Welcome to Hertsrail : a joined-up rail network in Hertfordshire

The Hertsrail project proposes improvements to the rail network, with a primary focus on Hertfordshire.

This webpage is currently being updated.

Aspiration 1 : Railway station at London Colney

London Colney has no railway station.

An online map showing London Colney is available here London Colney and area (opens in new window or tab) Source : openstreetmap.org © OpenStreetMap contributors

We propose London Colney as an M25 parkway station. The station would be located at M25 junction 22.

Drawings (diagrammatic maps) are displayed full size for clarity.



The Abbey line extended to London Colney

There would be a Thameslink service from London Colney connecting on to the Midland Main Line (MML), which is the line via St Albans City and Radlett. A primary aim would be to provide improved access to St Pancras International for continental rail services for those commencing their journey by car. The service from London Colney would call at St Pancras International, central London stations and Gatwick Airport.

During the weekday morning peak, the train service would offer the same calling pattern as other Thameslink services i.e. the stops as above and additional stops. It is anticipated that during the morning peak there would be priority access for Hertfordshire residents, also for those with pre-booked tickets for continental rail travel. Outside of the morning peak, the station provides a convenient means for rail access to central London for anyone commencing their journey by car.

We do not know whether there would be a check-in facility for continental rail travel at London Colney. Also we do not know whether continental rail services themselves would be extended to London Colney.

The Crosrail 2 project, which would have provided improved access to St Pancras, although not for those commencing their journey by car, has been paused. Realistically it has probably been cancelled. A station at London Colney provides some compensation for this.

Britain's railways are expensive. It seems likely that steps will be taken to reduce rail costs and, whilst we would not wish this, it is likely that this will at some stage result in a reduction of the rail network. In the case of reduction of the rail network, it is likely that London Colney would take on an increased role, access to London by means of journeys to some existing stations being replaced by journeys to London Colney.

Motorail means putting your car on the back of the train. Although there is a short shuttle service through the Channel tunnel for cars, there is no motorail service to continental Europe. It is possible that London Colney would be a suitable location.

Aspiration 2 : East west rail at Watford

There is a plan to convert the St Albans Abbey branch into a busway, documented by Hertfordshire County Council in March 2024. This takes no account of the potential for this branch line to support the regional economy as part of a joined-up rail network.

Options for conventional rail in the Rickmansworth, Watford and St Albans area

Further information : Connecting the Abbey line to Watford High Street (opens in new window or tab). We hope it will prove worthwhile to read through to the end of the article.

There are multiple possibilities. One possibility is light rail London Colney to St Albans Abbey and intermediate stations to Watford Junction, Watford High Street, terminating at Watford's hospital. A second possibility is an extension of the London Overground (Lioness) line to St Albans Abbey with a Thameslink service from St Albans Abbey. A third possibility is an extension of the London Overground (Lioness) line to London Colney or an extension to Luton Airport Parkway, in either case changing direction at St Albans Abbey. There could be a Thameslink service changing direction at St Albans Abbey, terminating at London Colney: this would be an interim arrangement, subsequently replaced by Thameslink via the East Coast Main Line (ECML) to London Colney, illustrated in aspiration 3 below, continuing via St Albans City. With either the Croxley rail link or Ebury Way rail link, illustrated above, there is the possibility of an Oxford to Cambridge service via Watford Junction. It is not our role to make a choice between these or other possibilities.

Aspiration 3 : Extending the Hertford East branch

There is the potential to extend the Hertford East branch line to provide a service via Watton at Stone and Stevenage. This was illustrated as part of aspiration 1 above and is also illustrated below.

East west rail in Hertfordshire and environs

It should be borne in mind that our diagrammatic maps are intended to illustrate railway infrastructure and are not to scale.

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) has four tracks from Stoke tunnel, south of Grantham, to London Kings Cross, except between Peterborough and Huntingdon and between Knebworth and Welwyn Garden City. There are only two tracks between Knebworth and Welwyn Garden City including two tunnels in succession, Welwyn North tunnel and Welwyn South tunnel and then Digswell viaduct. This bottleneck might be expected to be working at capacity but for the fact that Welwyn North station is located on the bottleneck.

This bottleneck has been the subject of discussion for many years and with no obvious resolution. If the service currently terminating at Hertford East were to be extended to provide a service via Stevenage, it would enable capacity release on the ECML two track section between Knebworth and Welwyn, in other words, take pressure off this two track section by diverting some ECML trains via the West Anglia Main Line (WAML).

We hypothesise two alternatives for extending the Hertford East service. The first is a service from Peterbourough terminating at Liverpool Street. The second is a service from Oxford via Bletchley, Bedford and Stevenage terminating at Liverpool Street. Either of these would take pressure off the ECML bottleneck, the second having the advantage of providing Oxford with an ECML interchange at Stevenage for Lumo services.

