Publication date 24 March 2022
Minor update 21 October 2022
This is part four of our review into travel by rail in the Oxford to Cambridge arc.
As also in part three, much of our focus will be on the Abbey line. This is a single-track line, permitting a train either in the direction Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey or in the opposite direction but not both at the same time. Indeed the current service is provided by a single train.
It is recommended to read the home page and then to read part three, starting at the section "Impact on the Alban Way" Impact on the Alban Way through to the end, prior to reading this part, part four.
There are references in the following text to sections in part three. The following are links to some sections in part three :
A review of Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT), including our response to the public engagement November 2021 - January 2022 : A review of Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT)
The Abbey line is being undermined : The Abbey line is being undermined
Outline business case : Outline business case
A full set of links to sections in part three is available on the home page.
Reading all four parts is only for stalwarts.
Part one (mostly historical) : Oxford to Cambridge by rail : southern options for the central section
Part two (mostly historical) : Oxford to Cambridge : east west rail at Watford
Part three (from the start) : Oxford to Cambridge : east west rail in Hertfordshire
All parts can also be accessed via List of articles
The following map shows the existing railway lines and stations around Watford. The station labelled Watford is also known as Watford (Met). It is the terminus of the Metropolitan Line branch to Watford. In a north easterly direction from Watford Junction is the Abbey line to St Albans Abbey. Click the map for Wikimedia information.
The following map shows the envisaged route of the Metropolitan Line Extension (MLX). This was formerly known as the Croxley Rail Link, being terminology that we still employ. This time, the Abbey line is absent from the map.
The Metropolitan Line Extension, also or formerly known as the Croxley Rail Link, extends the Metropolitan Line via Croxley to Watford Junction. The Croxley Rail Link is oriented south west from Watford High Street making use of the start of a dismantled rail link to a former station Rickmansworth Church Street, not shown, and then turns north west, on a dismantled branch. It then requires a connection onto the existing Metropolitan line branch via Croxley currently terminating at Watford (Met).
There is a triangular junction between Rickmansworth, Croxley and Moor Park. The chord between Rickmansworth and Croxley at this junction is known as the Watford North curve, albeit not in the vicinity of Watford North station on the Abbey line. If the Watford North curve were to be reinstated, this would enable Rickmansworth to Watford Junction. Click the map for Wikimedia information.
As an alternative to the Croxley rail link, there could be a tunnelled connection from Watford (Met) to Watford North on the Abbey line via Watford Junction, whilst retaining the connection from the Abbey line onto the WCML. An intermediate station Watford Parade (or Watford Pond ?) would be provided between Watford (Met) and Watford Junction. A tunnelled connection would not enable an extension of London Overground services i.e. via Bushey on to the Abbey line to St Albans Abbey. An extension of Metropolitan line services on to the Abbey line would be possible or, at the least, to Watford Junction. The Croxley rail link was planned to enable Metropolitan line services to Watford Junction but with the loss of Watford (Met) station. This alternative brings Metropolitan line services to Watford Junction whilst retaining Watford (Met). This alternative was originally hypothesised in part two of our research section "Rickmansworth to the Midland Main Line".
Returning to the Croxley rail link as originally planned, a crossing could be envisaged over or under the WCML at Watford connecting Watford High Street to the Abbey line via Watford Junction although this was not part of the plan.
There have been persistent issues regarding funding of the Metropolitan Line Extension.
In June 2021 Steer published "Metropolitan Line Extension Alternatives"
Referenced papers and reports ).
On pages 30 and 31 of this document
"Croxley rail link :
2.54 The original Metropolitan Line Extension (MLX) would have included the use of the former Croxley Branch Line, which is currently owned by Network Rail under the London and North Western Railway Act 1907. The MLX would have involved the construction of a viaduct over the Grand Union Canal, River Gade and A412 road. The need to build a viaduct to connect the line to the proposed Cassiobridge and Watford Vicarage Road stations is a constraint, as it was a key cause of the scheme’s unaffordability, as well as the signalling costs associated with the compatibility between the underground and rail systems.
