A more frequent service on the Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey line

Here we describe the provision of a service every 30 minutes on the Abbey line. Introductory information including ticketing at the Abbey station is available here: Trains passing at How Wood and ticket checks at the Abbey station (opens in new window or tab).

A service every 30 minutes would be more attractive to passengers, requiring two trains and an upgrade to the infrastructure enabling the two trains to pass, known as a passing loop.

One possibility is that trains might pass at How Wood station or vicinity. This is further north than the midpoint, giving more time for the train driver to change ends at St Albans Abbey than at Watford Junction. The Abbey station is unstaffed, so the train crew could use the time available to do ticketing i.e. revenue protection, which helps to ensure a better case for keeping the line open.

Abbey line with trains passing at How Wood


Plan A

There is widespread agreement that a service every 30 minutes would be desirable, however this would require two trains and of course crews for each of these trains. The operating costs thereby increase. This in itself gives rise to a debate as to whether to proceed, notably since an upgrade to the infrastructure is needed. Our proposal is to take a cost-minimised approach to provision of a service every 30 minutes, then establish how strong or weak the operating case is, then decide what happens next. Here it is in more detail:

Step 1:

In step 1, a cost-minimised approach is taken to the provision of a service every 30 minutes. Compromises are envisaged to facilitate this. We would suggest trains passing to the south of How Wood, requiring no upgrade to How Wood station. The foot crossing at the station remains as it is.

An example of a loop adjacent to a station is at Tisbury, in this case bi-directional : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tisbury_railway_station

To minimise the cost, it would seem reasonable to commence by asking what might have been envisaged in Victorian times. Train control would have been by means of staff and token or something along those lines, so let us assume that. No great capital cost. The trains might have passed at the passing loop by means of points that cannot be changed, always guiding each train to pass the other on the left, an implementation of facing point lock. The first-arriving train waits for the second-arriving train. On departure from the passing loop, the points do not change, the train wheels pushing the points out of the way i.e. points run through.

Definition of facing points lock by Network Rail : https://safety.networkrail.co.uk/jargon-buster/facing-point-lock/

Definition of points run through by Network Rail : https://safety.networkrail.co.uk/jargon-buster/points-run-through/

From the signalling, Topsham only allows trains to pass on the left : https://www.opentraintimes.com/maps/signalling/westofengland#T_TOPSHAM although there is presumably control of the points rather than points run through.

During normal operation the train crews are empowered to get the job done. They also undertake ticketing responsibilities at the Abbey station as outlined in the earlier referenced article.

At start of day, a lengthy train departs Watford Junction. At the passing loop, the train is divided into two. The forward portion proceeds to St Albans Abbey, the rear portion returning to Watford Junction. At end of day, with the two trains located in the passing loop, one of the trains proceeds further along the line, then turns back to be attached to the other, forming a single lengthy train that proceeds to Watford Junction. The train crews are empowered and they can choose which train proceeds further then turns back.

With the exception of how many staff are involved, our proposal is to commence with an approach that might have been taken in Victorian times, making no more than absolutely necessary changes. For example, if points run through is unacceptable, an autonomous system for controlling the points would be envisaged. With train control via staff and token or similar, the autonomous system is specifically designed to minimise capital and operating cost to provide control of the points but not signalling.

This process is iterative until a cost-minimised proposal is derived that satisfies what would otherwise have been show-stoppers. The emphasis is on pragmatism.

The results are then enshrined in a specific Act of Parliament for the Abbey line, with a discussion in the bar beforehand, supporters of the Abbey line having supplied a barrel of beer. Photo opportunity, followed by the thought that it really ought not to have been photographed.

Step 2:

With infrastructure implemented, a service every 30 minutes commences. At this point, publicity is made available throughout the catchment area. Hopefully others, for example supporters of the Abbey line, will co-operate and bring their contribution to making the new service better known.

Step 3:

Once passenger numbers have stabilised, hopefully this having occurred in the first year of operation, a financial review will assess the operating case. Details to be determined, possibly by reference to financial results after the second year of operation has completed. If the results are good, Network Rail will then begin the process of implementing improvements to ease compromises and potentially specify a modern (and expensive) signalling system.

We respectfully suggest that the operating costs of the signalling system be absorbed annually from central funds, rather than attributed to the line, on the grounds that the signalling system consists of little more than expensive frills.

That concludes our proposal in relation to a more frequent service on the Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey line. We have assumed this to be a service every 30 minutes.

All objections should be sent to the Victorians for their assessment. In the case of no reply, the objections are null and void.

Comparison with a passing loop at Bricket Wood

For many years supporters of the Abbey line have aspired to a facility at Bricket Wood enabling two trains to pass i.e. a passing loop as the means to upgrade service frequency to enable a train every 30 minutes. It is self-evident that a service every 30 minutes would be desireable, both being more frequent than a service every 45 minutes and generally enabling a "clock face" timetable that is more memorable.

In proposing a passing loop at How Wood, we are recognising this aspiration for a service every 30 minutes.

In June 2022 it was announced that the bid for a passing loop at Bricket Wood, enabling a more frequent service than currently operates, was rejected by the Department for Transport (DfT). The same announcement was made in response to the same proposal some years earlier, the DfT response being "no business case". The DfT announcement depends, no more and no less, on a prediction of passenger numbers. However predictions do not always prove to be accurate.

Predictions of passenger numbers on the Borders railway proved to be underestimates, with overcrowding.

Predictions of passenger numbers on the Dartmoor Line have exceeded expectations. At https://bettertransport.org.uk/blog/rail/Getting-value-for-money-on-rail-investment we read "The success of the Dartmoor line’s restoration is clear. Passengers are already in excess of 200 per cent of those that were predicted for the first year." At https://www.modernrailways.com/article/devons-integrated-vision we read "Okehampton has surpassed expectations, with passenger numbers way higher than even the most optimistic forecasts. Everyone who has tried it has loved it, and it is already providing a huge boost to West Devon and North Cornwall as well as Okehampton itself."

Given that predictions do not always prove to be accurate, our approach to a passing loop is to take a cost-minimised approach and then establish the actual passenger numbers. Indeed we would have no objection to applying this approach at Bricket Wood rather than at How Wood. Once passenger numbers have been established, if the results are good, improvements are then implemented.

Land purchase at How Wood would be necessary in order to add a passing loop, not being the case at Bricket Wood where there used to be more substantial rail infrastructure. Fortunately rail costs are reducing including on the matter of planning and consents - reference to bettertransport.org.uk two paragraphs earlier.

In summary, the failure of the bid for a passing loop at Bricket Wood does not matter since we are proposing a different approach.

Plan B

Plan B is to connect the Abbey line to Watford High Street, outlined at RailAble with a more frequent service between Watford and St Albans as an interim arrangement i.e. with less emphasis on the business case.

Plan C

Plan C is to extend the Abbey line to London Colney, outlined at RailAble with a more frequent service between Watford and St Albans as an interim arrangement i.e. with less emphasis on the business case.

Plan D

Plan D is to link St Albans Abbey and St Albans City stations, outlined at RailAble with a more frequent service between Watford and St Albans as an interim arrangement i.e. with less emphasis on the business case.


The Abbey line

AbbeyRail home page home page

Last revised 26 March 2024