We note an alternative possibility. By connecting Crossrail (Elizabeth line) on to the line to Tottenham Hale, possibly by means of a new line crossing the Olympic Park, we have the option of a Crossrail (Elizabeth line) circular service. The route is Paddington, Liverpool Street, Tottenham Hale, Cheshunt, Ware, Stevenage, Bedford, Bletchley, Oxford, Didcot Parkway, Reading, Paddington.

Taking pressure off the bottleneck enables more services to run on the ECML. However one of the problems faced by the railways is that an increase in passenger numbers does not result in a reduction in the subsidy paid by the taxpayer. A limited number of additional passengers off-peak will make use of empty seats but generally speaking an increase in passengers implies more trains and more staff and which is not paid for by the additional revenue. Because the costs are so high, it would be reasonable to describe Britain's railways as an unsustainable mess. We understand travel by train to offer advantages but we are certainly not train enthusiasts : railways need to be based on commercial reality. Everything is expensive including the capital costs of capacity enhancements.

In these circumstances it would not be unreasonable to prevent costs rising unnecessarily by means of a blanket refusal to fund capacity enhancements for passenger services. We would not wish to dispute the wisdom of any such approach. If there is no room on the train, people have to find another means of travel or change job, although this does limit growth of the economy. Additionally, Britain's population is increasing, which indicates we need to reduce car-centric travel including for reasons of road congestion and of demands on space. It seems to us that new roads including parking demand more space than the new houses that accompany them. This is unsustainable as the population increases. We are faced with a conundrum. Railways are unsustainable and the same is true of car-centric travel, albeit for different reasons.

In passing, we are not bus enthusiasts. Travel by bus is unpopular and marketing initiatives will not resolve the reasons for that.

Given this conundrum, we respectfully suggest there may be motivation to find a means to radically reduce the cost of railways. Whilst it may be politically unpopular to highlight this, in Victorian times railways were technology-leading and cost-effective to the taxpayer, shareholders taking the risk.

Let us assume that, at some point in the future, railways become cost-effective, or at least more so. It would be prudent to plan ahead for such a scenario. We then face a further issue. As the population increases and house building is improvised, planning of new railway lines that serve centres of population becomes increasingly difficult. Moreover, as recent experience with High Speed 2 has demonstrated, the decision to build new lines is emotionally charged and liable to swing in an opposing direction at any moment.

We do have a proposed strategic solution to this combination of less than ideal set of constraints. The proposed solution is to plan ahead, specifically, to separate the calm and hopefully level-headed process of planning lines and safeguarding them from the politically-charged decisions as to whether or not to build any specific line. This would be particularly useful if we were to transition to at least some private railway lines, planning being a much lengthier process than it would have been in Victorian times. We might envisage private railway companies choosing, on the basis of commercial acumen, whether or not to construct and operate a line the planning of which was by a public authority. This is not PFI (Private Finance Initiative), a private company making the decision and taking the risk.

We hope to have made the point. Railways are too expensive but the situation might impove. Specifically, we do not propose that an extension of the Herford East branch should be built. We do however propose that a decision should be made to plan such an extension and safeguard the route.

Aspiration 4 : Oxford to Cambridge via centres of population

The plan for an Oxford to Cambridge service, illustrated above, is via Bicester, Bletchley, Bedford, Tempsford and Cambourne. Published research has demonstrated the need for better town-to-town and town-to-city connectivity across the region, also that the market is understood to be limited for direct travel between the cities of Oxford and Cambridge.

There has been discussion of a railway line between Luton and Stevenage but which would suffer from multiple unresolved issues. Trains would be unable to use the line without requiring paths (space/time slots) on the Midland Main Line (MML) and ECML. The former Dunstable to Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable to Luton lines are no longer open: the latter having been converted into a busway effectively kills off any realistic prospect of a Luton to Stevenage line. Although included in Hertfordshire's rail strategy, we are concerned that its inclusion there has been designed to conceal the significance of the proposal to convert the St Albans Abbey branch, although in active use, into a busway i.e. as documented by Hertfordshire County Council in March 2024.

It seems to us that any option for an Oxford to Cambridge service better serving centres of population would be via London Colney. As a result, we propose that a connection eastwards from London Colney to the ECML northwards towards Hatfield, possibly also southwards towards London, should be planned and safeguarded. The result is a St Albans to Hatfield line.

