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Project : East west rail - Oxford to Cambridge

Major revision 29 June 2020
Minor update 7 July 2020

Oxford to Cambridge : east west rail at Watford

This is part two of our review into travel by rail in the Oxford to Cambridge arc.

There has been much discussion for some years concerning the future of the Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey line. In this article we will discuss some options for this line, specifically within the context of travel in the Oxford to Cambridge arc, known as East West rail. We will also review and modify our conclusions from part one.

An Oxford to Stevenage corridor is discussed in part one of our review : Oxford to Cambridge by rail : southern options for the central section

Part one concluded with a summary diagrammatic map illustrating an Oxford to Stevenage corridor. The diagrammatic map is included here. Luton Airport Parkway, not illustrated, is to the south of Luton station on the Midland Main Line (MML).


Summary southern option for Oxford to Cambridge arc central section

Part one of our review hypothesises a possible route via Luton Airport Parkway and Bedford. The route is

Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans (City), Luton Airport Parkway, Luton, Bedford (or Wixams), Cambridge.

With a Luton Airport to Stevenage corridor we have a possible route

Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans (City), Luton Airport, Stevenage.

These two routes could potentially operate concurrently.

It should be borne in mind that our diagrammatic maps are intended to illustrate railway infrastructure and are not to scale. In terms of distance travelled, Oxford, Aylesbury, Watford Junction, St Albans, Luton Airport and Stevenage to Cambridge is a very reasonable proposal.

Existing rail network

Since part one of our review was published, the East West Railway Company (EWR Co) has announced its preferred route for Bedford to Cambridge. A significant decision is that east west rail services will call at Bedford Midland station. Let us therefore commence by updating our diagrammatic map of the existing and planned rail network. We have also taken the opportunity to include the existing Luton Airport Parkway station, which is to the south of Luton station and which was previously omitted. We have also provided more complete information concerning dismantled lines.


Existing rail network with proposal for Bedford to Cambridge via Cambourne

The ECML has 4 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 2 tracks between Knebworth and Welwyn Garden City including two tunnels in succession, Welwyn North tunnel and Welwyn South tunnel and then Welwyn viaduct. This bottleneck might be expected to be working at capacity but for the fact that Welwyn North station is located on the bottleneck.

There are many dismantled railway lines in this area. These are not always clearly identifiable on openstreetmap.org whereas streetmap.co.uk level 3 includes contours and shows cuttings which serves to render dismantled lines easier to identify. The first is digitised and the second, we think, is not. As a general point which we ourselves are not intending to progress with Ordnance Survey, is there the prospect of useful information being lost ?

Rickmansworth to the Midland Main Line

As part of Oxford to Cambridge via Rickmansworth and Watford, let us consider Rickmansworth via Watford Junction to the Midland Main Line (MML). On the diagrammatic map above, Rickmansworth is to the lower left and the MML is the line via St Albans (City) and Luton.

We commence by illustrating Rickmansworth to the MML by reference to the railway infrastructure that exists currently. It may be helpful to select the option to view a larger map, which opens in a new window or tab. Source : OpenStreetMap.org


View larger map : special offer : move around and zoom in (opens in new window or tab)

Once again, Rickmansworth is to the lower left, being currently served by Metropolitan Underground line services and services from Aylesbury to Marylebone. To the east of Rickmansworth is the Metropolitan line branch to Croxley and Watford (Met). To the east of this is Watford Junction station served by services on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) i.e. the line via Kings Langley also Overground services via Watford High Street and terminating at Watford Junction. In a north easterly direction from Watford Junction is the Abbey line to St Albans Abbey. The station stops on this line are Watford Junction, Watford North, Garston, Bricket Wood, How Wood, Park Street and St Albans Abbey. To the east of this is the Midland Main Line (MML), which is the line via Borehamwood and St Albans. Station stops on this line within the scope of the map as illustrated are Elstree and Borehamwood, Radlett and St Albans (City).

In terms of a rail connection via Rickmansworth to the MML, the observant will notice that there are a few gaps.

The following map shows the existing railway lines and stations around Watford. The station labelled Watford is also known as Watford (Met). Click the map for Wikimedia information.

Watford railways

The following map shows the planned route of the Croxley Rail Link and which will, if constructed, enable Rickmansworth to Watford Junction. This time, the Abbey line is absent from the map. 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. The Watford North curve will need to be reinstated. Click the map for Wikimedia information.