2.55 There is an opportunity to include the disused alignment in alternative options, which will be considered in this study."
On page 109
"9.1 The MLX delivers best against the local and strategic connectivity scheme objectives and, in this respect, is the best performing of all the options considered. However, the affordability issues are such that there is no realistic prospect of the MLX scheme being progressed in the near or medium-term."
On page 122
"10.4 As such, the study has concluded that no alternative meets the project objectives as well as the former MLX scheme did, which was discontinued due to affordability reasons."
So, in terms of meeting project objectives, the best option is to proceed with the former MLX scheme, but with a question of affordability. Whilst rail costs are too high, albeit a matter not discussed here, there is the opportunity to render MLX more affordable by combining it with the aspiration of a Aylesbury - Watford rail corridor. In part three section "Outline business case" we outline the business case for a St Albans to Hatfield rail corridor. Towards the end of that section we suggest assessing MLX and Aylesbury - Watford as a single project. Since no such assessment has taken place, MLX should not be regarded as dead.
On page 53 table 6.2 there is indeed the objective of "Sustainable connectivity to the West (Rickmansworth / Amersham / Aylesbury)" however this has not been assessed as a single project with MLX.
On page 48 section 6.5 "One objective will be to provide a viable alternative to private car-based travel on the congested A412 route." Our proposal for east west rail in Hertfordshire certainly does that.
Let us now turn to the matter of MRT. On page 79
"Description of Mass Rapid Transit in the MLX Alternatives Context.
Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) is a generic description to describe high-quality rubber-tyred transit options. These cover a spectrum of vehicles ranging from a high-quality conventional bus (low floor, low emission) to vehicles similar in specification to trams."
Trams or tram-trains, i.e. running on rails, are separated out in this document into the preceding section (pages 77-79), with an overall summary
"Significant deliverability and affordability risks". This is a different approach from the A414 corridor strategy technical report
Referenced papers and reports ) where Mass Rapid Transit is defined as
"A public transport service including bus, tram or similar which carries multiple passengers on a prioritised route. A bus rapid transit is a form of Mass Rapid Transit." (page 75).
"9.40 The A414 is a dualled road running from the A41 west of Hemel Hempstead all the way to Chelmsford. This road is characterised by high congestion levels.
9.41 However, the A414 is the key route between Watford – St Albans and Welwyn and has been identified by HCC as a potential route for MRT."
This identifies a design flaw in the MRT proposal. There is no proposal for MRT vehicles to be routed anywhere other than via the A414. As a result, either the A414 is downgraded to permit MRT vehicles to run on a dedicated bus lane, in which case congestion on the A414 is likely to increase, or they share the A414 with other vehicles. In the second case, they are likely to be subject to delay due to congestion, resulting in the entire MRT project being at risk of failure.
There are three options for Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in terms of routing through Watford town centre. All three envisage MRT vehicles to Watford Junction via Clarendon Road. They are illustrated on pages 82, 85 and 88, noting the annotation "St Albans Extensions". This confirms conversion of the Abbey line to a MRT/busway requires MRT vehicles to take over the underpass from Station Road to the car parks, rendering the car parks inaccessible and therefore triggering redevelopment of Watford Junction. It is sad to note that redevelopment of the station is presented as an opportunity to capitalise on the commercial value of the site, the real reason being to enable MRT vehicles to cross the main line. The true costs of the MRT project are therefore being disguised. This point is noted in part three section "A review of Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT)" in our response referenced there to the HERT public engagement November 2021 - January 2022.
When (i) there has been no assessment of MLX and Aylesbury - Watford as a single project and when (ii) the true costs of the MRT project and of HERT are being disguised, it is clear that MLX should not be regarded as dead.
Some additional comments on the document follow.
