Improving rail links will be crucial to the UK's aviation strategy

Getting the UK's aviation strategy right over the coming decades will be critical for the economic prospects of London and the UK. As the Government's consultation "Aviation 2050 – the future of UK aviation" closes for submissions today, it is worth re-stating the importance of ensuring we build much-needed new aviation capacity in the South East.

London's airports are full, or rapidly approaching that point, while passenger demand continues to grow significantly. Annual growth across the UK's airports has been averaging 4.2% since 2011. And without a new runway at Heathrow and further expansion at Gatwick, Stansted and City airports, increased passenger demand for improved long-haul and domestic connectivity will simply not be met.

Failure to keep up with growing demands for aviation will have severe implications for London's reputation for attracting talent and investment. London currently receives the second highest number of international visits of any city on earth, and a whopping £178bn of goods are shipped by air between the UK and non-EU countries alone per year. But Britain's success in these areas cannot be guaranteed. Constraining airport capacity means reduced passenger mobility and fewer trading opportunities in comparison to international counterparts.

So, the economic case for expansion is clear. But people will rightly be concerned about the potential local, London wide and global environmental consequences that arise from growing aviation capacity.

Here there is a role for the industry, including through the promotion of sustainable aviation fuels and measures to reduce pollution in local areas. Heathrow's proposal to introduce a new low emission zone around the airport is a good example of this sort of thinking.

Another crucial environmental measure is to improve public transport links to London's airports. The Brighton mainline to Gatwick and the West Anglia line to Stansted will both require additional investment to reduce overcrowding and speed up journey times, as will other modes of transport linking to airports. An immediate commitment to upgrade the ageing signalling alongside new trains on the Piccadilly line is also needed.

Moreover, brand-new rail links will be necessary to service newly expanded airports in the South East. The proposed Crossrail to Ebbsfleet extension could provide better access to City airport, for example. And it was very welcome that the Department for Transport (DfT) called for new market-led proposals last year – particularly as some of the schemes would improve rail links to airports. It has been reported that five proposals for southern Heathrow rail access have been submitted to the Department for Transport. It is, however, highly frustrating that these submissions (which offer proposals to privately finance and deliver rail routes) have been sitting with the DfT for many months now – despite the pressing environmental need for increased rail connectivity to airports.

Expanding aviation capacity is an economic necessity, but it can only happen sustainably if greater numbers of passengers arrive at airports via public transport. This should give the DfT an added impetus to proceed with new market-led rail proposals– as well as an urgency for Government to give the go ahead on other proposals and upgrades to existing lines. Any further dithering could potentially jeopardise the sustainability of expanding the South East's aviation capacity, which is essential for the economic prospects of London and the UK.

Daniel Mahoney is Programme Director for Infrastructure at London First.