Croxley rail link map

As an alternative to the Croxley rail link, an alternative could be a tunnelled connection from Watford (Met) to Watford North via Watford Junction, whilst retaining the connection from the Abbey line onto the WCML. There would then be no facility to extend London Overground services on to the Abbey line to St Albans Abbey but which is considered unlikely due to the short platforms at intermediate stations on the Abbey line. An extension of Metropolitan line services on to the Abbey line would then be feasible but unlikely for the same reason. However it would be reasonable to plan the extension of Metropolitan line services via Watford (Met) to Watford Junction. The Croxley rail link was planned to enable Metropolitan line services to Watford Junction but with the likely loss of Watford (Met) station. This alternative brings Metropolitan line services to Watford Junction but without the loss of Watford (Met).

A tunnelled connection from Watford (Met) to Watford Junction might be envisaged as continuing eastwards with station stops at High Barnet, Cockfosters and Enfield Town although any such proposal would be beyond the scope of our discussions here. Project nickname : mind the Watford gap.

Returning to the Croxley rail link as envisaged and continuing our focus on Rickmansworth via Watford Junction to the MML, a crossing would be envisaged over or under the WCML at Watford, not provided by the Croxley rail link, i.e. connecting Watford High Street to Watford North via Watford Junction. We will not discuss this further here. After that, the remaining challenge is a rail connection from the Abbey line to the MML. For this, it may be helpful to return to the openstreetmap larger map. This effectively becomes the focus of our attention.

From How Wood station on the Abbey line, north of Bricket Wood and south of Park Street, zoom in to view as necessary, in a north easterly direction is a dismantled rail link to the MML at Napsbury and built to mainline standards. This is shown on this map in green, with a road named Branch Road running parallel. It was provided to enable construction traffic for what is now the MML via the Abbey line, which was pre-existing at that time. There is still evidence of it, notably the railway embankment, also a bridge buttress on Watling Street. We understand the bridge over the River Ver still exists. The dismantled rail connection continued over land flattened to become the former Radlett aerodrome and on which developers plan to construct Radlett SRFI. It is this dismantled link that has provided the inspiration for a proposed rail link between Watford Junction and St Albans (City). Reopening this dismantled railway or the provision of a similar connection, probably further to the south, would provide a link from Watford and the Abbey line to the MML. We refer to this as a direct link, for reasons explained later. We would suggest that such a direct link is the best option.

This early map shows the now-dismantled link to the MML at Napsbury, lower brown star. Park Street and Frogmore station was subsequently relocated and is shown at its former location i.e. in the vicinity of the present-day How Wood station. The map also shows the line from St Albans Abbey towards Hatfield, also now dismantled. Click the map for Wikimedia information.

The Victoria history of the County of Hertford Abbey Line

It is a shame that the developers of the SRFI propose to build over the dismantled link to the MML at Napsbury and with no assessment. We will return to this matter later.

Some options for extending the Abbey line

Let us illustrate some options for extending the Abbey line, in addition to a direct rail link between Watford Junction and St Albans (City).

The Abbey line could be extended to St Albans city centre with a new station which we refer to as St Albans Cathedral. The new station would probably benefit from a good business case. Any such proposal would however give rise to some discussion, perhaps less so if it were light rail.

Additionally a footpath could be provided with signs via Verulam Park from the Abbey station to the city centre.

The Abbey line could be connected to the Midland Main Line (MML) by linking St Albans Abbey and St Albans (City) stations. This would probably benefit from a good business case. Ideally this would be for conventional rail and offer through services. It would pass to the south of London Road business park - zoom in at openstreetmap.org for details. The option of light rail could be considered and connecting from the Abbey station on to Cottonmill Lane although we have not attempted to assess any further details on this. Light rail would not offer through services.

In part one, section "Oxford to Cambridge via Watford Junction", we dismissed the idea of a link from St Albans (City) to the Abbey station on the grounds that it would connect onto the existing single-track line. Here we propose making use of the head of the dismantled railway and therefore we are provided with dual tracks on approach to the Abbey station.

Direct access for pedestrians from Sainsburys to St Albans Abbey station would be helpful.

The Abbey line could be extended to a new station London Colney via a "Saints link", being a connection from St Albans or Saint Albans Abbey to St Pancras or Saint Pancras. The "Saints link" would need to cross over the A414, unless the existing bridge for the MML is of sufficient span to permit an additional track.

Options for Abbey line rail connections

Radlett Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI), also known as Radlett freight terminal, is planned currently with a south-to-west connection for access from the Midland Main Line (MML), illustrated in purple above. We have illustrated three alternatives for a rail link between Watford Junction and St Albans (City) in each case rendering unnecessary the south-to-west connection. For the southernmost of these three, Radlett SRFI is accessed via the Abbey line. For all three alternatives, there is no use of land to the east of the MML, offering the potential for part of the SRFI development to be located here with a vehicle overbridge of the MML. This would require further study, for example, suitability of the land.