Conversion of the St Albans Abbey branch into a busway would render improbable a St Albans to Hatfield line and we would then lose any possibility of Oxford to Cambridge via centres of population. This could be described as undermining the future prosperity of the Oxford to Cambridge regional economy. Given that this regional economy is one of the two primary regional economies for the whole of the UK, the other being financial services, we would be taking a dramatic step and with no prior evaluation, also known as a planning disaster.

Further information : Impact on the Alban Way (opens in new window or tab). We hope it will prove worthwhile to read through to the end of the article.

An Oxford to Cambridge service via centres of population could be via Bletchley, Luton, London Colney, Stevenage and Letchworth or via Aylesbury, Watford Junction, London Colney, Stevenage and Letchworth. Assuming there is a direct service between Oxford and Cambridge via Bletchley and Bedford, the second of these two overlaps less. There is already a service to Cambridge via Stevenage and Letchworth. With an additional platform 0 at Stevenage, trains could change direction there to connect Knebworth and Watton at Stone. By also making use of a connecting chord from Ware to Harlow Town, we have a route that enables substantial town-to-town connectivity with minimised overlap with any existing service. This route probably provides good value for money in terms of boosting the regional economy. A number of infrastructure interventions would be needed and so this is a longer-term aspiration. The route is Oxford, Bicester, Aylesbury, Wendover, Great Missenden, Amersham, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans Abbey (change of direction), London Colney, Hatfield, Welwyn Garden City, Knebworth, Stevenage (change of direction), Watton at Stone, Ware, Harlow Town and Cambridge. A variation of this would be via Bletchley, Luton and St Albans City.

This service requires paths (space/time slots) on the ECML bottleneck at Welwyn however this is offset as described under aspiration 3 by means of capacity release i.e. services from stations on the ECML via the WAML to Liverpool Street.

What is Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT) ?

Hertfordshire County Council's plans include a South Hertfordshire east west road-based Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project centred on the A414. Formerly known as the A414 Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project, also known as the South Hertfordshire MRT project, it is now known as HERT, Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit.

MRT overarching aim

Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT) is a collection of bus services. A comparison with the rail network illustrated earlier shows that it takes no account of the existence of the Watford to St Albans branch railway, nor of the Hertford East branch. The bus services compete with the train services on these branches.

HERT assumes that railways are too expensive. Whilst we agree railways certainly are expensive, we would question the assumption that the situation cannot improve, as outlined earlier. HERT seems to be a straitjacket designed to close branch railway lines. Since railway lines are the responsibility of central government, this suggests that HERT is a government proposal presented by Hertfordshire County Council. Thus, for example, when the county council submits a business plan to the government, what actually happens is that those who are proposing HERT take the opportunity to mark their own homework. This could also suggest county councillors are being guided rather than deciding what is best for Hertfordshire. Worse still, Westminster MPs may feel they cannot involve themselves in a county council proposal, when it is in fact a government project. Noteworthy in this respect is the support for HERT from regional transport body England's Economic Heartland although no reasons are supplied.

Regional transport body England's Economic Heartland formerly commissioned professional-quality research. Indeed it is this past research and also that of the East West Rail Consortium, now named the East West Main Line Partnership, that we have analysed resulting in our published aspirations. It is a shame that England's Economic Heartland has been transformed from a rational organisation providing professional-quality research to promote HERT and without explanation. This transformation is the opposite of what many industry observers would be hoping for as a response to the Williams Shapps Plan for Rail.

Our published aspirations are the results of some years of research. This is our list of documents (opens in new window or tab). Bearing in mind that the HERT project has changed name several times, there are documents that assume the project and documents that discuss alternatives for the project, for example the routing of buses through Watford town centre, however there is no document that justifies HERT. Anyone who disagrees is invited to find a document justifying HERT either from our list of documents or elsewhere. The promotion of HERT with no document justifying it might reasonably be described as propaganda.

Railways are a central government responsibility and centrally funded. The closure of lines to be replaced by bus services treats the residents of Hertfordshire as second class citizens. HERT does not seem to be any more than a marketing exercise designed to persuade the people of Hertfordshire to vote against their own best interests.

HERT as bus services

HERT is a collection of bus services. However, as illustrated below, it is clear that the primary focus is on Watford to Harlow, also Hemel Hempstead to Harlow. HERT documentation describes these as high-frequency bus services.



HERT map

Website intalink.org.uk is the reference for existing bus services. Currently bus travel between Hemel Hempstead and Harlow requires a change of bus, typically the 302 and then the 724 Green Line. We have no objection to a direct bus service as part of HERT although the fact that there is no such service currently could suggest passenger uptake could be poor. HERT envisages separation of lanes on the A414, one being for HERT buses and driverless cars, the other for all other traffic. This presumably could result in a reduction of journey time for buses. This matter is being researched. We do not know how the separation would occur.

