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Eploring the Abbey Line

Tuesday 27th October 2020

I recently had the pleasure of exploring the Abbey Line with my friend Geoff Marshall. Geoff’s a professional and brilliant YouTube Creator producing engaging videos about all things track based including the epic All The Stations series he and his wife Vicky undertook in 2017 as well as the LEJOG trip we did together in 2019. (In case you missed that, my LEJOG blog can be read here and Geoff and Vicky’s video watched here.)

Geoff has just released his latest video exploring the Abbey Line. You can view it here.

The Abbey Line is a 6.5 miles single track electrified branch line between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey. It has five intermediate stations; takes an inconvenient sixteen minutes from end to end; consequently operates to a difficult-to-remember 45 minute frequency; with one train shuttling up and down.

At lockdown in March London Northwestern Railway shut down the line to reduce its driver commitment and instead laid on a rail replacement service operated by two coaches. The current timetable was introduced on 6th September and sees the train reinstated during Monday to Friday morning and afternoon peaks as well as part of the evening and during Saturday daytimes. Replacement coaches operate during weekday daytimes and two individual return journeys in the evenings, early mornings and late evenings on Saturdays and all day on Sundays. You have to have your wits about you to know whether to wait on the platform or at a nearby bus stop.

Geoff and I have history together on the Abbey Line as he invited me to join him as his companion on the video he made in his Least Used Station series (as the title suggests it features the least used station in each county) in 2016 about Park Street. Park Street’s claim to fame being Hertfordshire’s least used station. But things didn’t quite go to plan as the day we travelled, the train, at that time operated by London Midland, broke down and we were instead treated to an emergency summoned rail replacement minibus.

This has been a niggle with us both ever since, as it just didn’t seem right to make a video about a least used railway station not having featured a train, so four years on, another reason to explore the Abbey Line was to right that wrong and catch a train from Park Street.

Geoff’s plan was to take the train north from Watford Junction to the middle station on the line, Bricket Wood; wait for the train to come back from St Albans Abbey and catch it southbound to the next adjacent station, Garston, from where we’d walk to the next station south, Watford North, from where we’d head back north on the train to How Wood (the station north of Bricket Wood), then walk to Park Street where we’d finish the tour by boarding a train to St Albans Abbey, the northern terminus.

It was a classic well thought out ‘tick off all the stations’ plan by Geoff combining train travel and walks between stations, not least the very pleasant stroll through How Wood between that station and Park Street.

How Wood station being captured on film

As you can see in the video everything went according to plan and it was only when we’d finished we realised just how close we’d come to failing in our mission once again to travel by train from Park Street. It turned out while we were taking a break from the tracks enjoying our walk from Garston to Watford North there was a problem of some kind meaning a round trip was cancelled while another train was substituted.

We had a narrow escape from a second failure.

Ten Abbey Line facts

1 The Line opened in 1858 with just two intermediate stations – Bricket Wood and Park Street & Frogmore. The terminus at St Albans Abbey was also served by a connecting line from Hatfield between 1865 and 1965. Watford North (originally called Callowland) opened in 1910; Garston opened in 1966 and How Wood in 1988. Frogmore was dropped as part of the Park Street name in 1974 when the station relocated to the current site having moved further north in 1890.

2 The line was electrified with 25 kV AC overhead lines in 1988. It’s currently operated with a former Thameslink Class 319 but there are rumours a Class 350 may be destined for the line in the future The four coach Class 319 train has a first class compartment but you can’t buy a first class ticket to travel on the line.

3 None of the stations are manned apart from Watford Junction of course where trains depart from Platform 11 and there’s a connection from the branch to the main line.

Watford North’s level crossing

4 There’s a level crossing at Watford North station which is operated by a manual plunger operated by the driver heading north towards St Albans and a track side ‘treadle’ detecting the train has passed heading south towards Watford Junction. There’s also a foot crossing just north of How Wood.

How Wood’s foot crossing

5 There’s an active Abbey Flyer Users’ Group (Abfly) with a mission to “represent users and potential users of the branch line, to fight for the long-term future of the line and campaign for further investment”. Among the items on their shopping list are a frequency increase, longer operating hours, smarter trains, through services, better security, improved revenue collection and Oyster integration.

6 There’s an active ‘Friends of the Abbey Line’ Group to encourage volunteers to “make the stations a real part of the community” organised by the Community Rail Partnership which was set up in 2005. Volunteers tidy up litter and weeds, help install planters, art work and signs and as a secondary aim promote the train service locally through events, leaflets and presentations to community groups.

Geoff admiring the artwork installed by the Friends of the Abbey Line at Park Street

7 There have long been aspirations to increase the frequency of service on the line from the current inconvenient 45 minute cycle. In 2009 Lord Adonis (then Secretary of State for Transport) announced plans to convert the line to light rail with a passing loop enabling the service frequency to increase. This plan was abandoned in 2013.

The rather nice canopy at Bricket Wood station where there are aspirations to reinstate the passing loop

8 In May 2020 the idea of reinstating the long removed passing loop on the existing infrastructure was included as one of ten projects chosen out of the first 60 ideas from around the country submitted in February and March to receive funding from the Government’s £500 million Restoring Your Railway Fund. The funding will be used to put a business case together.

9 Hertfordshire County Council have drawn up draft plans for a Mass Rapid Transit project improving links across the county’s east-west axis, including the Watford to St Albans corridor. This could include an improved service on the Abbey Line (subject to the passing loop being built) albeit the northern terminus at St Albans Abbey station is inconveniently some distance south of the city centre.

Draft Mass Rapid Transit idea from Hertfordshire County Council

10 There are grand plans to improve Watford Junction station under a three phase project drawn up by Network Rail. These include a completely new entrance and ticket office in phase one, and rather worryingly in phase two, a development built over the adjacent bus station site making for a covered bus station.

Artists impression of the new and enlarged entrance and ticket office
Drawing to show the bus station (pink) submerged under a new development (blue)

A few reflections

During our travels it became evident not all passengers were using the ticket machines to buy tickets; two even admitting to us they never buy tickets. There were no onboard revenue checks. The current hotch potch of half a rail service and half a bus service is completely unsatisfactory for passengers. Our experience on two random days (admittedly in four years!) indicates a level of unreliability on the line.

More positively it’s obvious the Abbey Line engenders a lot of local support and a committed band of volunteers atively promote the line and look after the stations as well as lobby for improvements.

But the cost of providing a train trundling up and down this short stretch of line for seventeen hours a day must be out of all proportion to the revenue it generates. I’m sure the aspirations to reinstate the passing loop are well intentioned but I can’t see the business case stacking up as I doubt the additional cost of doubling the service using two trains will generate sufficient additional revenue, and the line will lose even more money. It will also lead to a very inefficient utilisation of each of the two trains – active for just 32 minutes in every hour.

I know the line’s supporters are dedicated heavy rail fans but I reckon the best outcome would be to see Hertfordshire County Council’s plan to incoporate it into their east-west tranist system using bus or light rail based technology.

But it’s a lovely line to explore. And offers first class travel at standard class fares.

And please, Network Rail don’t cover over the bus station at Watford.

End of the line at St Albans Abbey – in London Midland days

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.

14 thoughts on “Eploring the Abbey Line Leave a comment

  1. I fairly frequently see the replacement bus service en route, and have noticed that passenger numbers vary from 0 to none on almost all occasions. Looking at catchment areas for the stations:
    St Albans Abbey: quite small, and with route 321 every 15-20 minutes direct to Watford. The City Centre is a 10-15 minute walk up a very steep hill, so few passengers do that. There was a StationLink service every 45 minutes linking to the City Station a few years ago, to be operated by an electric bus; that didn’t materialise, and just as well, as passenger numbers were pretty much nil, and the service lasted less than 12 months.
    Park Street: a small village with few users, borne out by its “lowest usage” status. Through (hourly) bus service to St Albans.
    How Wood: a 1960’s-1970’s estate, but quite small. Through (about hourly) 361 bus service to St Albans.
    Bricket Wood: a small village with quite high-value housing in general. Route 321 every 15-20 minutes from the opposite side of the housing to both Watford and St Albans. Route 361 about every hour through to St Albans.
    Garston: a 1950’s-1970’s estate with lower-cost housing, but which now barely manages a (supported) hourly bus service.
    North Watford: apart from London commuters, local bus services are both more comprehensive and more frequent for most passengers.
    Watford Junction: around 10-15 minutes walk from the shops at Watford, so again the bus would win.
    There were reasonable London commuter passenger numbers prior to covid-19 . . . whether they’ll return is up for debate!!
    All in all, I suspect the raison d’etre for the passing loop and any improvement in service are now gone, and the dosh available would be far better used in improving bus services.