New station at London Colney

An option could be to extend the Abbey line to a new station London Colney (or Napsbury). The extended service from Watford Junction would run to London Colney via St Albans Abbey with trains changing direction at St Albans Abbey. This service would run on a new track from St Albans Abbey to London Colney and would not make use of the existing tracks of the MML.

There are various options for the new station at London Colney. This could be the terminus for a service from Watford Junction or from Oxford via Aylesbury and Watford Junction. There could be a connection on to the MML southbound. There could be a connection on to the MML northbound. If the new station at London Colney were to be alongside the MML, there is an open question as to whether this would also become a new station stop for Thameslink services. We would certainly suggest a design that would enable this.

If a new station London Colney were also to be a station stop for Thameslink services, an Oxford to London Colney service could provide an interchange here with a new Thameslink service to Cambridge via London Colney. The latter service would potentially require electrification of the Bedford to Cambridge line and which is not currently envisaged.

Part one of our review discusses train services to facilitate a reduction in car dependence, also congestion reduction on the M25 motorway. For such services via Watford, a connection on to the MML would be essential : a passenger interchange at London Colney would represent a significant disadvantage in terms of rail connectivity and business case. Such services would benefit from a direct link from Watford and the Abbey line to the MML, failing which, a connection on to the MML requiring change of direction at both St Albans Abbey and London Colney.

Watford via St Albans Abbey to the MML northbound

With a northbound connection on to the MML at London Colney, we would have a route from Oxford to Cambridge via Watford Junction, St Albans Abbey, London Colney and St Albans (City). Trains would change direction at both St Albans Abbey and London Colney.

Prior to illustrating a northbound connection on to the MML at London Colney, let us illustrate the Abbey line existing infrastructure.

Abbey line existing infrastructure Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey

Let us now illustrate possible infrastructure for a northbound connection on to the MML at London Colney.

Watford Junction to MML via St Albans Abbey and London Colney

In normal operation, a train would arrive at St Albans Abbey from Watford as a train departs St Albans Abbey in the opposite direction for Watford. For a service every 30 minutes, trains would also pass between Watford North and Watford Junction. If the journey time between St Albans Abbey and London Colney is approximately 5 minutes and if the time for trains to change direction both at St Albans Abbey and at London Colney is 5 minutes, a train would leave London Colney for the MML at the same time as a train from the MML arrives at London Colney.

Normally, a train from St Albans passes Watford North before a train from Watford. The additional track located between Garston and Watford North stations is envisaged to facilitate recovery from late running when a train from St Albans waits to let a train from Watford to be the first to pass Watford North station. However recovery from late running is by no means a straightforward proposition since trains travelling in opposite directions are synchronised at St Albans Abbey. For regional services, for example a service between Oxford and Cambridge, a service may run late for a number of reasons, including the late-running of other services. The infrastructure as envisaged could be appropriate for a local service not track-sharing with other services, one possibility being perhaps a service that terminates in a bay platform at St Albans (City) although the feasibility of this has not been investigated. For regional services, a more extensive infrastructure upgrade would be appropriate.

We have illustrated infrastructure that permits a service every 30 minutes between Rickmansworth and the MML with services changing direction at both St Albans Abbey and London Colney. In this arrangement, there is no requirement for London Colney to be a station stop on the MML itself. Thus there is no requirement for an additional station stop at London Colney either for Thameslink or for longer-distance services on the MML. London Colney is served by a service between Watford Junction and St Albans (City).

We have illustrated a northbound connection on to the MML from Radlett SRFI. This would require the design of Radlett SRFI to be reworked. Freight trains via London would make use of a turnback siding on the MML.

To summarise Watford to the MML northbound, a direct link from Watford to the MML northbound takes inspiration from the dismantled line running north east from How Wood to the MML. Alternatively, an indirect link with services changing direction at both St Albans Abbey and London Colney takes inspiration from the dismantled line from St Albans Abbey towards Hatfield, then turning southwards on what we have termed the "Saints link" to a turnback point at London Colney and thence onto the MML and with a disused platform at St Albans Abbey being brought back into use.

Freight to Radlett SRFI and Watford Junction to London Colney local service

We will now turn our attention in a different direction with a southbound connection on to the MML. Taking account of the proposal for Radlett SRFI, we will discuss a local service between Watford Junction and London Colney. We are here excluding services from Watford Junction connecting on to the MML. Thus we are discussing two matters : Radlett SRFI and a local passenger service. These two matters are illustrated below.

Freight turnback for SRFI on link line to St Albans Abbey and options for local service between 
Watford Junction and London Colney

A freight train from the MML makes use of the link line from London Colney towards St Albans Abbey and then turns back to proceed to the SRFI. A member of SRFI staff drives the train into the SRFI. For the reverse procedure, a member of SRFI staff drives the train onto the link line from London Colney towards St Albans Abbey and the freight train driver then takes over to connect onto the MML and onwards.

A passenger service operates between Watford and London Colney via St Albans Abbey. This shares the single track between St Albans Abbey and the vicinity of London Colney with freight trains. The passenger service does not operate when the track is occupied by a freight train. Freight trains are infrequent and we are here supposing that freight trains can be timed so as to not disrupt the timetabled local passenger service. Alternatively, dual track might be considered.

Let us now turn our attention to the local passenger service. The infrastructure illustrated caters for several possibilities including a possible new station Tippendell located between How Wood and Park Street stations. Named after the nearby Tippendell Lane, this station would replace both How Wood and Park Street stations. It is equipped with a facility for trains to pass, known as a passing loop. The line is elevated in this vicinity which implies that costs for construction would be greater than for a station constructed on flat ground. Because the line is elevated, this would be no more than a passing loop, that is, there would be no dual track upgrade to the existing line either northwards or southwards from Tippendell station. If trains in each direction pass at Tippendell, time has to be allocated for this and which adds, let us say, 3 minutes to the journey time in each direction between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey. This station is hypothesised as a replacement for both How Wood and Park Street stations and which would close. The closure of an intermediate station on the Abbey line is calculated to save 1 minute from the journey time. Overall 3 minutes are added to the journey time but a minute is deducted for each of the two stations that close and so the overall journey time increases by one minute. It may however be safer to assume an increased journey time of 2 minutes.

Tippendell station would provide improved access to the Abbey line for residents of Chiswell Green.

Let us now consider the scenario in which Tippendell station would be constructed. A service every 30 minutes with two trains could be provided by three drivers. At Tippendell, a driver disembarks from the southbound train and boards the northbound train. Assuming the journey time from St Albans Abbey to London Colney is five minutes, we arrive at a service every 30 minutes with two trains and with the following characteristics. South of Tippendell, there is one driver on board who, at Watford Junction, walks to the other end of the train to proceed with the service northwards, the turnround time here being six minutes. North of Tippendell, there are two drivers on board the train with a driver at each end. The turnround time at St Albans Abbey is three minutes and at London Colney is four minutes.

Whilst more detailed calculations are essential before getting out a shovel to start constructing Tippendell station, it might we demonstrated that these timings provide the basis for a service that could be implemented in reality. However it is abundantly clear that there is no facility whatsoever to recover from late running. We suggest that this might be accepted. To compensate and permit recovery, the service every 30 minutes would operate for a limited period - for example during the morning and evening peaks - and at other times the service frequency would be timetabled to be less strenuous, perhaps a train every 40 minutes or every 45 minutes, enabling more time allocated for turnround.

A more relaxed service every 30 minutes could be provided by the use of three trains, each train with one driver. The timings for this are those from the previous section for trains from Watford onto the MML except that, instead of connecting on to the MML, trains turn round at London Colney. In particular, a train would arrive at St Albans Abbey from Watford as a train departs St Albans Abbey in the opposite direction for Watford. The infrastructure for this is as in the previous section, with dual track between Watford Junction and Watford North. Again, additionally, dual track between Watford North and Garston provides the capability to recover from late running. The turnround times are approximately 12 minutes at London Colney and nearly 30 minutes at Watford Junction. We suggest neither of these sections of dual track would be required for the previous scenario - i.e. a service every 30 minutes with two trains - nor for the next scenario, which follows.

The next scenario and also the final one we will discuss for a local service between Watford Junction and London Colney is a service every 20 minutes with three trains. In this scenario the infrastructure we outlined for Tippendell is instead provided at Bricket Wood. Additionally there could be dual track northwards from Bricket Wood for some distance and southbound, possibly as far as Garston station. As for Tippendell, the station is equipped with a central island with two platform faces enabling a driver to disembark from a southbound train and board a northbound train. Trains pass at Bricket Wood or somewhere on the dual track section that includes Bricket Wood. Trains also pass at St Albans Abbey. The means by which trains are timetabled is that a train from London Colney arrives at the western-most platform at St Albans Abbey, then a train from Watford arrives as soon as possible afterwards at the eastern-most platform, that is, the two trains have crossed paths.

In this scenario, timetabling is calculated so that the journey time between Watford and St Albans is no greater than the current 16 minutes. We suggest this could prove to be feasible although more detailed calculations would be necessary. Provisional estimates for turnround times are five minutes at Watford, four minutes at St Albans Abbey and five minutes at London Colney. There is only limited capability for recovery from late running and so a service every 20 minutes would operate only for a limited period prior to switching to a service frequency timetabled to be less strenuous.

