Five years ago today the Department for Transport confirmed £76m of central government funding that would finally allow the Croxley Rail Link to go ahead. Five years later I thought I'd go down and see how things were getting on. That'll be an interesting post, I thought, which (after a bit of digging) turned out to be an understatement. So here's my report from the site of the Metropolitan line extension, or MLX, a project which has just been reclassified/delayed/sidelined/scrapped by TfL. I'm sure someone'll tell us which soon.[25 photos]
Five years ago the Croxley Rail Link was scheduled to be up and running by January 2016. If you stand at the bottom of Baldwins Lane, where the new railway is due to branch off across a new viaduct, it's very clear this hasn't happened. The precise point of departure is above the backlot of the Croxley Car Centre, a business still very much in trading, and a familiar sight since I used to walk this way to school. Meanwhile the shield of trees on the opposite embankment has been stripped away in readiness to proceed, but long enough ago that some regrowth has already sprouted back. All that's happened here recently is that a sewer beneath the current railway bridge has been fractionally diverted, to nudge it out of the way of the new link when it comes, leaving a jagged tarmac scar across the road. This 30m-long trench is the only significant piece of infrastructure work to have taken place on the MLX project in the last three months.
The 400m viaduct will then sweep across the premises of Cinnamond Group Ltd, a long-standing company who offer windows, conservatories and full-scale demolition services, though they won't be completely levelled themselves. One of the new piers is scheduled to be plonked slap bang in the middle of their existing entrance off the Two Bridges roundabout, so their lorries will need a less convenient way in, which they're not best pleased about. The viaduct then crosses the A412, very close to the existing pelican crossings, before slicing through a children's playground. This'll be closed while construction takes place, whenever that might be, but reinstated afterwards (as a facility more exciting than the existing swing'n'slide combo).
Close by is the site of Croxley Green station, former terminus of the disused railway line the MLX aims to follow. An ancient Network South East sign and noticeboard stood here until 2013, now belatedly removed. The locked gate at the foot of the stairs up to the platform has vanished too, replaced by a large temporary barrier lodged across the gap in the fence, making it much more difficult for any trespassers to sneak through. The old station embankment is not part of the upgrade plan so has been left to decay, and was part of a land swap Herts County Council hoped to use to help pay off TfL. Not so fast, said TfL, you might think this earthwork has a notional value of £1.8m, but in reality you acquired it from National Rail for £1, so it's worthless to us. Continued obsolescence looks the most likely outcome.
The intended route of the new railway swings past the corner of the Sea Scouts hut, which survives, then soars across the Grand Union Canal. Several narrowboats are tied up here, at homely moorings their owners used to think were permanent, but at least a couple will be forced to move on and take their huts, gnomes, signs and gardens with them. On the far side of the parallel River Gade the deforesters have been hard at work, removing trees and undergrowth along the broad path trains may one day follow. The land looks ready for occupation by diggers, should that instruction ever be given, but for now it's fenced off behind a few disjoint temporary barriers. A sign attached to the railings warns Keep Out, and offers an 0343 phone number to ring "if you have any questions about the Metropolitan Line Extension". I was sorely tempted.
Cassiobridge is due to be the first new station on the MLX, perched above Ascot Road where the viaduct meets the disused railway alignment. You'd never know from looking. An overgrown public alleyway runs up the embankment, behind all the new flats where Sun Printers used to be, passing a locked gate at the top. Peer through and you'll see the entire railway corridor has had an extreme lawnmowering, leaving ample room for the installation of a couple of platforms on either side. But there are none, the land's merely been made ready for construction, which when the proposed opening date is still four years off should come as no surprise.
The best view of what's going on comes half a mile down the line at Hagden Lane. This is where Watford West station used to be, closed in 1996 and nature left to take its course. When I visited in 2011 the entire line was a forest, with thickly-spaced trees rising well above bridge level... and now all that has gone. Again all the undergrowth has been professionally stripped back, as it has along the entire line, revealing the old tracks, a denuded cutting and the long lost station platform. There are even six lampposts still in situ, painted in Network South East red, because the project hasn't yet required their removal. But I was struck by how much time and money has already been pumped into preparing the disused railway line for use, the first stages of the transformation now complete.
New station number two will be the clumsily named WatfordVicarage Road. Unsurprisingly this is on Vicarage Road, a ten minute walk from a well-known Premiership football ground, but that's not the reason it's been sited here. There'd need to be a good reason, because the road crosses the former railway at a narrow bridge with one-way traffic controlled by traffic lights, which is hardly ideal. Down below are the remains of Watford Stadium halt, used by Division 1 crowds in the Eighties, its platform recently uncovered from beneath a shroud of trees and still with lampposts standing tall. And it's on the far side of this, beyond a very minor housing estate, Watford's redevelopment whirlwind has swept in.
Blimey, I really hadn't been expecting all this. Last time I was here in 2013 a desolate track led under the old railway to the Cardiff Road Industrial estate, an unwelcoming collection of automotive businesses and breakers yards. It was still possible to hike up the embankment at this point and walk along the disusedtracks, stepping carefully round and through thickets and branches, across an offshoot of the River Colne and into an abandonednetherworld. Today the path beneath the bridge is firmly fenced off and the former industrial estate has been wiped away, and every obstruction that enveloped the tracks above has been removed.
For this is the edge of the new Watford Health Campus, a 20 year plan to fill 72 acres of underused land with new hospital facilities, business outlets and hundreds of homes, and very much the darling project of the town's elected Mayor. This section of the railway marks the southern perimeter of the site, and having a new Underground station close by is a key part of delivering all the benefits the new scheme will bring. The tracks bend round at a former junction, still visible from open land just off the Ebury Way cycle route, then pass out into a broad pre-landscaped building site where they become indistinct.
A shiny new link road to Watford General Hospital has just been opened, called Thomas Sawyer Way, complete with expensive bridge to cross the non-existent railway. I was surprised how underused it was, but that's because ambulances are the only vehicles allowed through the 'link' at the Vicarage Road end and ordinary Watfordians are only permitted as far as the hospital car park. Numerous metal warehouses are being erected at what will soon be Trade City, followed later by affordable housing on land nearer to the new station. Imagine the impact if that station were cancelled, and all sorts of important planning and investment decisions made over the last five years turned out to be based on an incorrect version of the future.
The final stretch of the new extension passes fresh gabion walls, then vanishes up the side of an old redbrick industrial estate to one last bridge under Wiggenhall Road. This is where the Metropolitan line extension will join the existing Overground line, sharing tracks in timetabled gaps on the run up to Watford High Street and Watford Junction. Six trains an hour are planned at peak times and four off-peak, which could be a gamechanger for the infrastructure of South West Herts. Those living near the existing Watford Met station might be delighted if the project were to fail. But if what lies ahead for the MLX is more than just delay, it's cancellation, that'd surely be an opportunity fumbled, a dream wasted, and an open goal missed.