How could rail freight plans impact the St Albans community?

Herts Ad editor Matt Adams, Anne Main MP and Cllr Sandy Walkington with rail freight campaigners out

Herts Ad editor Matt Adams, Anne Main MP and Cllr Sandy Walkington with rail freight campaigners outside County Hall - Credit: Archant

Twelve years ago an audacious developer proposed a huge rail freight terminal on St Albans’ Green Belt, triggering a long-fought battle that continues to plow ahead, showing no sign of stopping.

Campaigners have appeared in the Herts Ad time and time and again throughout the ongoing saga - when the Park Street site was first proposed by Helioslough as a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) in 2006, when it was initially refused in 2009, when it was given outline planning permission by communities secretary Eric Pickles in 2014, and when his decision was taken to the High Court and appeals court by St Albans district council, but eventually upheld.

St Albans MP Anne Main has fervently backed the campaign, frequently appearing in this newspaper to condemn the plans and most recently asking for an urgent meeting with transport secretary Chris Grayling to discuss its viability.

But what do the neighbours think? What do schools think? What do businesses think? What do the people who this proposal will impact most think of the impeding intrusion onto their homes, services, and roads?

A committee member on the Napsbury Park Residents Association, Malcolm Mark, said the noise and traffic intrusion will be immense: “We have been really very much against it since 2006.

“We are within two or three hundred yards of the site, and they talk about putting in lighting and buildings but there is no way they can block out 24/7 noise and anytime there’s a block down the M25 the A414 gets grid locked already, we are all concerned that the highways won’t take it.”

He is adamant a rail freight is not viable on the already well-used Thameslink line, and the plans are going to transform into a lorry depot: “We are convinced that it will be road to road with very few trains.

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“It will be even worse than rail.” Anne Main has also echoed this concern.

When asked if people are angry he said: “There are people in the whole area around here who just could not understand, frankly, some of the decisions people were coming up with.

“Everybody, apart from Helioslough, wants it to be left as Green Belt.”

He noted that if something must be built on the land, a SRFI would be their last choice: “If our arms were twisted and we were forced to have something, then 95 per cent would go for housing or something else.”

The rail freight depot has been given outline planning permission, but it is still unclear what form the huge interchange will take.

Park Street resident, Paul Field, said: “It’s massive deal, I mean there are other things it could be – why we could not have a super hospital there, I don’t know? In my personal point of view that would be better than rail freight.

“There will be more traffic, more pollution, more noise – unless you are someone who is going to get a job there, [it is not good news].

“But the problem is going to be, where are the workers going to live?”

He expressed doubts whether Eric Pickles, who “green ticked” the plans, has ever visited the proposed site.

The businesses in St Albans do not think it will make a positive impact either, as director of the St Albans Chamber of Commerce Michael Weaver, explained: “What MP Anne Main has said, is that the Green Belt argument is lost, so why not come forward with a plan to develop a new, mini small town there with the necessary infrastructure and therefore do something that will help and address the problems with new housing?”

He described the plans as a “disaster for our area”: “The rail freight scheme will give the whole district infrastructure problems, it will slow down the traffic, clog the roads, and we will be very much opposed to it.

“On the other hand, it will give employment, there is no debate about that, but the infrastructure that will be needed will not be there for the employed.”

The proposed site for the SRFI is still owned by Herts county council (HCC), and Helioslough will have to make them an offer before any work could begin.

HCC leader, Robert Gordon, said it was obliged to sell the land for a good enough price, but stressed he hopes all plans will be dropped: “We don’t want to sell it to a developer at all – the last thing local people want is an SRFI.

“A housing development or a hospital would be preferable – although they won’t want anything anyway, the longer the Green Belt stays that way, the better.” He described it the “sheer horrendous bulk of the site” as “appalling”.

Cllr Gordon said he understands why the wider community is anxious: “I would expect people to be anxious about it, unless something else happens, it looks very likely that the rail freight will go ahead.

“Should we be very much more positive about the other alternatives? While we would have less Green Belt, it wouldn’t have the same affect as the rail freight would have, and we have some other benefits. It would be less awful than the rail freight.”

He echoed the need for housing, or a hospital, but stressed in an ideal world no-one would “concrete over” the Green Belt - “even though in our heart of hearts we wouldn’t want anything anyway. We don’t want to sell it to anybody, we want to keep the Green Belt for as long as possible, and so we are not pushing this because it’s the last thing we want”.

Adding: “All we can hope is Helioslough pack their bags and go away, but that seems unlikely – but the longer it’s goes on the more likely that is to happen.

“[On the other hand], I expect the local people are living with this sword of Damocles over them, whether this goes ahead or not.”