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Gatwick angered by move to make its Express call at Clapham Junction

Managers insist Gatwick’s position with regard to Heathrow will be threatened, undermining the benefits of breaking up BAA to provide more competition

Gatwick airport has warned Network Rail that it risks undermining competition with arch-rival Heathrow – and watering down the benefits of breaking up BAA – by recommending changes to Gatwick’s express train service.

Britain’s second-largest airport is “very disappointed” that the owner of Britain’s rail tracks and stations wants to introduce an extra stop on the Gatwick Express, which carries passengers to Victoria station in the centre of London in 30 minutes.

An influential Network Rail strategy paper has recommended that the government impose additional peak-time stops at Clapham Junction to take on commuters at the notoriously crowded station. It is now being assessed by the Office of Rail Regulation before being passed to the Department for Transport, which will then discuss with Network Rail and train operators whether to make the changes.

Gatwick’s new ownership is the most tangible outcome of a Competition Commission probe into BAA that ultimately demanded the break-up of Britain’s largest airport group. Gatwick was bought from BAA by a consortium led by Global Infrastructure Partners, a US investment firm, in a £1.5bn deal in 2009. Gatwick executives argue that the new stop will strip the service of its express status and, contrary to the commission’s hopes, make the airport less competitive with Heathrow. Gatwick’s strategy director, Kyran Hanks, said: “The sale of Gatwick was heralded as a catalyst for a new competitive airport landscape to improve passenger service and we have been redeveloping Gatwick to ensure our passengers’ expectations and requirements on services are met. Prime among these is a swift and reliable train service into the heart of London.”

Network Rail insisted that its plans had “significant support” from other users of the route. Gatwick is already riled by changes to the Express service that mean it now often originates in Brighton, leaving less room for passengers by the time it gets to the airport, while carriage changes have reduced luggage space.

Network Rail proposes that up to four out of 10 Express trains in the morning and evening peaks should stop at Clapham Junction. Network Rail said: “The main reason for this proposal is to provide a direct link from Brighton to Clapham Junction at the busiest times of the day, making best use of the limited capacity available.” The spokesman added that it would extend journey times by no more than three minutes.

The lobby group for businesses in the Gatwick area said the airport was paying the price for a successful service. “If you take away something that works in order to improve something that doesn’t work, then you are a fool,” said Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of the Gatwick Diamond Business Association.

An industry source said Southern, the operator of the Gatwick Express, would not want to see changes to a franchise that still has at least four years to run. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds