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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.