Aerotropolis: £280m rail link could be key to unlock Yorkshire airport’s potential

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With the longest runway in Yorkshire at nearly 3,000 metres long and a huge 1,600-acre site in which to expand, bosses at Doncaster Sheffield Airport consider it uniquely positioned to grow in the coming years.

Though more than 1.2 million people came through its doors last year, the airport on what used to be RAF Finningley has the capacity to handle as many as 25 million people annually and 250,000 tonnes of cargo.

A new rail-link is key to unlocking the potential of Robin Hood Airport.

A new rail-link is key to unlocking the potential of Robin Hood Airport.

And according to a vision document published today and seen by The Yorkshire Post, the key to unlocking this potential could be delivered both quickly and at relatively low cost.

An airport station connected to the East Coast Mainline could be built by 2025, turning the site into a major international gateway for passengers and freight for the areas east of the Pennines and north and east of London, as well as putting itself in reach of nine million people within 90 minutes by public transport.

Its price-tag of £280m, which includes a contingency for unexpected circumstances, pales in comparison with the billions of pounds being spent on major infrastructure projects such as HS2 and Crossrail in London.

Crucially, it’s a prospect that would transform the economy of the local area, the North and arguably even the country as a whole, providing much-needed aviation capacity at a time when the proposed expansion of Heathrow is proving slow and hugely controversial.

The vision document, launched this afternoon, sets out how a link to the East Coast Mainline between London and Scotland can be the “transformational change” which realises the airport’s unmet potential.

Robert Hough, chairman of Peel Airports, which owns Doncaster Sheffield Airport (DSA), describes it as being in the “foothills of opportunity” as it bids to become the UK’s “most outstanding regional airport”.

It sits a few miles from the M18 and A1(M), with the Great Yorkshire Way link road connecting it to the motorway due to be finished in May.

The vision document shows six trains per hour arriving at the station directly from the East Coast Mainline and regional services, with other services coming via Doncaster Central Station.

Part of the grand plan is the station link acting as the catalyst for the creation of an ‘aerotropolis’, a new form of city where an airport is integrated into a cluster of manufacturing, aviation and logistics bases, as well as housing, retail, hotels and leisure. Amsterdam Schiphol and Dallas-Forth Worth in the US are among the best known examples of this type of settlement, though the more immediate comparisons for Doncaster Sheffield are Dublin and Edmonton in Canada.

And in South Yorkshire, it will bring in more high-skilled, high-paid jobs with competitive, internationally-focused companies in the vicinity of the airport, with 1,000 homes already having been built there in recent months. Local, regional and business support is key if the scheme is to get off the ground. And it may be that it’s funded by a mixture of private and public investment, from central government, the Sheffield City Region or a ‘One Yorkshire’ mayor.

The buy-in of Network Rail, the Department for Transport and Transport for the North, the strategic body that advises Secretary of State Chris Grayling, will also be crucial. Jonathan Spruce, strategy director at TfN, said the airport’s vision “would see it unlock significant passenger and cargo capacity and could create a major economic cluster, supporting the transformation of the North of England economy”.

He added: “We are currently consulting on our draft Strategic Transport Plan for the North which identifies DSA as a key economic centre and we recognise the need for enhanced rail access to DSA.”

According to Steve Gill, the airport’s chief executive, its increased capacity could be an answer to the UK’s cargo capacity problems which risk cargo traffic flying directly into mainline Europe.

He said: “DSA represents a prime location in the UK for a global logistics and air cargo facility delivering a central UK and North of England solution.”

Site might emulate Manchester

Describing the potential impact of the scheme, Robert Hough describes it as “something which is of national significance, not just for Yorkshire and the Humber but for the North and to the nation as a whole”.

He said: “If we are seriously talking about re-balancing the economy and the Northern Powerhouse, this sort of scheme should have full support.

It is understandable, it is deliverable, it is not that expensive.” Mr Hough said he hopes the site will eventually emulate the success of Manchester Airport.