There has been discussion of a passing loop at Bricket Wood based on that at Penryn. This was conjectured in a different scenario of a service between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey with ample time for turnround at each terminus. It seems likely that the transit delays for trains at a passing loop based on that at Penryn are greater than those for trains passing on a section of dual track with a more conventional arrangement. We would not advocate a passing loop based on that at Penryn in this scenario where turnround times are relatively tight.

If there is only one driver on each train, drivers walk from one end of the train to the other at each of Watford Junction, St Albans Abbey, London Colney and St Albans Abbey a second time before returning to Watford. Drivers would certainly get fit. As an exercise for the reader, if drivers walked from one end of the train to the other only at Watford Junction, with two drivers on each train north of Bricket Wood, how many drivers would be needed ? If there were one driver less than that, how much exercise would the drivers get ?

We have illustrated infrastructure for connection to Rickmansworth although this would not necessarily apply in this case.

The business case for a local service between Watford and London Colney will be more viable if London Colney is also a station stop for at least some Thameslink services and which our illustration is not intended to preclude : the MML itself is not illustrated.

An additional possibility is that a southbound connection on to the MML at London Colney might offer the potential for a Thameslink service commencing at St Albans Abbey. In conjunction with a line northwards from St Albans Abbey, there is the potential for an MML loop line.

Upgrading 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 is single track.

Local service to Hatfield

Here we discuss a local service between Watford Junction, St Albans Abbey and Hatfield making use of the dismantled line from St Albans Abbey to Hatfield. We will not identify the terminus in Hatfield. The aim here is for the new line to be single track through the built-up area of St Albans. To achieve this, as a train from Hatfield arrives at the Abbey station, a train departs from the Abbey station for Hatfield. To the east of St Albans in open country a section of dual track is envisaged. Because trains are synchronised at the Abbey station, we envisage this as a local service. Thus, even if the line connected to an ECML station, through services would be unlikely.

Local service between Watford Junction, St Albans Abbey and Hatfield

For a service every 30 minutes, trains pass at the mid-point between Garston and Bricket Wood. Trains are synchronised departing northbound from Garston and southbound from Bricket Wood, the turnround time at Watford being around 14 minutes.

For a service every 20 minutes, trains pass just to the south of How Wood. To facilitate this, trains would be able to pass at How Wood. A train arrives at Watford Junction a couple of minutes before a train leaves from Watford, with a turnround time at Watford of around 22 minutes.

A more frequent service might be a tram service. For this a tram-passing facility would be available within the built-up area of St Albans and which we might envisage as being located to the east of Camp Road. We have not illustrated any upgrade to Abbey line infrastructure in this case. Possibly a tram could run every 10 minutes.

The existing dismantled line is well used for walking and cycling and there could not reasonably be any loss of facility in this respect. Whether re-routed or alongside the new line, the facility to walk or cycle between St Albans and Hatfield would necessarily be retained. This is potentially a challenge, particularly in passing beneath the MML.

Increasing the frequency of the Abbey line train service

The current train service is provided by a single train and, as a result, the time interval from one service to the next is a minimum of 45 minutes. There is widespread agreement that this time interval is too great. A service every 30 minutes would be desirable, however this would require two trains and of course crews for each of these trains. The operating costs thereby increase.

There has been a study by The Railway Consultancy into a passing loop at Bricket Wood, that is, the infrastructure enabling two trains to pass, thus enabling a service every 30 minutes. The study suggested the increased operating costs for two trains on the line would not be fully offset by the increase in revenue. The current service requiring a subsidy, it thus suggested the subsidy for two trains operating on the line would be greater than for a single train.

We might hypothesise that the operator of Radlett SRFI be required to pay the subsidy for this increased frequency of service. In such a case, it is unlikely that the developer of Radlett SRFI would be required to incorporate a Watford Junction to St Albans (City) link into their design, hence effectively precluding it.

List of options for extending the Abbey line

For many years there has been a debate concerning how to achieve a more frequent service on the Abbey line. We propose that the goal posts are moved, to consider options for extending the Abbey line, with a service frequency of at least every 30 minutes at least at peak times integral to each option. Here is a list of options although there are likely to be additional possibilities.

The Abbey line could be extended northwards to Hemel Hempstead.

The Abbey line could be extended northwards to Stevenage.

The Abbey line could be extended to a new station St Albans Cathedral.

The Abbey line could be extended to provide a local service to Hatfield.

The Abbey line could be linked from St Albans Abbey to St Albans (City).

