Orbital travel is poorly served in the UK county of Hertfordshire that borders the capital, argues Reg Harman. His solution? A new ‘Herts Orbital Transit’ tramway.
Hertfordshire today faces pressures from expanding development, traffic congestion and urban degradation. Only 60 years ago the county was seen as primarily rural, a scatter of market towns in pleasant countryside. However, from the mid-20th Century demand for housing to serve London’s booming population soared, supported by electrification and upgrading of the county’s radial railways.
Growth in incomes and car ownership, allied to increased consumption and growing diversity of travel patterns, caused a rapid spreading of housing and commercial areas, bringing high levels of car use and congestion. Retail and business developments on or beyond the edge of towns posed increasing questions over the viability of town centres.
Today the county faces further pressures from the urgent need for even more housing. Railway investment focuses on improving radial lines for commuting to London, while bus services grow ever thinner and more liable to delays from traffic, removing opportunities for local travel other than by car.
Historically, Hertfordshire’s railways developed primarily as radial lines, along the original trunk routes. East-west orbital lines were built during the later years of the 19th Century, aimed primarily at capturing local traffic. Today most Network Rail lines are radial, carrying long distance and commuter services – the orbital lines were mostly closed during the 1950s and now there only remains a branch line at each side of the county: Watford Junction – St Albans Abbey; and Broxbourne – Hertford East.
However, in recent decades orbital (east-west) movement has built strongly, reflecting changing patterns of behaviour and settlement, car-based travel, and the influence of the M25 London orbital motorway, which was completed in 1987. High levels of motor vehicle traffic has worsened the environment in urban and rural areas alike, and eroded access to services and facilities, especially for disadvantaged groups.
Central Hertfordshire is now a densely-settled urban belt of nearly 300 000 people. Its future economic, social and environmental sustainability cannot be secured by the current road-based transport system alone; there is a need for a transit system to provide high quality core local public transport, linking the main towns and offering a range of connections and journey opportunities. This would also enable the reduction of road traffic.
A proposal made in the 1980s as Colne Valley Transit (CVT), linking Watford and Hertford, was studied in the 1990s by the County Council as the Central Herts Transit (CHT), but no practical project emerged. In 2014 a proposition to run the St Albans Abbey branch as a light rail line was abandoned (read more on this project in TAUT 918).
An east-west transit system could be created by developing the CVT/CHT proposals. This would make use of the existing Hertford East and St Albans Abbey branch lines, and trackbeds of the closed east-west lines, complemented by new town centre sections.
A suggested route for ‘Herts Orbital Transit’ could be developed as follows (with approximate lengths):
Broxbourne – Hertford (12km/7.5 miles).
This would use the Hertford East branch for most of the way, but make an eastern loop round the lake north of Broxbourne station, close to the edge of Hoddesdon town centre, and run north through the Essex Road industrial area to rejoin the branch at Rye House. At Hertford it would cross the edge of Hartham Park north of the town centre and connect with the old formation between East and North stations.
Hertford – Welwyn Garden City (12km/7.5 miles).
This would use the old formation to Hertford North and then run along the former Welwyn line to a point on the east side of Welwyn Garden City. It would then follow an on-road/urban off-road route through the eastern side to
reach the bridge over the railway into the town centre.
Welwyn Garden City – Hatfield (6km/four miles).
This would follow an on-road/urban off-road route due south, across the railway and through the south-east part of the town. It would run alongside the A1000 to Hatfield station and the town centre.
Hatfield – St Albans (8km/five miles).
This would follow an on-road/urban off-road route to the University and business area on the site of the former airfield and then run on the old railway formation to the Fleetville area of St Albans. From there it would follow an on-road route to St Albans city centre.
St Albans – Watford (12km/7.5 miles).
This would follow an on-road route to the vicinity of Abbey station and then use the Abbey branch to reach Watford Junction.
The Herts Orbital Transit (HOT) system would thus be about 50km (30 miles) overall. It would be best developed as a tramway throughout to minimise complications in design, regulation and procurement, and to enable it to run through urban areas, especially the town centres themselves. It would use trams up to 40m-plus long with capacity for over 300 passengers; these are equally capable of easy passage through crowded centres and higher speeds on interurban sections. The scheme would require 35-40 trams and would support a substantial depot, which might be located between Hatfield and St Albans.
Connections and traffic
A key feature would be links to main rail stations at all the lines crossed. This would provide connections to south-east regional services, inter-city services at Watford Junction and, with an additional change, at Stevenage. Looking ahead, Broxbourne is a target for the proposed Crossrail 2, on which further study work has now been authorised by the UK Government.
Watford Junction provides links to the London Overground and to the London Underground Metropolitan line via the under-construction Croxley link. It could also offer connections to a potential transit link around the west side of outer London, allowing the HOT to become part of an outer orbital circuit. This would match those developing around Paris and other European capitals, and meet aspiration for an ‘M25 transit system’.
Hertfordshire still has reasonable bus coverage, especially around towns, though constrained by the requirement for on-road competition and the general lack of real support in terms of highway priorities. Transit stops should be shared by bus services or sited adjacent, while trams and buses should share priority measures on highways.
