Southend Airport

For an airport that currently has just one flight departure a day and an equal number of arrivals, this station has a remarkably good railway service. Southend Airport is served by approximately sixty weekday departures from London Liverpool Street. The airport was owned and operated by Southend-on-Sea Borough Council until 1994 when, in March of that year, it was taken out on a 150-year lease (ref: London Southend Airport Planning Application, Southend-on-Sea City Council, 2003) by "Regional Airports Ltd" (RAL). RAL also took over operations at Biggin Hill in May of the same year, entering into a 125-year lease of the site (ref: Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter, 13th May 1994), during a decade when several regional airports were taken over by private firms. By that time, Southend only entertained the summer holiday flights of airline "British Air Ferries"; this company had already moved their headquarters, engineering base, and freight operations to Stansted in 1993 (ref: Cambridge Evening News 27th January 1993). On the advent of privatisation, the site became known as "London Southend Airport", pointing towards the desire to develop the infrastructure to handle major air passenger and freight traffic to prominent destinations in Europe.

Southend Airport had suffered from being in the shadow of the larger London hubs, in addition to recessionary pressures, and had an uncertain future ahead of it. However, this was set to change when, in 1998, it was announced that the airport would be expanded: this would involve the opening of a dedicated station on the adjacent railway line running between Liverpool Street and Southend Victoria via Shenfield, and construction of a new passenger terminal, at a total estimated cost of £5 million (ref: Eight Report, Select Committee on Environment, Transport, and Regional Affairs, UK Parliament, 1998). Planning permission was granted for RAL’s wave of enhancements, but it was not until the £21 million sale of Southend Airport’s lease to the "Stobart Group" in December 2008 that work got underway (ref: CAPA Centre for Aviation, 10th December 2008). By this time, the airport was still mainly a hub for private jets and aircraft maintenance, much like RAL’s other operation at Biggin Hill.

The "Stobart" brand is renowned for the original road haulage firm formed in 1970, under the "Eddie Stobart Ltd" name. The company was eventually sold to "WA Developments International" in November 2003 (ref: BBC News Cumbria, 6th September 2006); then, in 2007, the firm was acquired by "Westbury Property Fund Ltd" for £138 million and became listed on the Stock Exchange under the "Stobart Group" name (ref: Reuters, 15th August 2007). This series of acquisitions had given the company increased logistics scope, with footholds in rail and air transport, of which Southend Airport formed a part.

The Stobart Group made a £35 million investment in Southend Airport (ref: Businessweek, Bloomberg, 3rd March 2011), to deliver on those aspirations first laid down by RAL. By May 2009, the land which had been earmarked for the railway station had been cleared, and the first materials to build the structures had started to arrive by the following July. Construction started later that year and, by March 2010, the steel skeletons of the main buildings either side of the tracks were evident. The tubular footbridge, located 39-miles 964-yards from Liverpool Street (ref: Branch Line News No. 1143, Branch Line Society, 13th August 2011) was on site by the third week of March 2010 and, by 11th of the following month, this had been craned up and secured into position. In the March 2011 edition of Railway Gazette International, it was reported that the then new airport station had been completed; the structures had been designed by "Atkins Global" and construction was undertaken by "Stobart Rail", the latter a subsidiary of Stobart Group. The station had been built at a cost of £12.5 million, and each of the two platforms were 250-metres (820-feet) in length.

Southend Airport station had appeared in timetables from 12th December 2010, but there were no advertised calls — formalities between the Stobart Group and the train operating company had yet to be finalised (ref: Branch Line News No. 1128, Branch Line Society, 8th January 2011). The station was due to open in conjunction with the National Winter timetable in December 2010, but building work was behind schedule, and it was missing from pocket timetables (ref: Branch Line News No. 1128, Branch Line Society, 8th January 2011). The station appeared in timetables that came into effect from 22nd May 2011, although by that time, no opening date had been confirmed (ref: Branch Line News No. 1138, Branch Line Society, 4th June 2011). By the end of June, it was reported that Stobart Group had yet to resolve outstanding issues with the Office of the Rail Regulator, although it was announced that the station would open that summer. At that time, trains were only stopping at the station at drivers’ discretion, and Stobart Group ran a shuttle bus service between the airport and Rochford station (ref: Branch Line News No. 1140, Branch Line Society, 2nd July 2011).

The station finally opened to scheduled passenger traffic on 18th July 2011, the first train to call being the 04:00 Southend Victoria to Liverpool Street service, which departed the airport at 04:05. A formal opening of the station and the airport’s then new £3 million control tower took place later that day, led by Bob Neil MP, then the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government (ref: RCTS The Railway Observer, September 2011). However, the official opening of the station did not occur until 21st September of the same year, led by the then Minister of State for Transport, Theresa Villiers MP (ref: Annual Report 2012 — 2013, London Southend Airport). A then new passenger terminal building, adjacent to the railway station, was formally opened on 5th March 2012, and a 300-metre extension to the runway was brought into use in the same month (ref: Annual Report 2012 — 2013, London Southend Airport). On 26th March 2012, "EastJet" officially launched the beginning of its operations at Southend, marking the occasion with a flight from Southend to Barcelona (ref: EasyJet Corporate). By summer 2013, First Choice and Thomson were also serving the airport.

What of Southend Airport station today? Naturally, the site suffered from the draconian restrictions of the pandemic, and a major blow was the ceasing of EasyJet’s Southend operations from 31st August 2020 (ref: EasyJet Media Centre, 17th August 2020). The airport had, however, gained freight flows in the form of Amazon parcels in the previous year (ref: HM Planning Inspectorate, 19th November 2021), but passenger traffic had disappeared. Nevertheless, there was light at the end of the tunnel when EasyJet resumed flights on Sunday, 1st May 2022 (ref: Annual Results, Esken Limited, 25th May 2022), albeit limited to one departure and arrival per day. This again linked Southend with Malaga and Majorca in Spain, and Faro in Portugal. From 4th February 2021, Stobart Group had been known as "Esken Limited" (ref: Annual Report and Accounts 2021, Esken PLC).

October 2013

A northward (London-bound) view shows a Rail Head Treatment Train (RHTT), top-and-tailed by Class 66 No. 66523, Class 57 No. 57310, and Class 66 No. 66621, passing beneath the space age-looking footbridge. These trains are employed to clean leaf debris from the rails using high-pressure water, which is followed by the application of "sandite", the latter being a mixture of sand, ground metal, and paste, used to aid adhesion. The station was staffed and operated by Stobart from the outset. The walk from station to terminal is mostly roofed, save for a gap to accommodate the road that feeds the airport's car parks. © David Glasspool Collection