the time scale that any major Thames Estuary airport would involve, the requirements of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) would also apply. Coastal and Estuarine airports must meet exactly the same safety standards as inland airports. It is for the developer to present a detailed safety case. The issue of a licence or EASA certificate would depend on the satisfactory mitigation of identified hazards including the particular special hazards the Thames Estuary migratory route presents.

    EASA concluded recently in a report by the Food & Environment Research Agency that ….
    the volume of air traffic (number of flights) has been increasing year-on-year over the last few decades of the 20th Century and the early years of the 21st Century, as have the numbers and physical size of various species of bird involved in aircraft bird strikes. These factors have led to the perception, by EASA, that the risk of a significant bird strike to an aircraft airframe or windshield may be increasing.

    96% of all reported bird strikes occur during take off and landing, current birdstrike regulation is based on historic data i.e. are based on reaction to strikes. The majority of data collected globally has been from inland aerodromes where bird populations and reported strikes are recorded between July and October (Summer !)

    The Thames Estuary is an internationally recognised wetland whose bird populations increase dramatically during the winter, some 350,000 extra birds all Wildfowl that flock by nature and are over 2lb in weight.
    It doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to conclude that The Thames Estuary may be the wrong place to consider as a site for a Hub airport.

  4. Even the Institute of Mechanical Engineers think a Thames Estuary airport would be a bad idea (for reasons they set out here: and support a third runway at Heathrow. The Government does not want Heathrow expanded, for environmental and (more importantly) political reasons, so where does this leave the UK? Heathrow was 99.2% full in 2011, and yet does not have direct flights to some of the world’s high growth regions. Something has got to give, but I have lost faith that anyone knows what.

  5. Thank you for your views. There are always going to be reasons for and against something with as big an impact as the Thames Estuary Airport. My own opinion (which people are welcome to disagree with) is that the Estuary Airport is a good solution to a difficult problem – I am a British expat living in Hong Kong and I have to say that the transportation infrastructure in the region blows what we have in the UK away. It isn’t just about having a smooth operating airport (which Heathrow isn’t when you compare it to Chek Lap Kok, Changi, Pudong, Incheon etc etc) with nice facilities, it’s about having the basic infrastructure which encourages travel and trade across regions.

    The frustrations I have with the UK system are that it is totally outdated in comparison to the developing markets out here and by the time something is done about it, there is good chance the solution (a third runway, Thames Estuary Airport, HS2 etc) will itself be out of date. Granted, out here not enough attention is paid to the environmental effects of these mega-projects but that is changing – just take a look at the 3rd runway commission for Chek Lap Kok that is currently going on. I think the fundamental difference between Asia and the UK is that out here, the people can clearly see the benefits that investing in these big projects brings to their towns, economy and lives. I think in the UK people have lost sight of that fundamental point and as such look for reasons NOT to do something.

    In Asia, I think the balance is too far shifted towards driving through projects without considering the impact (environmental or otherwise) but if the balance shifts slightly and these considerations become more important (which they will), then the region will lead the way for the next century in trade and infrastructure. Unfortunately I think we will spend the next decade in the UK squabbling about the Thames Estuary Airport and other infrastructure projects whilst our current system loses out to the hubs in Europe and long term Asia.

  6. Great to hear how much a new properly-planned airport like CLK can improve the traveller experience.

    I also liked the Lord Foster piece. We desperately need to recapture the Victorian’s ambition and self-confidence.

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