Monday , June 17 2024

The Thames Hub – Policy Review

When I wrote my article on the Conservative Manifesto Mr. Ian Pye commented that he was in favour of building an entirely new airport in the Thames Estuary, instead of the third runway at Heathrow. I admitted it would be a better option if it was feasible, but believed the costs, economically and environmentally were prohibitively expensive. I have heard a lot of claims made by both sides in the Thames debate. He did pique my interest and I decided to research the issue, focusing on the proposals by Foster and Partners, under Lord Foster of Thames Bank, OM. This project is known as the “Thames Hub”, or more officially “The Thames Hub Integrated Infrastructure Hub”.

While it is universally acknowledged that investing in infrastructure generates economic growth, the question remains: Which investments offer the best return to the nation? HM’s Government has made it clear that they believe HS2 – High Speed 2 – the proposed new high speed rail line to Birmingham is the best. However, many experts have created lists of the flaws in such a proposal, the popular opposition to HS2 is extensive and the project itself is expensive – £45 billion. In a time of “austerity” – or merely making the national books balance – we cannot afford to spend such large quantities of money on projects that will not offer great benefits.

Fortunately, a pair of well-thought through proposals for upgrading British infrastructure and making us considerably more competitive exist. One concerns the Thames Estuary and the other the national rail link. Both cost approximately the same as HS2, and in this mini-series, we will examine both proposals in greater depth, beginning with “The Thames Hub” in this article.

The project consists of four of sub-projects:

  1. A London Orbital Rail link
  2. Thames Estuary Airport
  3. A new flood barrier & Hydroelectric station
  4. Infrastructure ‘Spine’

Lord Foster commented on their proposal:

We have to have the courage, the political will, the intelligence, the common sense to invest now in our infrastructure. If we don’t then we are denying future generations to come. We are rolling over and saying we are no longer competitive – and this is a competitive world. So I do not believe we have a choice.”


London Orbital Rail Link

The first option is the new rail link. It would consist of four tracks, a pair of which  would be high speed. It would not be completely “orbital”, as it would only connect the Eastern, Northern and Western sides of London and the rail lines. The problem currently is that the rail-links between the main arteries out of London are connected via a trans-London rail infrastructure system that is outdated, over-used with no room for further growth. This had led to the roadway system, being used to offer capacity. This, however, merely pushes the problem along, and has led to the M25 being full of trucks and lorries and both the road and the rail infrastructure networks are overloaded and in need of further investment and development. Upgrading both would be beyond the ability of the UK government at this time of austerity and cuts, and as rail freight is considerably more environmentally efficient, it would make the most sense to invest in railways. 

Part of the requirement for railways is for connecting Britain’s major ports, in London, Southampton, Liverpool/Manchester, Felixstowe and others, especially Kingston and Cardiff.  These are not connected by organised freight railways at the moment, which is unfortunate, as the 50 kilometre area surrounding London and the Thames Ports accounts for 70% of British container port traffic. Further, the London Orbital Rail would be capable of carrying Continental loads and trains, ensuring superior connectivity to Europe via High Speed 1 and the Eurotunnel.

The proposal for the London Orbital Rail would not be limited to freight by any means – two of the four tracks would be for high speed passenger trains, future-proofed by being designed for 350 km/h. According to the firms designing the plans, it would see many fewer trains operating in central London, cutting diesel emissions in the capital and cutting an hour off “many rail journeys across London”. As for local traffic in the M25 area, they plan to build stations near these sites and state that two million people live close to an Orbital Rail station. “Close” being defined as “within 10km”.

To my mind, the major benefit is the removal of 50 to 80% of the trucks on the M25, including the reduction in emissions.

Thames Estuary Airport

By far the most controversial part of the proposals is the Thames Estuary Airport, currently known as “London Britannia”. Not least part of the controversiality is its unusual name, over revoking around the ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson. The all-new four runway airport would be capable of carrying 150 million passengers per year, and would ensure the London’s ability to operate as one of the four large Western European hubs (Paris Charles-De-Gaulle, Amsterdam Schiphol, and Frankfurt). Currently London’s hub is Heathrow, which is operating at 97% capacity and has no room to grow. Indeed, the CEO of British Airways’ holding company warned that if more capacity was created, expansion would occur overseas and London would continue to lose economically.  

At the moment, the lack of a third runway at Heathrow costs the British economy £1.2 billion every year. Yet there is a reason that the third runway has not been given the go-ahead. For a start it would involve the demolition of the entire village of Sipton. It would also increase the overall number of flights over central and western London, with the risk to surrounding areas because the approach and departure paths over heavily populated areas. While aviation pollution is an extremely small part of London’s air pollution crisis, it cannot be denied that the sound, or “audible pollution” is a considerable issue.

The designers state that there would be a 95% reduction in the number of people experiencing noise of over 57dBs, and would remove the noise from 5 million people in west London.

