It's been a year since I discovered that the Metropolitan line extension had been cancelled/stalled/sidelined/scrapped.
It's been two years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2019. It's been four years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2016. It's been six years since the Government gave the go-ahead for the scheme. It's been more than 20 years since trains last ran down the line. It's been over 40 years since the extension was originally proposed.
But with the project in limbo, what's been happening on the ground? I walked the length of the extension last December, and I've walked it again this December, so I can reveal all.
Spoiler: Nothing's happened, so there's no need to read the rest of this report.
At the foot of Baldwins Lane, where a new viaduct is planned to launch off from the existing Metropolitan line, nothing's happened. The Croxley Car Centre is still trading in second hand vehicles. Traffic still flows down to the Two Bridges roundabout unencumbered. At Cinnamond HQ (Demolition & Site Clearance; Windows, Doors & Conservatories) one side of the yard has been completely cleared, ready for the new bridge to stalk across, but as yet no stalking has occurred. Vegetation on the embankment, last year mostly cut back, has begun to grow again. There is no indication that anyone was ever planning to build anything here, other than on a map.
Facing the curve of the roundabout, the former Croxley Green station remains sealed off. The same metal barriers lean up against the gap between two billboards, but this year with a slight gap, potentially making it easier to push through, ascend the steps and trespass on the ex-platform beyond. The children's playground by the Sea Scouts hut is still in action, rather than being buried under concrete feet. Narrowboats remain permanently moored up at Cassio Wharf beneath the crumbling lattice bridge, rather than facing eviction. Of the viaduct which ought to be the centrepiece of the new extension, there is absolutely no sign.
Cassiobridge station is scheduled to be built where the old railway bridge crosses part of Ascot Road. You wouldn't know. It's not even obvious where the steps might go, let alone any lifts. A couple of twiggy trees can be seen growing on the trackbed above the lane, just past where the new viaduct might connect. Walk up the alleyway, round the back of what used to be Sun Printers, and you can peer through the metal fence and see where two new platforms might go. Last year labourers levelled the vegetation along this stretch to a few stumps and some grass, but after an unrestrained summer much of it is back, some of the grass head high, with saplings reappearing in its midst.
Watford West station will not be served by the new extension, but most of its infrastructure remains, plain as day. Under the old archway, one of the laminated safety notices attached to the gate has half-blown away since last year, but the other three are still firmly in place. Lampposts painted Network-South-East-red still lead down the steps and along the platform, where weeds are now sprouting up between the tiles. The former British Rail tracks can still be clearly seen, but not as clearly as last December, having been encroached upon by burgeoning undergrowth nobody's been back to extinguish since. It's much better than sixyears ago, when the entire cutting was a forest with trees far above road height, but a second abandonment phase is decidedly underway.
The humpbacked bridge on Vicarage Road still looks like an odd place to build a tube station. The land around this future interchange is taken up, clockwise, by a primary school, a large electricity substation, Holywell allotments and Harwoods Recreation Ground. The bridge across the former railway is so narrow traffic can only cross it in single file. Time it right and you can step across to look down at the remains of the previous station built here - Watford Stadium - a halt added to deliver travelling Hornets to the football. Orange netting draped around the former platform has been partially breached. If anyone was truly serious about building the new line they'd have dismantled the lampposts and removed the platform, because a second track won't fit otherwise. Nothing is looking serious.
At the end of Stripling Way, the cycle path underneath the dilapidated railway bridge should still be fenced off. Instead some ne'erdowells have broken one of the panels and opened up a portal to the former industrial park beyond, now demolished, now mostly mud. They might even be the hoodies I saw lurking underneath in the shadows, who convinced me it would be unwise to investigate further. One day the path will be reinstated, Metropolitan line extension or no, connecting to a 253-unit residential community for Watford's over-55s, complete with health club, swimming pool and multi-purpose village hall. In the meantime a lengthy, inconvenient diversion is required.
Last year I was amazed by the emergence of WatfordHealth Campus, a razed development zone sprawled across brownfield land to either side of the former railway. This year I was surprised how little had changed since last year. A lone road swoops impotently down from the hospital, all traffic other than ambulances banned, linking to the back end of a public car park. Over the parapet large tracts of levelled mud await rebirth as 408 residential dwellings, notionally a short walk from a non-existent tube station. The twelve warehouse sheds which were supposed to form Trade City are now complete, but only one is occupied, the remainder still screamingly to let. Had the Metropolitan Line extension been built already it'd have no new passengers to serve... not here, not yet.
The final quarter mile of former railway exits the development zone to follow the back of a Victorian terrace, track removed, vegetation slowly retaking hold. But here as everywhere else along the route all the evidence suggests that TfL walked away many months ago, the land silently mothballed, hands washed, eyes elsewhere. Physically it wouldn't take much to restart the project, just some heavy strimming, but with every extra summer all the work done to remediate the line could start to slip away.
The real problem is of course financial, as TfL refuses to pay anything over and above the £284m Boris signed them up to last year. Growth Fund documentation released this month suggests the estimated final cost is now £355m, which is three times what the extension was supposed to cost in 2011, and even higher than the last figure the Mayor gave out in September. Meanwhile the Department of Transport says the extension will be built or else, and Watford's Mayor looks on wondering how her beloved development zone can thrive without the tube station everyone else promised. While financial stalemate continues, it looks ever more likely that the old line will be reclaimed by nature long before it sees another train.