A comment regarding HS2 is to be found on page 43 of the document
"Though HS2 would not serve Watford it is expected that the freeing up of capacity on the WCML would support an increase in service levels between Watford and London."
As we all know, HS2 facilitates the long-held aspiration of a direct London commuter service from the Abbey line.
Hertfordshire County Council policy towards the Abbey line is reproduced on page 45
"5.10 The position of HCC is that it supports the continued use of the Abbey Line as a heavy rail operation, whilst seeking improvements that would increase service frequencies. HCC would consider longer-term options if these were to enhance connectivity for the line." If council officers were to implement HCC policy, they would welcome our proposal to improve revenue collection on the Abbey line by means of the train crew undertaking ticket checks at the Abbey station, or at least be willing to facilitate its evaluation. The proposal is in part three : Trains passing at How Wood and ticket checks at the Abbey station
Pages 66 to 68 discuss Underground Option 2 – Metropolitan Line Extension to Watford Junction via tunnel. Key infrastructure would include a new underground station at Watford Junction, and potentially also in Watford Town Centre. This is the tunnelled connection we discussed earlier, as originally hypothesised in part two of our research.
Drawings (diagrammatic maps) are displayed full size for clarity.
Here is our illustration in the wider context of the Oxford to Cambridge arc.
In terms of east west rail at Watford, given our hypothesised tunnelled connection from Watford (Met) to the Abbey line and in conjunction with a St Albans to Hatfield rail corridor, it would seem worthwhile to consider an extension of the Metropolitan Line beyond Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey or London Colney. The alternative would be a service between Aylesbury and St Albans Abbey or London Colney, potentially Oxford to Cambridge.
East west rail at Watford could be provided by the Croxley rail link, provided it also included a crossing over or under the WCML connecting Watford High Street to the Abbey line via Watford Junction. This was not part of the original plan for the Croxley rail link. Nevertheless this is discussed later in section "Connecting the Abbey line to Watford High Street".
It seems realistic to suggest an interchange at London Colney between a service via the Abbey line and other services calling at London Colney, thought to include a Thameslink service and an Oxford to Cambridge service. There would be the option for a service via the Abbey line to continue further afield e.g. via Hatfield.
How might London Colney station be designed to permit an interchange by crossing from one platform to another without having to use a bridge or tunnel between the platforms ? One possibility would be for through services to call at a central island platform pair which has two bay platforms built into it. Interchange on the level is achieved by passing the end of the bay platforms, however passenger flows have to be considered. It would seem reasonable to provide a well-signposted interchange by means of a bridge or tunnel, with the option of passing the end of the bay platforms suitably sign-posted e.g. for persons of reduced mobility.
As noted in part three, the A405 is being downgraded between Watford and St Albans with reallocation of 1 lane in each direction to buses only. This enables buses to compete with the Abbey line, the competition leading to closure of the line. As noted in part three section "The Abbey line is being undermined", from this we know that MRT vehicles will be rubber-tyred buses and not light rail trams, since trams require rails and no-one would propose rails along the A405 to be superseded by use of the Abbey line.
However, the A414 corridor strategy technical report ( Referenced papers and reports ) claims that the choice between rubber-tyred vehicles and trams has not been made. There are illustrations of trams on page 57.
In these circumstances it is reasonable to suggest that HERT is based on an illusion but with an outstanding question : on what foundation is the illusion based ? There is a proposal for an east-west tramway in south Hertfordshire from Watford to Hertford/Broxbourne. The proposal is by Hertford Civic Society (opens in new window or tab). At the time of writing, the proposal is entirely documented by links on the home page. Trams would provide a service every 10 minutes, requiring the tramway to be entirely dual track.
The proposal requires reopening a dismantled line through Hertford and along what is now the Cole Green Way, also reopening the dismantled line from Hatfield to St Albans along what is now the Alban Way, both forming part of National Cycle Route 61. On approach to St Albans, the tramway would be routed via St Albans City station and then down Holywell Hill, which is steep, to St Albans Abbey station.