The airport would be capable of conducting 24 hour operations, and the four runway layout would mean that even in the event of heavy fog (300% more frequent in the Thames Estuary compared to Heathrow), the ‘knockon’ effect to delay later flights would be considerably reduced. The issue of fog causing delays would be also reduced due to the increased use of CAT IIIa and IIIb Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) systems. These  reduce the minimal visibility considerably, and enable aircraft to land when the line of sight is only 100 x.

The other major issue raised against “Heathrow-On-Sea” (one of its many nicknames) is the overall cost of the project. Many people cannot believe the overall £50 billion price-tag. However, one of the firms behind the proposal, Foster + Partners, designed and built the new airport in Hong Kong – Chek Lap Kok under budget and ahead of schedule. Chek Lap Kok was one of the first major airports built on reclaimed land, which by now is a common practice internationally.

Another problem raised is that of birds: The Thames Estuary is home to 300,000 pairs of breeding birds. At first this seems to be the clinching argument – aircraft do not easily survive multiple birdstrikes, as US Airways Flight , flown by Captain Sullenberger found out after he ditched in the Hudson river. This ditching was widely known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”, but was a good example of what happens when an aircraft flies into a flock of birds: the airframe and windows are sufficiently hardened, but the engines cannot be proofed against numerous large birds. Nevertheless, the issue could be viewed in a different light: New York John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is famous, or rather infamous, for closing many of its taxiways and even runways on occasion due to the breeding cycle of the local turtle population.

The three consultants behind the proposals did an in-depth review of the local bird population in the estuary, and came to the conclusion that the issue would not be a major one by any means. It is also noteworthy that the proposed airport would only involve a small part of the estuary and marshes and there would be no lack of space for the birds to move to. While many argue, and it is a very good point, that the environmental issues are large, it is also worth considering that it may be better to disturb 600,000 birds than 5 million Londoners.

In conclusion, I feel that London Britannia near Gravesend is a workable proposal, even if rather expensive. It would offer a lot of growth potential to the British economy. There are, however, numerous issues and hurdles that will need to be jumped to ensure the proposal was completely workable. It would be imagined that British Airways will be opposed, due to their large investment in their Terminal 5.

Thames Hydroelectic

Attached to the hypothetical airport would be a field of tidal generators 5 km long and 500 m wide parallel to the airport and out of the way of the shipping route. This would create up to 1,600GWh/year, which would provide sufficient electricity for up to 250,000 homes. It would also provide much more than the estimated 400GWh that the airport would require annually. The best part of the entire designs is that all this electricity would be entirely emissions free and renewable. The UK Government is right in its aim to increase the percentage of renewable electricity in the UK grid, yet too often these proposals have been hamstrung by faulty investments. Wind and solar generators cannot provide a constant flow of electric and cannot be relied upon completely. Tidal electricity, like all forms o hydroelectric power are reliable and capable of being forecasted. While it cannot, like a dam, provide surge power on demand, its peak generating times are easily calculated via the ubiquitous British tidal chart.

Whether or not the Thames Hub Airport goes ahead, I do believe that the tidal generating station should be given the green light. Britain needs more cheap electricity in the grid to power the economy – an affordable proposal for reliable renewable, emissions free electricity is a great opportunity.

The Thames Flood Barrier

The current flood barrier protects the majority of central London, but London has expanded greatly beyond its protective shield, which already was somewhat limiting. The increase in the population in South East of London means the region will have a population of 10 million by 2033 – 16 years from now. The new proposed Thames Barrier will increase by 150% the area protected from floods, right up and to beyond the M25’s Dartford Crossing.

Climate change is very much in the news and a clear topic. For those who question the seriousness of it, and many do so on a scientific basis, the barrier still remains a useful investment: floods occur, and they cause extensive – and expensive – damage. Further, all the area that would be protected by the new barrier remain open to the semi-tsunami that would be unleashed on the low-lying settlements if the SS Richard Montgomery and her 14 tons of high explosive should detonate. 

Yet the barrier would not be solely to counter floods – it would work as a tidal barrage, due to the large number of tidal generators placed between the posts. Unlike a barrage or a traditional dyke, the barrier would not limit the flow of water and aquatic materials and life; its negative impact on the environment would be minimal. This is a major breakthrough, as previous tidal barriers were often infamous amongst scientists and environmental groups due to the “collateral damage” generated by forcing all of the tidal flow through turbines. Continuing with the positives, it would offer a major boost in electricity production, over and above that of the tidal field off the proposed new airport. This would combine the returns off the infrastructure development, a concept the designers have thought through. The Barrage would be the beginning of “The Spine” and would also enable the construction of a pair of three lane roadway tunnels and four separate rail tunnels, offering greater connectivity, and the ability to reduce pressure on the Dartford Crossing / Queen Elizabeth Bridge, which is a bottleneck on the M25.