Serving a major urban corridor and offering longer distance connections, the HOT would benefit from a substantial market, ensuring a significant revenue level and a strong raison d’etre throughout its route.1 It would provide generally higher-quality local links for the main towns than those provided by current east-west bus routes, and cater for many journeys that are inconvenient or impossible using existing public transport. It would open up more accessible job opportunities across the corridor and a wider market of accessible potential employees to businesses.
Emerging district council plans do not identify significant large-scale development sites, and some areas have been developed since the 1980s; but improvement in non-car access might open up more opportunity areas. The line would also bring benefits and gain traffic in two other respects: it would support denser development and a higher quality of lifestyle in existing built-up areas; and would encourage transit-oriented behaviour patterns among residents in these areas as properties in them change ownership and use.2
Design and operations
Tramway operation throughout would simplify the approach to regulations. Level crossings on the Hertford East branch could be changed from barrier to light control. The HOT could also prove beneficial to railway operations, removing the need to deploy main line units on the branches and increasing capacity on the Lea Valley Stansted Airport/Cambridge line by removing Rye House Junction near Broxbourne.3
Tramway-style stops would take up less space on the existing branches, creating opportunities for interchange and other facilities. At Hertford East there could be room for significant development, in an area close to the town centre that is already seeing construction of new apartments. The St Albans Abbey branch would need to be doubled throughout, as would the Ware station section on the Hertford East line; space appears to be suitable for this purpose.
A full level of service would be assumed as every ten minutes throughout the working day. At an initial assumption of 30km/h (19mph) average speed, end-to-end journey times would be about 90 minutes. There could be short workings between key towns as well.
Penetrating town centres
How to route the line in urban areas has been an issue for CVT/CHT in the past. In St Albans, options for the CVT proposal continued west from Abbey station on the former railway alignment south of City station, missing the town centre completely. However, only by passing through the town centres would the system achieve its full potential. Doing so would allow it to:
Maintain both accessibility and visibility
Achieve substantial all-day traffic
Strengthen town centre retail, public and community activity levels
Reduce road traffic and associated emissions
Connect with local bus services
The major problem with existing town centres is that they have very heavy traffic as they need to draw in customers and workers to survive. Town centres must accommodate service and supply vehicles, and bus services too, thus adding to the scale of vehicle penetration. This causes congestion, makes for an unpleasant atmosphere and poses concerns over health: recent reports from the World Health Organisation, for example, have highlighted the impact of traffic pollution, especially diesel engines.4
For urban sections, especially through town centres, current collection would be through a catenary-free system.
Development and funding
Moving from a strategic proposal to adoption and construction involves a series of sometimes reiterative processes. In the UK this can prove a drawn-out and sometimes stop-start process. Matters would be complicated in the case of the HOT because there is no Combined Authority or even a dominant small city. Hertfordshire County Council forms the transport authority but its powers are limited to transport planning, management of non-trunk highways and input to local public transport. Land use planning is a matter for the county’s ten district councils, and the proposed scheme crosses five of them. All these bodies would need to agree the principle and engage positively in development if the project is to move forward. In addition, conversion of the two railway lines involves Network Rail. The Department for Transport would take what might be termed a superintending role.
At this stage it is difficult to identify a probable cost. Experience of tramways in Britain and France in recent years suggests up to GBP20m/km (EUR23.5/km), or a ballpark total of about GBP1bn (EUR1.17bn). This is high in relation to local transport outside major cities, but should be set in context. Some could be obtained through charges on development, or perhaps through bonds on land sales, as suggested for the Oxford Metro and Swift Rail proposals.5 Public funds might also be used. Substantial budgets are established for proposed highway improvements to cope with road traffic in Hertfordshire; spending similar on the proposed HOT would address traffic pressures but also meet a far wider range of objectives.
Herts Orbital Transit would offer an opportunity for towns across central Hertfordshire to become attractive centres and provide more effective access. It would require strong understanding and leadership to provide the incentives for development and decisions, especially as it could pose serious issues over routeing. But the examples of tramway systems at the heart of urban development in France, the Low Countries, central Europe and Scandinavia show how effective they can be as a core part of attractive urban areas and economic sustainability.
1. ConnectedCities – A global sustainable development strategy, www.ConnectedCities.co.uk, 2016
2. This phenomenon, often not reflected in conventional forecasting models, has been termed ‘asynchronous churn’ by researchers at the University of the West of England who have demonstrated it through various studies. See e.g. Ben Clark, Kiron Chatterjee & Steve Melia, Changes to commute mode: The role of life events, spatial context and environmental attitude, Transportation Research Part A (Elsevier), 2016
3. Network Rail, Anglia Route: Summary Business
4. World Health Organisation, Air pollution levels rising in many of the world’s poorest cities, May 2016
5. Nicholas Falk & Reg Harman, Developing historic cities: the case for an Oxford Metro, TAUT, May 2015; Nicholas Falk & Reg Harman, Swift Rail and growing cities, TAUT, January 2016