There seems to have been insufficient research prior to formulating the proposal. For example, reopening the former single-track line upgraded to dual track along the Alban Way would be disruptive in multiple places and the route is much appreciated for walking and cycling. The proposal assumes the Abbey line can be upgraded to dual track in its entirety, without investigation. It would also be extremely expensive. We are not opposed to the proposal, however would it actually be implemented ? We don't think so. In what seems to be a cynical move, Whitehall and the county council are leveraging the Hertford Civic Society (HCS) proposal to create an illusion.
Some references : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alban_Way ; www.disused-stations.org.uk/n/nast_hyde_halt/ ; www.disused-stations.org.uk/h/hertford_north/ : particularly the paragraph "Present state". Reference can also be made to page 207 of the A414 corridor strategy technical report.
Additional information concerning the Abbey line. In general, much of the Abbey line has the potential to be upgraded from single track to dual track. There is a notable exception to this, from How Wood northwards until the approach to the Abbey station. At How Wood station, the terrain is flat to the south but not to the north. Opposite Park Street station is an embankment down to the River Ver. A third point of observation would be the Abbots Avenue West overbridge from which the railway cutting can be admired, alternatively, by travelling on the train. An additional noteworthy point is the bridge over the M25 located to the north of Bricket Wood and south of How Wood and which only accommodates single track.
A St Albans to Hatfield conventional rail line via London Colney, as proposed by ourselves, is modest in comparison with a Watford to Hertford/Broxbourne tramway. Moreover trams sharing track with conventional rail between St Albans and Hatfield via London Colney might make business sense. However a St Albans to Hatfield conventional rail line is not an option under consideration for HERT. It is an alternative to HERT.
To the best of our knowledge no alternative tramway has been proposed. Therefore we know that HERT will not be trams. HERT is a proposal for rubber-tyred vehicles.
As noted in part three sections "A review of Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT)" and "The Abbey line is being undermined", HERT is a proposal to close the Abbey line and provide a high-frequency bus service Watford to Harlow, also Hemel Hempstead to Harlow. The proposal is flawed since buses will get stuck in traffic on the Hemel Hempstead to Harlow road i.e. the A414.
Our proposal is for a St Albans to Hatfield railway. The Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey branch line would be extended to connect into the St Albans to Hatfield line.
Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT) was subject to a public engagement, i.e. consultation, from November 2021 to January 2022. Our response to the public engagement is referenced in part three section "A review of Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT)".
It has now become apparent that the public engagement was not properly conducted. Reasons for this are listed here.
1. The true costs of HERT are hidden. This is documented in our response to the public engagement referenced in part three section "A review of Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT)". For example, the true costs include the cost of redeveloping Watford Junction.
2. The public engagement claimed that HERT could be implemented as a tramway. This was shown to be false in earlier section "Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT) will not be trams". Hence HERT creates an illusion for those who are in favour of rail-based travel.
3. HERT is a disguised proposal to convert the Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey line into a busway. This point is summarised earlier in section "HERT is a proposal to close the Abbey line".
4. HERT includes an exercise in smoke and mirrors since Hertfordshire County Council claims to be lobbying Whitehall when in fact there is purely cooperation, if not submission. This point is made in part three section "The Abbey line is being undermined".
5. HERT bypasses the processes of democracy, although we suspect this is common also to other Whitehall plans. Firstly, Westminster MPs are being briefed to simply play Whitehall's game by being told that the council is lobbying Whitehall, reference the previous point. Secondly, Hertfordshire county councillors believe their policy for the Abbey line is being implemented, when in fact their own officers seem to be under marching orders from Whitehall : this point is made earlier in section "Metropolitan Line Extension revisited".