Like the Dutch network of flood barriers, they would be designed to allow shipping through to easily reach Tilbury Docks. (The new London Gateway port would be outside of the barrier and remain unaffected).

The Technical Spine

Much has been made about the fact HS2 (High Speed 2) will go right through much of the Cotswolds AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). The concept of “Visual Pollution” has been raised to protest against the spreading of man-made changes to the environment that spoil the picturesque British countryside.

At the same time, much of Britain’s power infrastructure is unable to carry the extra electricity needed for the 21st Century. In my area in South Cambridgeshire, a new solar farm was delayed and required redesign as the grid could not cope with the extra power. This involved creating a new line to the other side of the local town to where the grid could carry the extra power. With Britain requiring more and more electricity, this situation will probably occur more often until the nation is forced to upgrade and update the National Grid. 

To solve both this issues, Halcrow, Volterra Partners, and Foster + Partners have proposed the ‘Technical Spine’. This concept merges major new powerlines, fibre optic internet cables and water mains with the high speed train lines. Lord Foster described it as “Dig the train line one meter into the ground … take the soil and heap it up on both sides … like a ‘ha-ha’”. Contained inside this embankment would be all the cables and pipes, which would ensure  arterial connectivity for parts of the national strategic infrastructure. This would end the strange occurrence where the South of the nation suffers from a drought while the North & Scotland suffer from very heavy rain.

However, the spine would not run the length of the nation. It would begin at the new Thames Airport, run the length of the London Orbital Railway, and then up to Birmingham where it would split. One line would continue to Manchester alone the West Coast Main Line to Scotland. Future expansion alone this line would follow the line to the two main central Scottish cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow). The second spur leaving Birmingham would continue to Leeds, with options to continue it to Newcastle.

Although the spine would be rather short compared to the length of the nation, over 45% of the British public would live within 30km (20mi) of the Spine. From there, the existing infrastructure would prove sufficient to transfer electricity, internet and water onwards.

To connect the rest of Great Britain, the three partners behind the Thames Hub proposals propose one other high speed train line to the West & South. This line would serve Bristol & Cardiff, with an offshoot to Southampton. As well as offering the ability to expand the Spine,  all three Home Countries would now be collected by High Speed Rail to the Continent, via the London Orbital, HS1 and the Eurotunnel. This would “balance” the standard of life in the North, and ensure the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ becomes more than mere rhetoric.


The Thames Hub offers the UK the ability to seize control of the 21st Century by investing in infrastructure. This form of activity and investment was the back-bone of British economic growth in both of the Industrial Revolutions and throughout the entire Victorian Age. Since then, the British nation has not invested en mass in long term infrastructure projects. Even our motorway network was not sufficiently future-proofed: many of our motorways were built with 4 lanes, and have since been rebuilt. The M25 has been under continual extensions and upgrades since it was opened.

According to the designers’ calculations, it would offer £150 billion of benefits, while only costing £50 billion. The would be broken down:

£75bn from economic growth related to the Hub

£35bn from road & rail

£35bn related to the airport

£2bn from “environmental management”

An investment ration of 3:1 shows it to be a worth-while investment, which is re-enforced by Lord Foster’s belief that it will attract public investment. For a project to be considered worth-while to be invested in by public banks and pension plans, it would need to be seen as a “safe” investment following vigorous scrutiny. It is very doubtful if the government could find any public banks willing to invest in HS2.

While £50 billion is a large amount of money, it is smaller than the UK’s deficit, and would not need to be paid for in one go.  With the first stage being completed within 10 years, a simple calculation shows an annual expenditure of £5 billion per year. It is easily imaginable that the project would last closer to 15 years, and if 10% of the funding could come from private investors, the annual cost to the government would be only £3 billion.

While £50 billion remains a large sum, it is only £5 billion more than the £45 billion that HS2 would require. It would offer much more economic benefits than HS2 for the entire nation, as opposed to merely saving 7 minutes for travel times between Birmingham and London. The entire Thames Hub project is designed around the whole of the UK, and will revolutionise the UK’s major airport hub, national grid and the railways near London. Offering better fibre-optic broadband connection to the nation, future-proofing the nation’s infrastructure and ensuring the UK remains competitive, and Europe’s leading innovator. The UK’s economy depends on its infrastructure, and investing in infrastructure has proven, in countless cases, to provide a boost to the economy. Many nations around the world, especially the BRIC countries, are doing so. If the UK wants to be more competitive and an economic success after Brexit, we need to attract business and investment: to offer efficient transportation and cheap energy would be a great asset to a great country – The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

About Ted Yarbrough

Ted is the co-founder and editor of the Daily Globe. He is a long-time blogger on British politics and has written a thesis on Thatcherism.

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