The Abbey Line's 150th birthday

PUBLISHED: 17:31 30 April 2008 | UPDATED: 13:15 06 May 2010

Celebrating 150 years

Celebrating 150 years

ON May 5, 1858, when the first London & Northwestern Railway steam train rolled into St Albans Abbey Station, it was met by crowds of people cheering and dancing in the street. The highlight of the day was a triumphant procession which marched through the

ON May 5, 1858, when the first London & Northwestern Railway steam train rolled into St Albans Abbey Station, it was met by crowds of people cheering and dancing in the street.

The highlight of the day was a triumphant procession which marched through the town. The St Albans Corporation declared May 5 to be treated as a public holiday and we are delighted that the 150th Anniversary of the Abbey Line is again a public holiday.

To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Line on May 5, a series of events will be happening between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey stations. To mirror the historical movements 150 years ago, the Mayor of St Albans will greet the chairman of Watford Borough Council who will travel to St Albans. They will then march in a procession from St Albans Town Hall to the Abbey station where they will board and travel the 16 minutes to Watford Junction to unveil a plaque. Festivities will then proceed to Bricket Wood Green, opposite Bricket Wood station, where there will be a funfair and band to finish off the day.

The first railway to pass through Watford was the London & Birmingham Railway, which opened from London Euston to Boxmoor on July 20, 1837. In 1846 the London & Birmingham became a part of the vast London & North Western Railway (LNWR).

From very early on, a branch line railway had been proposed to link Dunstable, Luton and St Albans with the new main line at Watford. However, for various political and economic reasons, the line was only ever to reach St Albans. Had the plan to extend the line to Dunstable and Luton ever been fulfilled, the line may have had a considerably different character from today's tranquil single-track railway.

The LNWR received Parliamentary powers to construct the six-mile, 32 chains long branch line on February 11, 1853. Work started in the early months of 1856 and the line was opened to public traffic on Wednesday, May 5, 1858. By this time the LNWR had constructed a totally new and much bigger station at Watford on the site where it has stood ever since.

Intermediate stations were initially planned for "Aldenham Road, Smug Oak and Park Street", but there were only two to begin with - at Bricket Wood and Park Street. Neither station served a large population centre, and in the summer of 1858 (a matter of months after opening), Park Street closed. It appears Bricket Wood temporarily befell a similar fate around 1859, but by 1861 both stations had reopened.

While Bricket Wood station has always been in the same place, the original site of Park Street is a contentious issue. It is thought that it may originally have lain very close to the Hyde Lane level crossing, which is now where How Wood station is to be found (opened 1988). A crossing keeper's cottage stood at Hyde Lane until the 1960s and this may have been part of the original station building. The current position of Park Street, adjacent to the Watling Street overbridge, is thought to date from the 1890s.

In the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras, Bricket Wood became an unlikely tourist destination because of two funfairs situated nearby. Hundreds of people passed through the station, particularly in the summer months, many of them on day trips to escape the crowds of London. An additional platform and "passing loop" were installed by the LNWR at Bricket Wood in 1913, to cope with the large increase in excursion traffic. This allowed two trains to operate on the branch and the new platform could accommodate up to nine carriages. However, the funfairs went into gradual decline in the 1920s and the line never saw such a high level of traffic again. The passing loop and second platform were eventually demolished in 1966.

In about 1910, a small station was opened in an area of Watford known as Callowland. This was built to serve workers from the various manufacturing companies that were springing up around there. The station was soon renamed Watford North, but it was not until the 1930s when massive housing development took place on fields around the station, that the station really came into its own. There was a proliferation of sidings for freight around the north Watford area, extending almost as far as the present-day Garston station (some remains can still be seen). Indeed, freight played a significant role on the branch until well into the 1960s. Today, Watford North and Garston are the busiest intermediate stations on the branch.

The Abbey line was the first railway that the ancient city of St Albans received. The people of the city were very supportive of the scheme, and the new terminus was a hub of activity. Known originally simply as St Albans, the name was only changed to St Albans Abbey in 1924, to distinguish it from the former Midland Railway station, then known as St Albans City which was opened in 1868. In 1866, the Great Northern Railway also built a branch line from Hatfield that terminated at the Abbey station. Extensive sidings to the west served the local freight needs, not least providing space for the daily coal train that arrived to feed the adjacent municipal gasworks. The station buildings, although modest, provided a booking hall, waiting rooms and toilets for passengers, a far cry from today's ugly waiting shelter completely devoid of all facilities - such is progress. A "run-round" loop was provided, which allowed locomotives to run round their carriages at the end of the journey so that the loco was always at the head of the train. In later years an autotrain or push-pull arrangement was used, whereby the driver could drive the train from a specially-converted carriage at the opposite end of the train from the loco. This dispensed with the need to "run round" and was the precursor to modern operating methods.

Being a branch line, trains were usually made up of three to four coaches and hauled by a tank engine. These engines were invariably housed or "shedded" at the Watford Junction engine shed (shed code 1C). Coal trains, being much heavier than passenger trains, were usually worked by tender engines, normally 0-6-0s. Diesel trains gradually started to take over in the 1950s, but the technology was largely untried so the Abbey Line played host to a variety of experimental designs until the branch was fully "dieselised" for passenger trains in 1955.

Despite the substantial savings made by using diesel trains, in 1963 the Beeching Plan proposed closure of the Abbey Line along with hundreds of other similar branch lines the length and breadth of the UK. Luckily, strong local protest kept the line alive, and indeed the threat of closure as a heavy-rail operation has been lurking almost constantly every since. The line was to suffer heavily from rationalisation - almost everything save the track, formation and station platforms was demolished in the 1960s.

Since 1965, however, new stations have been opened at Garston and How Wood, and in 1987-88 the branch was electrified. In the late 90s, after a fierce battle to block the conversion of the line to a proposed "guided-busway" system, a public consultation exercise resulted in resounding support for keeping the Abbey Line as a railway and a strategy that builds on its strengths as a local transport link.

With that in mind, July 2005 marked the designation of the branch as a Community Railway under the Government's Community Rail Development Strategy, launched in 2004. Integral to designation was the inauguration of a Community Rail Partnership (CRP) set up by Herts County Council. The Partnership manages and executes a number of ongoing projects on the line and will continue to develop the Abbey Line in the future.

More information about the Abbey Line can be found on the website at www.abbeyline.org.uk

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