6. Misleading information was published prior to the public engagement. Two months beforehand, the September 2021 issue of Modern Railways included an article on the Abbey line. With lots of pictures of trains, it gave the impression that the line has a secure future, but made no mention of the plan to convert the line into a busway. For those with a subscription to Modern Railways, the article is https://www.modernrailways.com/article/abbey-flyer-prays-passing-loop
7. HERT undermines an improved east west rail network and therefore undermines the economic growth of the Oxford to Cambridge arc as a whole. This point is made in part three section "A review of Hertfordshire - Essex Rapid Transit (HERT)".
8. HERT is the result of plans made over a number of years on the assumption that east west rail in Hertfordshire is not feasible. Our research calls this assumption in to question. HERT needs to be replaced by a new proposal that brings a St Albans to Hatfield conventional rail corridor in to scope.
We compiled this list with ease, which suggests there are probably further reasons.
For reference, we provide a diagrammatic map of the existing Abbey line infrastructure.
In this section we discuss possible future infrastructure for the Abbey line. There are no specific proposals in this section.
There is the possibility of east west rail at Watford Junction although probably expensive in relation to the benefits. If not, east west travel with implementation of the Metropolitan Line Extension or Croxley rail link by changing trains at Watford Junction. There is the possibility of direct services on to the WCML. There is the possibility of extension of the line to London Colney.
A service on the line could be Watford - St Albans every 30 minutes or every 20 minutes, or Watford - St Albans - London Colney every 30 minutes or every 20 minutes. Taking account of the leaf fall period and of recovery from late running, these various possibilities would require infrastructure upgrade.
Potential infrastructure upgrades illustrated below include :
(i) two platforms at Watford Junction with dual track at least part way to Watford North;
(ii) a passing loop between Watford North and Garston;
(iii) a dual track section or at least a passing loop between Garston and Bricket Wood;
(iv) facility for trains to pass at Bricket Wood - discussed for many years although not illustrated below;
(v) facility for trains to pass at How Wood or in the vicinity;
(vi) two platforms at St Albans Abbey, bringing a disused platform back into use and possibly lengthening it;
(vii) re-opening the head of the former line from St Albans to Hatfield potentially as single track passing over the river Ver, potentially becoming dual track on heading southwards towards London Colney.
Regarding a dual track section or at least a passing loop between Garston and Bricket Wood, the M1 bridge permits dual track. However on approach to Garston from here construction of the line featured earthworks and which we think would not permit dual track. So dual track in the immediate vicinity of the M1 bridge would seem to be feasible but not further southwards towards Garston. In the other direction, we think there may be little to obstruct dual track all the way to Bricket Wood station although the Mount Pleasant Lane bridge does not permit dual track.
In the short term we are proposing a train passing facility at How Wood or in the vicinity, rather ironically possibly the only item on this list that requires land purchase. The proposal is in part three : Trains passing at How Wood and ticket checks at the Abbey station . The two trains pass at How Wood or vicinity with more time available to change ends at the Abbey station than at Watford Junction. In the event of late running there may not be sufficient time for a journey to Watford Junction and back, potentially leading to service cancellation and a shorter journey from St Albans Abbey to Bricket Wood and then return. At some future point, planning may be undertaken for the various possible services listed earlier e.g. a service every 20 minutes Watford - St Albans or Watford - St Albans - London Colney with associated infrastructure upgrades specifically designed. At this point, an interim arrangement could be to implement a subset of the infrastructure to permit recovery from late running of a Watford - St Albans service every 30 minutes without service cancellation. The means to achieve this would be a second passing loop on the line. During normal operation, trains pass at How Wood or vicinity. During recovery from late running, trains pass using the second passing loop. We have illustrated this by selecting a dual track section or at least a passing loop between Garston and Bricket Wood i.e. coloured blue with all other future infrastructure coloured green.
This section has changed title, formerly "Light rail at Watford Junction"
We here discuss connecting the Abbey line to Watford High Street via a connection at Watford Junction, initially considering light rail then conventional rail.
