Call for 'bold decisions' on future of Abbey Line

Cllr Vlad Jirasek, who represents St Stephen, speaking at a meeting of full council.

Cllr Vlad Jirasek, who represents St Stephen, speaking at a meeting of full council. - Credit: St Albans Liberal Democrats

"Grand visions and bold decisions" are needed to improve the Abbey Line in the wake of the government's decision not to upgrade the rail route.

Cllr Vlad Jirasek, who represents St Stephen, tabled a motion at a full council meeting of SADC demanding action.

It says the council “expresses its dismay at the refusal of the government to progress the long-overdue upgrade of the Abbey Line, and is concerned about the criticism made by the Department for Transport (DfT) of the proposals from Herts County Council about the lack of evidence provided.”

Last month the Department for Transport rejected an application for government funding to create a passing loop in the Abbey Line – which would increase the number of trains per hour.

The bid was submitted in March 2021 by Herts county council -  supported by MPs Daisy Cooper and Dean Russell - to the government’s Restoring Your Railway programme, which had pledged £500 million to reopening lines and stations across the country.

Among the reasons why the application was rejected was that it didn’t contain sufficient evidence of passenger demand to warrant the proposed increase in frequency, and that the location of the existing stations are considered to be on the "peripheries" of St Albans and Watford respectively.

The motion, which was carried, asked council leader Cllr Chris White to ask HCC to convene a working group of interested members and stakeholders; to instruct officers to address the criticisms raised by DfT; to work towards a realistic solution to transport in the Watford-St Albans corridor such as light rail/tramway; and to ensure the HCC Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan delivers changes to allow people to travel to railway stations on foot or by bicycle.

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Cllr Jirasek said: “From our discussions with the residents of St Stephen and Park Street wards, it is clear that transport options in the area, other than cars, are relatively limited.

“The Abbey Line runs trains infrequently, sometimes with bus replacements and people have to wait for trains for up to an hour. If you compare it with the fairly frequent line of St Albans City to London, it’s hardly surprising that people in the area St Stephen and Park Street choose to use cars to travel rather than public transport.”

Cllr Jirasek highlighted ‘rat runs’ in St Stephen and Park Street including Mount Pleasant Lane, used frequently by motorists entering the A405 or M1, and said this would be reduced by a more frequent Abbey Line service.

The lack of safe cycling routes between St Albans and Watford is also an issue, he said,
describing a recent cycle between St Albans and Bricket Wood as “not a very pleasant experience”.

“This council, Hertfordshire County Council, relevant agencies, and traffic experts should look into the future, make bold decisions and deliver on grand visions,” he concluded.

Cllr Chris White responded by saying that a key problem is overcentralisation with funding at central government, which leads to bad decisions. With more flexibility to raise funds at district or county level, he said, options such as light rail, or ‘trackless trams’ could be considered.

He added: “There was clearly something wrong with what the county council put together in this bid, and there was clearly something wrong at the receiving end, because they [the Department for Transport] accused the county council ofattempting to join up peripheral parts of St Albans and Watford. I think the bottom of Holywell Hill is fairly central, but it’s nowhere near as central to St Albans as Watford Junction is to Watford.”

Daisy Cooper MP has also written to HCC asking what further steps it will be taking to address the issues identified by the DfT, and to request a meeting with the council to discuss the next stage in progressing these improvements.