The Abbey line could be extended to London Colney with a northbound connection on to the MML.

The Abbey line could be extended to London Colney with a freight turnback siding for Radlett SRFI.

With both a link between Watford Junction to St Albans (City) and a new station on an extended Abbey line at London Colney, there is likely to be an alternative route to St Albans Abbey as a result i.e. not via Park Street station. Park Street station serves few passengers and is also located within relatively easy walking distance of How Wood station. If Park Street station were to close, we would have a new route for the Watford to St Albans service, which would be Watford Junction, Watford North, Garston, Bricket Wood, How Wood, London Colney, St Albans Abbey. This would seem to have the potential to serve more passengers than the current service.

With a crossing over or under the WCML at Watford, the Abbey line service might reasonably be extended via Watford. We would highlight a possible all-stations-stop service between Rickmansworth and St Albans Abbey.

The Abbey line service could be extended to Watford High Street. Although there is potential overlap with the previous option, there are separate characteristics to this option. Perhaps the existing service would be extended to a terminus at Watford High Street.

New Hertfordshire rail strategy

Part one of our review of travel in the Oxford to Cambridge arc referenced the Hertfordshire rail strategy dated June 2016. A draft update to this strategy is available Draft Hertfordshire rail strategy 2019 and which proposes a new rail link between Stevenage and Luton.

Returning to the research published in August 2014

On 8 August 2014 consultants Atkins published "East West Rail - Central Section Conditional Outputs Statement". Atkins researched the potential for rail travel in the Oxford to Cambridge arc by considering 26 towns and cities as pairs. For example, they determined the potential for travel between Luton and Stevenage and between Oxford and Cambridge. In each case, a direct rail link between the two towns was hypothesised. Comparison could then be made with, for example, journey time by car. Pairs of towns that already have a direct rail link were excluded, for example, travel between Bedford and Luton. With a list of pairs of towns and cities (26 x 26), the results were then ranked, the first two ranks being very high priority journey pairs and high priority journey pairs. The published results included illustrations :

very high priority journey pairs

Source : East West Rail Consortium website, research paper August 2014, Figure 4.


high priority journey pairs

Source : East West Rail Consortium website, research paper August 2014, Figure 5.

The research indicated for each pair of towns the value of a direct rail link between them.

In part one we initially focused on the very high priority journey pair between St Albans and Cambridge. Part one of our review concluded with the following summary diagrammatic map, also included earlier.


Summary southern option for Oxford to Cambridge arc central section
Adding connectivity

Noting the high connectivity results for Harlow in the Atkins research, we have decided to update our summary diagrammatic map as follows.

Revised summary southern option for Oxford to Cambridge arc central section

The changes are substantial and we will now list our reasons.

As a result of the high connectivity results for Harlow, we have added a rail connection from Stevenage to Ware and from Ware to Harlow Town. Part one hypothesised a service between Oxford and Stevenage and which is now extended to become a service between Oxford and Stansted Airport via Stevenage and Harlow.

For any services terminating at Harlow Town, the aspiration is that they will not require paths on the West Anglia Main Line (WAML).

As a result of construction work at Stevenage station, services on the Hertford loop i.e. via Hertford North will be able to access Stevenage station without requiring paths on the ECML. As a result, we have opted to illustrate all east west rail services accessing Stevenage from the south, although there is no reason to insist on this. Effectively we are being provided with east west rail connectivity at Stevenage, although trains will need to change direction at Stevenage.

We were thinking that Luton Airport Parkway station on the MML would be replaced by a new station at Luton Airport itself however we have decided to withdraw that assumption.

Given that the East West Railway Company (EWR Co) has announced its preferred route for Bedford to Cambridge with east west rail services calling at Bedford Midland station, we have updated our summary diagrammatic map to reflect the situation in which we now find ourselves. The green-coloured connecting lines from the Midland Main Line (MML) to the Bletchley - Bedford line are no longer required, although we do envisage services from the Midland Main Line (MML) connecting on to the line to Cambridge.

A link between St Albans Abbey and St Albans (City) stations was discussed earlier.

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

Luton to Stevenage corridor

There would be two east west rail services :

(i) Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans (City), Luton Airport Parkway, Luton, Bedford, Cambridge

(ii) Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans (City), Stevenage (change of direction), Ware, Harlow, Stansted Airport.

Neither service calls at Welwyn nevertheless there are high connectivity results for Welwyn in the Atkins research. It seems reasonable in the case of a Luton to Stevenage corridor to hypothesise local east west rail services : Welwyn to Watford Junction, Welwyn to Luton Airport Parkway and Luton, Welwyn to Harlow and also Luton and Luton Airport Parkway to Harlow.