In June 2021 Steer published "Metropolitan Line Extension Alternatives" ( Referenced papers and reports ). This was referenced earlier in section "Metropolitan Line Extension revisited".
There are three options for Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in terms of routing through Watford town centre. All three envisage MRT vehicles to Watford Junction via Clarendon Road. They are illustrated on pages 82, 85 and 88, noting the annotation "St Albans Extensions". This confirms conversion of the Abbey line to a MRT/busway requires MRT vehicles to take over the underpass from Station Road to the car parks, rendering the car parks inaccessible and therefore triggering redevelopment of Watford Junction.
If the underpass can be adapted for Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) vehicles then we suggest it can be adapted for light rail. This does however require professional evaluation. The following illustrates a light rail connection at Watford Junction. The Abbey line used to be served by platform 10 i.e. the centrally-located platform. The Abbey line would be connected to the vicinity of platform 10, then by means of the underpass to the front of the station and run alongside the existing track to platform 1 connecting onto the London Overground lines. For the purposes of new track, we anticipate no new land purchase would be necessary.
There would be two new platforms, not illustrated, probably in the vicinity of the existing platform 10. The connection is for light rail, the radius of the curve at the front of the station presumed to be too tight for conventional rail.
The Abbey line is not suitable for upgrade to dual track in its entirety and therefore a light rail service every 10 minutes is not considered to be practicable. We might anticipate a service every 20 minutes. The light rail vehicles would be high capacity due to the service frequency. As a first approximation they would be akin to articulated conventional trains.
Source : openstreetmap.org © OpenStreetMap contributors
An online map of Watford Junction is available here (opens in new window or tab) Source : openstreetmap.org © OpenStreetMap contributors
At least in the first phase, we might anticipate a light rail service from St Albans Abbey at least to Watford High Street, assuming the light rail vehicles were able to call at conventional platforms. They would share track with London Overground. Future extension could be anticipated e.g. to London Colney or via London Colney, sharing track with conventional rail on a St Albans to Hatfield line, to Hatfield. Reference part three section "Light rail (trams) at London Colney".
In the other direction, extension to Rickmansworth might be anticipated either by sharing track with Metropolitan Line services or, via the Ebury Way, to Rickmansworth without sharing track with Underground services. Zoom out on the above online map and head south west for details.
In these revised circumstances the case for the Metropolitan Line Extension (Croxley rail link) would merit reevaluation. This requires a viaduct crossing the A412, River Gade and Grand Union Canal.
MRT taking over the underpass at Watford Junction triggers redevelopment of the station since the car parks become inaccessible. Light rail would also give rise to redevelopment of the station albeit different. The current plan by Network Rail envisages a covered bus station on Woodford Road, unpopular, which hopefully would be avoided. The plan was devised prior to the Covid pandemic and is a commercial proposition to capitalise on the land by the provision of offices. It essentially boxes in the station in 1960's-style thinking and also envisages closure of the rail sidings in the vicinity of platform 11 currently used by a concrete-batching plant.
Redevelopment of the station to enable a light rail conection might feature two station entrances, with bus services serving one or other of the entrances. It is possible that the sidings in the vicinity of platform 11 would be replaced by new sidings accessed via the Abbey line although we have made no attempt to identify a suitable location for such sidings. Light rail sharing track with freight is not a new proposition.
It is hoped that redevelopment of the station to enable a light rail conection would be more adapted to a post-Covid situation. It is not clear to what extent this would be self-financing. This is a key matter in assessing the capital costs for the proposal. There is again an opportunity to capitalise on the land, possibly with more of an emphasis on residential development in a post-Covid situation.
The provision of a light rail service has considerable implications, for example a maintenance depot. Not only are there issues to resolve regarding vehicles but also this is a lot of trouble and bother for a relatively short service, at least initially, between St Albans Abbey and Watford High Street. A better option could be conventional rail at least initially, whilst keeping open the option of light rail at a future stage e.g. sharing track with conventional rail between St Albans and Hatfield.
