St Albans rail freight plans appear to move further ahead

How Wood Primary School is very close to the proposed rail freight site.

How Wood Primary School is very close to the proposed rail freight site. - Credit: Archant

Plans appear to be moving forward for the controversial rail freight interchange planned for St Albans.

Developers Helioslough recently submitted an application to St Albans district council (SADC) including more details of a new country park, which is required in the 2014 outline planning permission for the Park Street Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI).

The plan reveals buildings on the 331,655 sqm site will be no taller than 20 metres, there will be space for 1,602 cars and 617 lorries, and a relief road will be built.

The application says it wants to “soften and integrate the SFRI into the landscape setting” and “maximise nature conservation value of both new and existing habitats on the site”.

Plants which are legally classed as weeds, vegetation which suppresses planted species, and any plants which “colonise” the site will be restricted or removed.

It describes a “range of hard landscape areas” and trees will be planted at about two to four metres apart in woodland areas, to “achieve a more natural appearance”.

Coordinator of the campaigning group Stop the Rail Freight Exchange (STRiFE), Cathy Bolshaw, described the country park as a “joke”, but said the group will not be formally objecting because she believes there is no point - it has been approved at appeals court.

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She said: “It’s not a country park, it’s a joke - we already have green spaces now there anyway, there has been green spaces there for a very long time.”

Even with the country park compromise, there has been unease about the scheme’s viability and campaigners are worried it will transform into a lorry depot - putting even more vehicles onto the road.

Teachers at How Wood Primary School raised concerns that it may become more dangerous for children to walk to class if this happens, due to a lack of safe crossing places.

A spokesperson from the school said: “The main concerns for our school community are pollution from increased traffic on the road, congestion, and concerns that the current infrastructure would not be able to support the increased volume of traffic.

“We are also very concerned that there are insufficient safe places for children to cross the road whilst walking to school.

“The increase in traffic to the local area will raise these concerns significantly.”

Earlier this month St Albans MP Anne Main requested an urgent meeting with Transport Secretary Chris Grayling because she believes it “is likely that SRFI will eventually function simply as a lorry depot, putting further strain on the roads around St Albans, particularly the A414”.

She said Network Rail had been “vague and unrealistic” answering her questions on the issue - but was given a “glimmer of hope” for the future at the resultant meeting with a rail minister Paul Maynard last week.

In it, she was told Network Rail cannot clarify the 2018 commuter timetable, and she said landscaping is secondary to these questions: “I don’t think a blade of grass should be considered before we get answers on the viability of the railfreight site.

“After all this time, we’re still no closer to having any indication of how a rail freight site will work in practice.

“We cannot keep pushing ahead when we have no idea of how freight works with passenger services.

“Without the necessary rail connections and pathing, this site has all the hallmarks of a lorry park in the green belt – something that would be completely unacceptable, and certainly not a SRFI.”

Mrs Main added that there should be “no more work on progressing the site until we get the evidence that SRFI can function properly.”

Govia Thameslink also responded to Mrs Main’s letter, which said disruption to trains were unacceptable.

It sited infrastructure failings, trespass incidents, Storm Doris, and on-going reliability issues with the new Class 700 trains as reasons for their erratic service.

It apologised and said performance is steadily improving: “While the number of infrastructure incidents is reducing, the time it takes to recover the train service is increasing.

“This is being looked at by the Network Rail route team at a senior level to address the problem.”

It argued London Bridge works will relieve the pressure on the Thameslink line when they finish in May 2018.

Comments about the application can be submitted until May 17 at using reference number 5/2017/0864.