At this point it may be helpful to zoom in on Welwyn Garden City station at openstreetmap.org and also refer to the wikipedia article
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welwyn_Garden_City_railway_station

There are four platforms at Welwyn Garden City and a flyover to the south of the station. Platform 1 is the eastern-most and is only used occasionally. Platform 4 is the western-most and is used for the service from Moorgate terminating at Welwyn and which uses the flyover for the return service from this platform to Moorgate.

We note that a southbound service arriving at Welwyn platform 1 could proceed to a turnback siding, then use the flyover to access platform 4 and so return northbound. That is, we have the infrastructure necessary for east west rail at Welwyn. At this point let us assume an upgrade to the ECML to provide four tracks between Welwyn and Knebworth and that, by arrangement, paths are then available for local east west rail services to Welwyn.

We would seem to have the infrastructure for east west rail services at Welwyn. Moreover, by reference to the wikipedia article, if trains providing this service are a little shorter than trains for London commuter services, there are 4 sidings at Welwyn available for local east west rail services. We do indeed seem to have what we need for east west rail services at Welwyn.

A question is how east west rail services to Welwyn would interact with the suggested ECML upgrade. The following diagrammatic map provides a representation of the Luton to Stevenage corridor.

Luton to Stevenage corridor with connections to existing lines

We have attempted to illustrate a corridor rather than draw a line on a map although we have assumed that the corridor is to the south of Stevenage and to the north of Welwyn. There are three alternative connecting chords to Welwyn which we will now discuss.

  1. This is a connection for east west rail from Watford and from Luton on to the ECML to Welwyn. A service from Oxford to Stansted Airport could also be routed via Welwyn : Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans (City), Welwyn (change of direction), Stevenage (change of direction), Ware, Harlow, Stansted Airport.

  2. This is a different connection for east west rail from Watford and from Luton to Welwyn not requiring paths on the ECML. It is a purpose-specific new rail connection to Welwyn and we outline it as an alternative to an ECML upgrade. A service from Oxford to Stansted Airport could be routed via Welwyn as for note 1. This purpose-specific rail connection takes inspiration from the Dunstable, Luton, Harpenden and Welwyn dismantled line which ran via Sherrardspark, being to the north-west of the station.

    Interestingly it is possible that Welwyn North station, possibly relocated, could be served by this purpose-specific rail connection, raising the question as to what service would be provided at Welwyn North, also with the potential to replace ECML services at this station and so increase ECML capacity.

  3. A connection for east west rail from Harlow on to the ECML to Welwyn as an alternative to note 1. This would necessitate east west services travelling twice between the Hertford loop and the ECML. A service from Oxford to Stansted Airport could be routed via Welwyn : Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans (City), Stevenage (change of direction), Welwyn (change of direction), Ware, Harlow, Stansted Airport.

This youtube video shows trains at Welwyn including the service from Moorgate terminating at Welwyn. The view is taken from platform 2.
A train from Moorgate to platform 4 can be viewed as from 1 minute 23 seconds, also as from 9 minutes 39 seconds with brakes squealing.
Train departure for Moorgate from platform 4 to use the flyover can be viewed at 5 minutes 13 seconds.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwGocDmItzk

We noted earlier that a southbound service arriving at Welwyn platform 1 could proceed to a turnback siding, then use the flyover to access platform 4 and so return northbound. This would possess some similarity with the existing service from Moorgate terminating at Welwyn which arrives at platform 4 and uses the flyover for the return service to Moorgate. With knowledge of the timetable, use of the flyover by this service can be viewed on the opentraintimes.com website at
OpenTrainTimes: Live map of London Kings Cross and Moorgate to Hitchin (both open in a new window or tab).

Hatfield to Watford corridor

To our summary diagrammatic map earlier we have added an alternative to a Luton to Stevenage corridor being Hatfield to Watford. This would connect on to a link line from Watford Junction to the MML. Services would require paths on the ECML to Stevenage. An upgrade to the ECML to provide four tracks between Welwyn and Knebworth would be a prerequisite. There is an outstanding question as to where London Colney station would be located. There would be two east west rail services :

(i) Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, St Albans (City), Luton Airport Parkway, Luton, Bedford, Cambridge

(ii) Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, Hatfield, Welwyn, Stevenage (change of direction), Ware, Harlow, Stansted Airport.

Taking inspiration from the Moorgate to Welwyn service, we outline here a possibility not included in our earlier list of options for extending the Abbey line. The Abbey line could be connected to Welwyn with a service from Watford calling at Hatfield and terminating at Welwyn. Since there are currently only 2 tracks on the ECML between Knebworth and Welwyn, there will be free paths for such a service connecting on to the ECML and terminating at Welwyn. The Abbey line would also connect on to the MML with a service from Watford to Luton Airport Parkway, Luton and Bedford potentially continuing to Cambridge.