The obvious choice for conventional rail would seem to be a new underpass, aligned and specified for conventional rail. Whilst a complex project, this would be of strategic benefit, including the future possibility of Oxford to Cambridge via Aylesbury and Watford Junction.
The following photos taken by Google streetview turning off Reeds Crescent provide a view from the east of the Abbey line train at Watford Junction platform 11. It could be appropriate to reserve the land in view for a light rail depot. As an interim arrangement, this land could be used for stabling facilities for conventional rail, hopefully including a train during the day that can be brought on to the Abbey line if the train in operation fails. Behind these photos is further railway land, although not rail-connected, including the Network Rail Watford depot welding store and car parks. A view from the east of Watford Junction and A further view from the east of Watford Junction . Further down the road returning to Reeds Crescent there is another view of the train at platform 11, again with railway land in the foreground. Given that the train was in the station throughout the visit by the Google streetview car it seems likely, sadly, that the train was out of service. Another view of the train at Watford Junction platform 11 (all open in new window or tab).
Since drawing the illustration above, it has become apparent that there are buildings or infrastructure between the tracks and the rear of the houses on Woodford Road. Although thought to be railway land, we have no further information. The best option may therefore be to connect the Abbey line into the low-numbered platforms without a new track running alongside platform 1. Satellite imagery https://email@example.com,-0.3950418,221m/data=!3m1!1e3 and view from the other side of the line https://firstname.lastname@example.org,-0.3939894,3a,15y,195.28h,92.24t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1swHTck8J1jnugkU52QqyWfA!2e0!7i16384!8i8192
Generally the service on the Abbey line operates every 45 minutes, albeit hourly on Sundays. There are variations and the timetable should be consulted for details.
There is a proposal to reduce service frequency on the line as from December 2022. This was announced at a "Stakeholder conference" https://www.dec22timetablechange.co.uk/ and documented in West Coast Mainline December 2022 Timetable changes by route (opens in new window or tab). By searching this document for Abbey, the following is found "45 minute service Abbey Line during peak, hourly off peak".
The train operating company London Northwestern Railway (LNwR) has provided details in a presentation Abbey line timetable options (may result in document being downloaded).
When the service operates every 45 minutes, there are 5 minutes to change ends at St Albans Abbey and 8 minutes at Watford Junction. However, on slide 3 of their presentation, London Northwestern Railway (LNwR) states that the timetable is too tight and therefore they wish to reduce service frequency. This used to be one of the most reliable train services in Britain. The line has not changed over the intervening years although the campaign to secure the future of the line has lost momentum in recent years. The implication is that, with an active campaign for the future of the line, the service will be reliable, this in itself casting doubts on the LNwR claim that the timetable is too tight. Therefore the basis on which the proposals are made is questionable.
To assess the LNwR claim that the timetable is too tight, we can compare the Abbey line with the Thames Valley branch lines. Firstly, the service between Windsor & Eton Central and Slough. This is provided by a single train with a journey time of 6 minutes, 5 minute turnaround at Slough and 3 minutes at Windsor, resulting in a cycle every 20 minutes. This is tighter than the Abbey line. There is no intermediate station, but this is not a factor since the dwell times on the Abbey line at the intermediate stations is ample. Later, point 5, we will theorise that the Abbey line timetable could be considered to be tighter at peak times than off-peak, although this is only theoretical : we understand the dwell times at intermediate stations would happily accommodate a significant increase in passenger numbers until the point was reached where not all passengers were able to board the train due to crowding, unlikely on the Abbey line.
