Croxley Green station never merited a good service. Peak hours on weekdays only, at least since 1959, which reflected the tiny number of passengers wishing to use it. I used the line regularly one teenage summer, nipping down Baldwins Lane to the roundabout, then climbing the staircase to the wooden platform. A short slamdoor train would roll in and whisk me down to Watford High Street where I could change for where I really wanted to go. I was lucky I got in when I did. In 1990 the rail company gave up and reduced services to a single train each day, at 6am, merely as a ruse to keep the line "officially" open. In 1996 they scrapped that and ran a taxi service instead (should any passenger have been interested), because the new link road to the Croxley Business Park demanded that the railway line be severed. And in 2002 even this pretence was abandoned, with the Secretary of State officially closing the line for good. Fifteen years of neglect have created a unique disused corridor snaking around the bottom of West Watford. Come join me on an overgrown journey.
Croxley Green [old station]: From the roundabout it still looks like Croxley Green station is open [photo]. There's a sign, and a noticeboard, and a gate leading through to the embankment [photo]. But closer inspection reveals that the sign still says "Network South East", that the noticeboard is blank, and that the gates are locked. There is a notice apologising that the station is unstaffed and suggesting that you buy your ticket on the train [photo], but that isn't going to happen, not any time soon, not ever. Even if the Croxley Rail Link is ever built this station will remain permanently cut off, forever amputated, and left to decay. Through the gate it's still possible to see the steps ascending the embankment, leading up to where the platform used to be but now isn't. But you can't get through to have a look, not from a busy roundabout with cars driving by, not without attracting attention. You might have more luck in the Sea Cadets car park, behind the children's playground, where local youth have kindly engineered a breach in the security fence. It's very overgrown in there, but there's a straight run up the embankment to the edge of the tracks for anyone with decent grip on their shoes. I thought about it, even dallied with the slope for a minute or two, but eventually decided against. I wouldn't have got far. After a gawp at where the terminating platform used to be, somewhere beneath a carpet of green, the only way to go would have been across the iron trellis bridge over the Grand Union Canal. Even that has trees and bushes growing on it now, or attempting to, such is the level of neglect around here [photo]. And the bridge no longer leads anywhere, not since the road breached the railway. Two hundred metres of overgrown artificial elevation, that's all Croxley Green station means today.
Ascot Road [new station]: There wasn't a station here before, but there will be if the Croxley Rail Link is ever built [photo]. Go back 20 years and the building nextdoor belonged to Sun Printers, one of the two major printworks which earned Watford a national reputation. It churned out Picture Post, back when this was the largest printing company in the world, and later the ground-breaking Sunday Times colour magazine. Robert Maxwell proved its nemesis, taking over the business and 'consolidating' the workforce, until the entire outfit dwindled to nothing in 2004. The factory has since been replaced by housing and a hotel, and all that remains is a sad-looking clocktower lost in the middle of the road [photo]. I hope they repair it if the new station is built, else the first passengers will emerge into a bleak wasteland where 21st century blandness has conquered all.
Watford West [old station]: On Tolpits Lane, another station which looks like it might still be open but definitely isn't [photo]. The BR sign on a pole outside screams "station", but only because no rail employee has ever come along to take it down [photo]. Network SouthEast doesn't own any infrastructure any more, and I guess the line never properly belonged to any rail company with an existing franchise. As for the blue gate marking the entrance to the station, that's very locked and has been for years. The steps down to the platform are overgrown, but nowhere near as overgrown as the platform itself. When I came by in 2005, both platform and railway track were clearly visible looking down from the road bridge [photo]. Today, however, the entire cutting has vanished beneath a thick green canopy [photo]. How quickly nature reclaims what man no longer needs... and how quickly man will chop the whole lot down when trains are scheduled to run this way again.
Watford Hospital [new station]: I don't quite understand why planners want to build a new station here, beside a narrow humpbridge on Vicarage Road [photo]. Watford West was much more in the thick of things, whereas the new station would appear to have lower footfall all round. On one side a recreation ground and a primary school, on the other a major electricity substation and some allotments. They'll not squeeze many newbuild flats in here, not without despoiling what's left of the natural environment. But they crammed hundreds in just down the road when the Scammell lorry factory closed, so I'm sure planners will find a way. And of course there'll be the new Watford Health Campus spreading out towards the new station to boost traffic - this will a major redevelopment area whether the Metropolitan line comes here or not.
Watford Stadium [old station]: When Watford Football Club were at their Division One peak, someone thought it would be a good idea to open a station alongside the stadium for the benefit of travelling supporters. I say station, I mean halt - a mere woodenplatform at the end of a footpath for use on Saturday afternoons only. Watford FC's high flying years didn't last, and neither did the station, but the rotting platform's still there. I went in search down the far end of Cardiff Road, along a scarily remote footpath past half a mile of industrial units, and was chuffed to spot an obvious gap in the fence. Up onto the embankment I tripped, and was soon standing on the actual rails and the actual sleepers of the actual railway [photo]. Here was a short stretch that wasn't massively overgrown, probably because it was crossing a bridge over the footpath, so I got to walk up and down for a bit [photo]. There were a few severed chunks of electrical cable lying around, no doubt stripped for anything of worth, but little else visible from the old days. The halt wasn't far to the west but the way looked fairly impassable, and ditto the curve east round to the Rickmansworth branch line and Watford High Street. That's the problem with turning up in late spring - for any hope of striding along more of the line you really need to be here in the winter. Just don't leave it too long, because every year the trees and bushes grow thicker and the urban exploration gets more difficult. And one year there may be real trains here, you never know, as my old local branch line suddenly finds itself on the tube map. Here's hoping.