A connection of the Abbey line to Welwyn would be an interim arrangement, with the intention that there would be 4 tracks subsequently between Knebworth and Welwyn and with rail connections from Stevenage to Ware and from Ware to Harlow Town, thus providing full east west rail via Watford and Welwyn. In this case it is reasonable to suggest that the Dunstable to Luton busway would be extended to Stevenage.

Watford Junction station

There are plans to redevelop Watford Junction station and build offices above the station. Such plans close off options for the future and seem to be the result of 1960's thinking that regards rail travel as a thing of the past, boxing in and limiting railway lines and stations and preventing future expansion. Thus for example the redevelopment of land at Kings Cross in central London but which would have been extremely useful for High Speed 2 : High Speed 2 therefore terminates at Euston having lost the opportunity for a station combined with High Speed 1 i.e. St Pancras. A further example was the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street without resolving problems with passenger flows. Specifically, we suggest there needs to be provision for east west rail at Watford.

Garden Village

Park Street Garden Village is proposed as an alternative to Radlett SRFI. It would be helpful if the design, albeit at an early stage, were reworked to include a rail link between Watford Junction and St Albans (City), possibly also a station at London Colney alongside the MML and as an extension of the Abbey line to or via St Albans Abbey, as outlined earlier.

Outer London rail consortium

We would like to suggest that the potential for east west rail via Watford Junction be brought within the scope of the East West Rail Consortium. Of the various services that might be considered, firstly, Oxford to Cambridge via Aylesbury, Watford Junction, St Albans, Luton Airport Parkway, Luton and Bedford. Secondly, Oxford to Stansted Airport via Aylesbury, Watford Junction, Stevenage, Ware and Harlow.

We suggest it would be reasonable to consider the creation of an Outer London rail consortium.

Our article Camberley : coming in from the cold proposes a London commuter service via Bagshot, Camberley and Frimley.

In part one, we suggested a circular service making use of Crossrail 2 via Oxford and Cambridge. As an update, it would seem reasonable to suggest a service via Stevenage and Ware and not via Cambridge. The service would operate clockwise and anti-clockwise on the following route :

Broxbourne, St Pancras, Victoria, Clapham Junction, Wimbledon, Surbiton, Weybridge, Woking, Brookwood, Camberley, Wokingham, Reading, Oxford, Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Watford Junction, Stevenage, Ware and Broxbourne.

This route can be followed on our summary diagrammatic map :

Summary diagrammatic map : our projects in relation to one another (opens in new window or tab, click on magnifying glass).

We hypothesise that such a service might contribute to a reduction in car dependency and of congestion on the M25 motorway.

Without Crossrail 2, a modified version of such a service might operate from London Waterloo to either Kings Cross or Moorgate or Liverpool Street.

We are proposing Aylesbury Interchange (AI) as a station stop on the High Speed 2 railway line (article : Proposal for Aylesbury Interchange on High Speed 2 ). An Outer London rail consortium might consider the merits of this proposal.

We are pleased to announce a proposed name OL-Rac, Outer London Rail Consortium or OL-Anorac, Outer London Another Rail Consortium, unless someone has a better idea.

Conclusions

Our 2016 research into travel in the Oxford to Cambridge arc, referenced in part one of our research, made no reference to the Abbey line. Since then there has been a focus on the Bedford - Sandy - Cambridge corridor and effectively a decision to progress this corridor. As our research shows, there is therefore the opportunity to consider additionally a Southern Option for travel in the Oxford to Cambridge arc. The Abbey line becomes key to the achievement of this.

It would be reasonable to draw up a list of options for extending the Abbey line then proceed to business case evaluation for some of these options.

We suggest it would be reasonable to consider the creation of an Outer London rail consortium.

The current design for Radlett SRFI builds over the dismantled rail link to the MML at Napsbury and without assessment. It would be reasonable to require the proposers of Radlett SRFI to draw up new plans to include a direct rail link from Watford Junction to St Albans (City).

Here is a summary diagrammatic map to accompany our conclusions. Only some of the alternatives we have discussed are illustrated.

East west rail services at Watford Junction

This article has provided part two of our review into travel in the Oxford to Cambridge arc.

Part one : Oxford to Cambridge by rail : southern options for the central section

 

The views expressed in this review are those of RailEnable.

Comments are welcome.

Limited on-site investigations have been conducted in relation to this article.

Our current proposals, projects and articles are listed here : List of articles

 

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