The tiny railway line just outside London that nobody can decide what to do with

The tiny railway line just outside London that nobody can decide what to do with

This year is set to be truly transformational for the railways of London and the South East. All eyes are on the long-awaited Elizabeth line opening within the first half of the year, followed by the opening of a new line to Barking Riverside. There’s one line whose fate is set to be determined in the coming months too – it’s not as flashy as Crossrail, but has its own unique charm.

Just over the London boundary in southern Hertfordshire, the 6.5 mile-long Abbey line (known to locals as “the Abbey Flyer”) runs between the popular commuter locales of Watford and St Albans. Since December, it also has one direct train per day from London Euston. The line has just one track, a 50mph speed limit and takes 16 minutes for trains to complete their journeys. It has seven stations, three level crossings and a one-train-at-a-time restriction meaning the basic service has remained exactly the same since 1966, bar the recent additional direct train from Euston in that direction only.

This year, its fortunes could be transformed. After a botched attempt to convert the railway line to a tram line in 2008, Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) has just concluded the first stage of a public consultation into a new scheme called HERT- Herts and Essex Rapid Transit which could see the line converted into a busway, tram line or light railway. There’s also expectation for the Department for Transport (DfT) to finally make good on its promise to provide funding it had promised for the line which would allow it to have a better service.

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The line, shown in orange, is just to north of London, connecting to the TfL network at Watford Junction

3 centralline

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The problem

Trains on the single track line can not run more frequently than a maximum of every 40 minutes (32 minutes journey time, with four minutes for the traincrew to swap ends at the two termini) meaning services tend to run at awkward intervals of around every 45-60 minutes. This problem has several knock-on effects:

  • passengers find it hard to remember the times of trains off by heart so the service is unattractive (trains coming at 3.01 pm, 3.46pm and 4.31pm is harder to remember than clockface 3pm, 3.30pm, 4pm, 4.30pm on other lines nearby)
  • the bus route, 321: Luton-St Albans-Watford-Maple Cross, which runs parallel to the line, comes more frequently than trains do and serves both St Albans city centre and Watford town centre unlike the trains which stop at St Albans Abbey and Watford Junction, both ten minutes’ walk away
  • the awkward 45 minute intervals do not match well with connecting trains from Watford Junction (except the London Overground), meaning an onward journey to Euston, Clapham Junction, Tring or Birmingham can sometimes incur a lengthy wait or sometimes force passengers to run from one side of the station to the other

The remedy to this unattractive service proposition will require millions of pounds of investment to fix. Such a large bill means authorities have been reluctant to intervene. In the meantime a community rail partnership ( Abbey Line CRP ) has been formed to help grow passenger numbers on the line and a rail users group ( ABFLY ) has been formed to campaign for better services.

It’s not all doom and gloom on the line though. The service remains a lifeline for those who live in the intermediate villages who have seen bus services there progressively cut back in recent years. It’s also very popular with students travelling to school and college and gets major traffic when there is disruption on the alternative railway line to St Albans, Thameslink.

0 Watford North station

Apart from Watford Junction, all the other stations on the line are incredibly basic, with no ticket barriers and just one machine, meaning it is harder to calculate the line’s actual ridership – here’s the single platform at Watford North

The solution

In May 2020, the government announced that the line had been awarded funding for the reinstatement of a passing loop at Bricket Wood station as part of its ‘Restoring Your Railway Fund’. Indeed, local MP of the neighbouring constituency Grant Shapps, who is also Transport Secretary, confirms this in a video on YouTube.

The passing loop (a small section of track at Bricket Wood, half way along the line, for two trains to pass each other on the otherwise single track) requires extra signalling to allow two trains to use it at the same time, an extension to an existing platform to allow the train using the loop to still stop at Bricket Wood and an additional trainset rather than the one in use today.

So far, the funding announcement has not led to any boots on the ground to get the lop in place and there is no confirmation as to when it is expected although plans were reportedly underway. As the announcement was almost two years ago and passengers are starting to return to the line after an enforced Covid hiatus, an update is expected. In October last year, the government announced more projects would get the same funding even though this one still hasn’t physically received what it is owed.

The subsequent emergence of another possible solution, the HERT, could supersede the passing loop entirely.

1 HERT 1

An artist’s impression of a HERT (Herts Essex Rapid Transit) vehicle if the idea gets the go ahead – this could replace the train above

The other solution

The other solution is merging the line into a 28-mile long transport network proposed by HCC called HERT which would run between West Watford/ Hemel Hempstead and Harlow/Gilston. As explained by HertsLive, the line would be amended in some way to take on a more frequent bus, tram or light rail service which would either replace or complement the train service. It is not clear whether if the HERT gets the go ahead, it would be the end of the Abbey Line as we know it.

After an initial ‘early ideas’ public consultation which concluded in Februrary, HCC is now submitting a strategic outline business case to the DfT this Spring, to see if funding would be available to take the project forward. Depending on that outcome, it will then undertake a wider public consultation which will ultimately specify the HERT’s exact routeing, service frequency and vehicle type. If that includes taking over the whole 6.5 mile line, the service will change hugely.

The benefits of the HERT include more frequent services, using newer vehicles likely to offer more accessible journeys for longer periods throughout the day. The level crossings along the route would likely be safer and there would be the potential for additional stops en route. There would also be more direct services to West Watford, Hatfield, Hertford and Harlow, although these links are currently already available via bus route 724 which also runs somewhat parallel to the line.

The HERT would likely mean an end to through ticketing with the rest of the National Rail network, and the journey time between St Albans Abbey and Watford Junction increasing, so there would be a possible downside too. By severing the line off from the rest of the railway network at Watford Junction, there would be no chance of running a through service to London Euston as part of a ‘West London/Hertfordshire Metro’ service which could happen when trains on the West Coast Main Line move across to High Speed 2 (HS2) freeing up space.

Until the HERT’s route is defined, there’s also no certainty as to whether or not services would finally reach both the centres of St Albans and Watford.

So for now, the train service continues, awkward as it is, with passengers unsure of what the future holds for it, in the hope that a solution can be found.

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