The second high-frequency bus service is between Watford and Harlow. Green Line 724 provides this as a direct service via the A405 and A414. We know this service has been running since at least the 1970's and is therefore a success without the requirement to convert the Watford to St Albans branch railway to a busway to accommodate it.

Let us turn our attention to more local bus services. HERT includes a service from Watford Junction to St Albans City for Thameslink. We regard this as misguided. Most passengers making use of Thameslink will be travelling to London, not to Bedford. A strategically useful bus link from Watford would be to Radlett and not to St Albans City. Watford to Radlett is provided by bus 602 but which would benefit from some upgrades to include an express service. Additionally bus service 602 fails to serve Watford Junction.

Mass Rapid Transit at Watford Junction

If the St Albans Abbey branch is converted to a busway, bus services will be invented to use it, as an exercise in making the facts fit. However there is no justification for conversion of the line to a busway. For Watford to Harlow, there is Green Line 724. For local travel from Watford to St Albans, there is bus 321 and Green Line 724. Bus 321 has also been running since at least the 1970's. There is also the railway line, with several options for walking to St Albans city centre e.g. via Verulamium Park and a very pleasant walk it is.

For Aylesbury to Welwyn Garden City, as illustrated, or Harlow a change from train to bus is envisaged at Watford Junction. However aspiration 4 could provide a direct train service.

An analysis of buses provides no good reason to convert the St Albans Abbey branch line into a busway. We also demonstrated earlier that HERT is a planning disaster, undermining the future prosperity of the Oxford to Cambridge regional economy. The HERT high-frequency service from Watford to Harlow envisaging conversion of the St Albans Abbey branch needs to be put in the dustbin.

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Hertsrail is a proposal for a joined-up rail network in Hertfordshire. It is based on comprehensive research by rail researcher RailAble.

RailAble, also known as RailEnable, researches an improved rail network. Hertsrail, our proposal for a joined-up rail network in Hertfordshire, is the RailAble project : "East west rail - Oxford to Cambridge". For much more information on our proposal visit RailAble (opens in new window or tab).

HERT converts the St Albans Abbey line to a guided busway : HERT converts the Abbey line to a guided busway
The proposal is flawed since buses will make congestion worse on the A414. It reduces capacity on the A414 thereby undermining Hertfordshire's competitiveness. HERT needs to be abandoned. Our alternative is a joined-up rail network in Hertfordshire.

HERT is a bus network. Hertsrail is a rail network. They are alternatives. A rail network is a better proposal for Hertfordshire and also provides better travel opportunities well beyond Hertfordshire.

To support our proposals for a joined-up rail network in Hertfordshire, we invite you to read our previous newsletters and sign up to receive them at Hertsrail newsletter (opens in new window or tab).

Our proposals

Our step by step proposals are as follows.

Step 1. Service every 30 minutes on the St Albans Abbey line. A service every 30 minutes would be more attractive to passengers, requiring two trains and an upgrade to the infrastructure enabling the two trains to pass, known as a passing loop. One possibility is that trains might pass at How Wood station or vicinity. This is further north than the midpoint, giving more time for the train driver to change ends at St Albans Abbey than at Watford Junction. The Abbey station is unstaffed, so the train crew could use the time available to do ticketing i.e. revenue protection, which helps to ensure a better case for keeping the line open.

In June 2022 it was announced that the bid for a passing loop at Bricket Wood, enabling a more frequent service than currently operates, was rejected by the Department for Transport (DfT). However we are proposing trains passing at How Wood or vicinity and which awaits evaluation.

Further information : A more frequent service on the Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey line

The timetable from 11 December 2022 reduces service frequency off-peak. We are opposed to this Opposing the reduction in service frequency on the Abbey line

Beyond step 1, further steps are to be determined. Readers may wish to select from the choices offered at RailAble (opens in new window or tab).

We are hoping Hertfordshire County Council will recognise that a St Albans to Hatfield railway would be useful. Having included it in the county rail strategy, the approach we suggest is to develop route options, select a route and safeguard it. This provides land and property owners with the opportunity to make arrangements to sell, if and when they choose to do so. This is better than a debate as to whether the line should be built followed by development of route options, selection of a route and disruption that could have been avoided.

To support our proposals for a joined-up rail network in Hertfordshire, we invite you to read our previous newsletters and sign up to receive them at Hertsrail newsletter (opens in new window or tab).

We conclude our home page with a view of St Albans Abbey station on a sunny day in 2017. The links at the top of the page are for further information.



St Albans Abbey station on a sunny day in 2017
St Albans Abbey station on a sunny day in 2017

St Albans Abbey station on a sunny day in 2017. PeterSkuce, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Last revised 19 May 2024