Secondly, the service between Henley-on-Thames and Twyford. This is provided by a single train with a journey time of 12 minutes and 3 minute turnaround at either terminus, resulting in a cycle every 30 minutes. This is tighter than the Abbey line. It seems the timetabled 5 minutes from Shiplake to Henley can be achieved in 3 minutes which would result in a turnaround time of 5 minutes, nevertheless the Abbey line is no tighter than that, not least since the timetable in both directions on the Abbey line seems to include an extra minute or so from the last intermediate station to the terminus. Interestingly, on 09 September 2022, the 06:05 from Henley departed 11 minutes late. Each journey and each turnaround saved at least 1 minute until the 07:21 from Twyford departed on time.
Thirdly, the service between Marlow and Maidenhead. This is complicated by the fact that early in the morning there are two services Marlow to Bourne End and Bourne End to Maidenhead. In this early morning period, the turnaround time is 3 or 4 minutes at Bourne End and 4 minutes at Maidenead. Later, a direct service between Marlow and Maidenhead features a 3 minute turnaround at Marlow. All of these are tighter than the Abbey line.
Comparing the Thames Valley branch lines with the Abbey line casts further doubts on the LNwR claim that the Abbey line timetable is too tight.
In passing, we note that contactless ticketing is being implemented on the Thames Valley branch lines. A same decision on the Abbey line would be beneficial, not only for the convenience of passengers but also we would hope to reduce free travel.
Some reasons for opposing the planned reduction in service frequency :
1. The impact of service cancellation is greater when the service frequency is every 60 minutes.
2. It is likely that there is greater revenue from a service every 45 minutes than a service every 60 minutes i.e. more passengers.
3. Although a "clock face" timetable i.e. every 60 minutes is easier to remember, most passengers have access to information that enables them to consult the timetable.
4. Most passengers on the line are local. Although a significant number continue onwards to Euston, this is almost certainly less than half of overall passenger numbers. It is a little awkward to dovetail a 45-minute frequency service on the Abbey line with a hourly service on the WCML, nevertheless there are practices that have been established over the years. No recasting of the WCML mainline timetable should be encouraged that would downgrade connection times for passengers between the Abbey line and Euston. There are also a limited number of passengers who travel on the Abbey line to WCML destinations further north.
5. The plan is to reduce service frequency to every 60 minutes off-peak whilst maintaining a service every 45 minutes at peak times. There is a lack of logic here since there are more passengers at peak times, therefore the service, if it is tight at all, is tighter at peak times than off-peak. If the proposed hybrid (LNwR presentation option 3) is accepted, LNwR will "observe" that the service is reliable off-peak but not during the peaks, so the proposal will be followed by a further proposal to reduce the service frequency to hourly at all times.
6. Hertfordshire County Council's South West Herts Growth and Transport Plan July 2018 is available here : Referenced papers and reports . On page 25, ref SM16b includes a downgrade of the A405 with reallocation of 1 lane in each direction to buses only. This enables buses to compete with the Abbey line. Reducing service frequency on the Abbey line downgrades its competitiveness in comparison with buses. Additional note : In part two section "England's Economic Heartland" we noted the reference in Pasenger Rail Study Phase One on page 63 to the Abbey line. This referred to the maximum line speed and the frequent stopping pattern however it is clear that a service frequency of every 45 minutes is already a factor and can only be further aggravated by reduction in frequency to every 60 minutes.
7. 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, (part three section "Trains passing at How Wood and ticket checks at the Abbey station"). We would suggest the correct approach would be to evaluate this, not reduce service frequency.
The proposal to reduce service frequency is in the context of HERT, which is a high-frequency bus service. Could it be that the proposal has been prompted by DfT and is no more than a step towards closing the line?
Our Hertsrail project proposes a joined-up rail network in Hertfordshire and with a newsletter : hertsrail.org.uk (opens in new window or tab). Hertsrail opposes the plan to reduce service frequency on the Abbey line.
This article has provided part four of our review into travel in the Oxford to Cambridge arc.
Part three (from the start) : Oxford to Cambridge : east west rail in Hertfordshire
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