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  2. Doesn’t this seem tailor-made for train-tram, going east from St Albans, and west from Watford, instead of the Croxley link that TfL (note the L) will not fund?

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  3. I have a look on Google Maps, and it looks like the train has to reverse as it pulls into Watford Junction. is this true? Sorry if you mentioned it and i just didn’t notice.

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    • There is a platform on the branch line although it isn’t obvious on Google Maps, you have to zoom right in on satellite view and you can just about make it out, along with the footpath connecting it to the main part of the station.

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  4. I have on occasions travelled on the Abbey Line, though a few years ago now. It is actually quite an attractive proposition to access the Abbey Line by car from the A414 at Park Street station and enjoy a surprisingly scenic trundle into Watford.

    I seem to remember noting at the time I was one of the few people to buy a ticket. Even when challenged at the gates at Watford junction, it was amazing how many passengers claimed to have travelled from Garston or Watford North rather than their actual
    boarding station was further up the line!

    It was hardly busy then so I dread to think what it’s like at the moment given rail generally can’t muster much more then around 30% of pre-Covid journeys. Of course, the Abbey Line will continue to exist as a heavy rail line because it has many friends in the community but I can’t see the cost benefit analysis figure on providing a passing loop being anything but dire.

    I have often wondered whether the Abbey Line would make a successful heritage railway with first generation DMUs (or even the odd EMU) being used instead of current stock and ‘bustituition’? Imagine the queues for the chance to ride on a ‘Bubblecar’!

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  5. If this were a bus service (a proper one I mean!), it would have been terminated before Dr. Beeching came on the scene. The only chance of sensible survival would be to find a way to get it to St. Albans City station, doubtless impossible. But, as it is the Railway, it will go on forever and ever soaking up scare public money that could better spent on buses.

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  6. My brother ( @CottonTreeRail on Twitter) had a great idea for ‘solving’ the timetabling issue:

    Trams or heritage traction would run between St Albans Abbey and Bricket Wood. These would connect end-on on a single (extended) platform at Bricket Wood with a Bricket Wood to Watford Junction standard heavy rail train, which could run at a greater frequency (presumably at least half-hourly). (Some of the latter could be an extension of existing (?) Watford Junction main line terminators).

    It would require minimal infrastructure changes – a removable double-sided buffer stop at Bricket Wood would be needed if the ‘trapped in’ train didn’t have its own maintenance facilities that end.

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  7. It was good that you and Geoff were able to sample the Abbey Flyer on this occasion, however your trip has highlighted some of the issues that we at ABFLY have been campaigning for over several years, namely reliability, frequency and lack of revenue protection.
    We are hopeful that the introduction of class 350 Desiros will improve reliability and robustness of the service as opposed to the “one careful owner not” class 319s! Frequency would be sorted with the Bricket Wood loop which is being championed by Hertfordshire CC but we do not underestimate the challenges in achieving this; the chronic road congestion in the Watford and St Albans areas means that the journey by road can take three or four times that of the train. A user-friendly smartcard combined with more checks would hopefully encourage more people to pay their fares and credit the line with more revenue and journeys!

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  8. I have never understood why a rail service from Watford Junction to Heathrow has not been introduced, There is already in existence a link to the GWR line near Willesden Junction. It would then avoid people having to travel into Euston and across to Paddington

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  9. What might have been a useful route would have been to have joined the Hertford to WGC line to the Hatfield to St Albans line. Most of the track bed and bridges etc are now lost so it will never happen could even have been extended through to Heathrow

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  10. Thank you and Geoff for your entertaining and informative report an that branch line!

    From far away I am wondering whether it wouldn’t be more cost efficient to spend the money on making the journey time shorter.
    (16 minutes for just 6.5 miles seems to have potential…) If a single trip would take only 13 minutes, there would be a chance to increase the frequency in peak times with only one trainset.

    Even if this would cost a higher investment than the passing loop, it might be cheaper operating the line.

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    • Hello Stefan – we’ve thought about this but to reduce the journey time would inevitably mean missing some stops out thus reducing the frequency at certain stations. Especially during the peaks there is a good flow of passengers in/out of both ends of the line, specifically schoolchildren at the St Albans end and London/local commuters at the Watford end,
      So whilst an increase in frequency could be attained, it would be at the cost of frequency at certain stations as a consequence.
      Peter
      ABFLY

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