It's been two years since I discovered that the Metropolitan line extension had been scrapped.
It's been three years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2019. It's been five years since TfL said the extension would open in December 2016. It's been seven 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.
It's been nine months since TfL washed their hands of the project, and six months since the Metropolitan line extension webpage was deleted from the TfL website. At least Crossrail will eventually happen. This one's dead.
Which is awkward, because it leaves a stripe of disused railway through the suburbs of West Watford, and a series of redevelopment works alongside going ahead regardless. So, it being the middle of December, I've gone for my annualwalk along the route to see what's not been happening.
At the foot of Baldwins Lane, where the new viaduct was planned to launch off from the existing Metropolitan line, no construction work ever happened. That's good news for the Croxley Car Centre, which has had a reprieve, and for Cinnamond (Demolition & Site Clearance; Windows, Doors & Conservatories) who might now be able to refill the far end of their yard. What is happening is that a brand new secondary school is being erected on the other side of the viaduct, across recently-grazed paddocks, but of what should have been the largest engineering project in the village there is no sign.
The former CroxleyGreenstation, whose mothballed branch line made the extension potentially plausible, remains sealed off. It wouldn't be difficult to squeeze between the metal barriers slumped across the entrance, although an extra sheet of red netting has been added since last year so slipping through and climbing the disused staircase wouldn't be easy either. The viaduct which ought to be the centrepiece of the new extension will never span the dual carriageway, nor disfigure the valley. The children's playground by the Sea Scouts hut is still in action, rather than buried under concrete feet. The narrowboats moored beneath the crumbling lattice bridge no longer face eviction.
Cassiobridge station was intended to be built where the former railway bridge crossed Ascot Road. It would have been a spartan affair, to save money, but not building it at all has saved even more. Walk up the alleyway, round the back of what used to be Sun Printers, and you can peer through the metal fence to see where the platforms were supposed to go. Two years ago the vegetation along this stretch had been completely levelled, but a couple of unrestrained summers mean the grass is back in force, some of it head high, with buddleia encroaching from the fringe. The local cat I spotted sitting on the rails is a fortunate recipient of this undisturbed private domain.
But none of this inaction has prevented substantial development works kicking off alongside. The industrial units on the southern side of the embankment have just been demolished, leaving a space large enough for 485 new homes. According to the developer's website these apartments will have "good access to the London transport network", and there will be "restaurants, cafés and shops along a pedestrian boulevard leading to the proposed Cassiobridge station." Those ultimately moving into the 23-storey tower may find a very different environment awaits them, but there is a new Morrisons on their doorstep, and the Croxley Park business estate is easily walkable.
Watford West station should have been swept away by the new extension, but peering down from Tolpits Lane confirms that most of its infrastructure remains. Lampposts painted Network-South-East-red still lead down the steps and along the platform, where weeds are now sprouting up between the paving slabs. The former British Rail single track can still be clearly seen, not quite as clearly as last December, but enough to suggest someone's still popping down occasionally to keep it clear. 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 narrow humpbacked bridge on Vicarage Road would have been an odd place to build a tube station, surrounded as it is by a primary school, allotments, a recreation ground and a large electricity substation. Walking to the rear of the adventure playground allows you to encroach on the land which should by now be under construction as the entrance to the eastbound platform, but isn't. On the other side of the bridge are the remains of Watford Stadium halt, substantially intact, including another row of worse-for-wear red lampposts. Had anyone ever been serious about building the Underground extension they'd have made a start on knocking it down to make way for a second track, but nobody ever did because nobody was.
At the end of Stripling Way the cycle path under the dilapidated railway bridge has been fenced off, and local ne'erdowells have scattered a great deal of litter (and a very damp sofa) underneath. What lies beyond is the Mayor of Watford's great development project, formerly Watford Health Campus, now more jauntily referred to as Riverwell. Here the diggers are now out in force between the railway and the hospital link road, readying several acres for a 253-unit residential community for Watford's over-55s. Prospective purchasers will eventually be getting a health club, a swimming pool and a multi-purpose village hall, but what they won't be getting is a train service.
The scale of the intended development is much clearer from Thomas Sawyer Way, a lone road swooping impotently down from the hospital. Everything between here and the football stadium will be swept away to incorporate another 408 residential dwellings. Twelve large warehouse units collectively named Trade City await a full complement of business users. The River Colne feeds through the site within what will eventually be a landscaped trench. And the whole thing is divided by an invisible railway, crossed by a potentially pointless bridge, without any station to drive sustainable growth. It's no surprise that one of Riverwell's proposed components is a 1400-space car park.
The final quarter mile of former railway exits the development zone to follow the back of a Victorian terrace, with vegetation slowly retaking hold. 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 will start to slip away. The undergrowth is thickest at the junction with the existing Overground, where no attempt at a reconnection was ever made. Indeed there's hardly any actual infrastructure anywhere along the extension to act as evidence for the many months the project was supposedly underway. London may not care, but Watford is feeling the loss.
The Metropolitan line extension is now lost on the bonfire of austerity, its supposed benefits unable to convince its paymasters in an era of financial stringency. Further major projects were relegated to the scrapheap yesterday, or at least heavily delayed, as TfL's annual business plan detailed how they intend to survive the total loss of government grant and a four year fare-freeze. Look around London and there are numerous examples of existing railway lines which'd never pass budgetary tests today, but which nevertheless contribute greatly to those fortunate to live close by. But we no longer live in a society where Nice To Have is good enough, which is why West Watford's linear nature reserve is now a permanent fixture.