What happens when the parcel stops ticking?

As our legislators’ thoughts turned towards tinsel, we saw again the traditional parliamentary game known as “When the music (parliamentary questions) stop – let’s stop passing the ticking parcel of hot potatoes.” As every spin-doctor knows, this is either best done the day before the House breaks up, or better still the day after. A blizzard of written, and therefore unquestioned, ministerial statements flutter down from Whitehall. Answers to long stalled awkward questions are dropped into Honourable Members’ in-trays in the hope that by the end of the recess response, to the no longer burning-hot potato, will be merely bubble and squeak.

On the 20th December 2012, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles announced that he was minded to approve the planning application of Helioslough to build a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SFRI) on the site of the old Radlett aerodrome at Park Street near St Albans.

An artist's impression of the site

An artist’s impression of the site

Dependent on where you stand, this decision demonstrates either the Government’s commitment to expanding the green economy or Government condoned vandalism of the green belt. Philippa Edmunds, speaking on behalf of the Freight on Rail Group said:

This Radlett judgement, by Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is the first major test of the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange policy and therefore sets an important precedent, especially in the context of the South East and London, where it has previously been difficult to secure planning permission for large intermodal interchanges. As the policy states, a network of freight interchanges are needed near the business markets, to link key supply chain routes, with good rail and road connections to facilitate trade links between UK regions and the European Union. This decision not only secures up to 3000 direct and indirect jobs but also means that long distance freight can be removed from our congested road network as part of an integrated multimodal solution, which is what customers want.

Meanwhile the Herts Advertiser reported the dismay of the scheme’s opponents:

Among the many condemning the Minister’s decision was St Albans district Councillor Robert Donald, Lib Dems leader, who said he was “totally dismayed”. He added, “I am very angry that this decision was announced just before Christmas since it is treating the public with utter contempt. Deliberately trying to bury bad news over the coming holiday period to avoid adverse publicity and wider media attention is both cynical and insulting.

Campaign group Stop The Rail Freight Exchange (STRiFE) described it as “devastating news” for the district and southwest Herts. A spokeswoman said that legal advice would be sought about further options available to fight this “monstrous proposal”. Cllr. Teresa Heritage, the council’s portfolio holder for planning, said she was disappointed as the interchange would harm the Green Belt and was contrary to St Albans’ Development Plan. The council is also taking legal advice regarding the Secretary of State’s ruling. MP for St Albans Anne Main said she was “devastated on behalf of constituents who fought long and hard against this mindless act of vandalism.” She went on: “When the Minister discussed this with me I made it clear how angry I was and I find the decision incomprehensible.” Lib Dem prospective candidate for St Albans, Sandy Walkington, added: “This is a terrible Christmas present for local residents. The timing is disgraceful.”

Defending his position, the Secretary of State recognised the controversial nature of his decision. He admitted that the appeal proposal would be an inappropriate development in the Green Belt and cause further harm through loss of openness and significant encroachment into the countryside. In addition, the scheme would contribute to urban sprawl and it would cause harm to the setting of St Albans. Nevertheless, he maintained that when the harm to the Green Belt was compared to the need for a SRFI to serve London and the south east, the latter outweighed the impact on the area. Mr Pickles said he would allow the scheme because of “special circumstances” and “the lack of more appropriate alternative sites for such a terminal”.

The Goldilocks’ problem

Long standing readers will remember our 2008/9 coverage of the genesis of this project that has aroused fierce passions and prolonged argument. The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) of future Freight capacity requirements first broached this project in concept form in a 2001 report:

It is estimated that a further three to four strategic rail freight sites around the M25 could be required if rail freight is to help London minimize its environmental footprint. Additional smaller sites for rail terminals in London, particularly those needed to supply construction materials, are needed, but problems continue to be experienced in gaining planning permission. It is important that an appropriate balance is struck between local and strategic issues in such cases…

Thus, proposals for sites in Kent and Heathrow emerged together with one next to the Midland Main Line just north of where it crosses the M25 between Radlett and St Albans. As ever the devil was in the detail – especially the need for large sites adjacent to trunk rail routes and motorways – in particular, the M25, which runs for most part through the politically and emotionally charged Green Belt. London’s Green Belt was established in 1935 “to provide a reserve supply of public open spaces and of recreational areas and to establish a green belt or girdle of open space”. It now has an iconic status, particularly in the areas that border or encompass its external perimeter. These “beyond the beltway” towns and cities have become “Goldilocks” locations – close enough for timely commuting into the City but far enough away to leave city problems behind. Their significant prosperous, educated and articulate resident base enjoys a buoyant housing market and relatively low levels of local unemployment. It came as no surprise that a fierce debate broke out at each proposed SFRI location. Local residents reacted adversely to both the prospect of large number of trucks operating in their neighbourhoods and tracts of green belt covered by concrete. In 2006, the SRA, the organisational equivalent of Oliver Bulleid’s Leader Class, was scrapped by Alastair Darling. However, as an integral part of the container based logistics revolution, the SFRI concept lived on.

In the early days of London Reconnections, we began to take an interest in the Park Street project with three pieces describing the “Strictly Come War Dancing” process (starting here) as the promoters and opponents danced like Lilliputian Ministers to persuade the Planning Inspectorate. This has now evolved into one of those American “Dance Marathons” that followed the Great Crash of 1929, whereby the last couple standing won the prize – a contest of determination, resource and most of all attrition.

I don’t feel like dancing when the old Joanna plays

Helioslough’s first planning application was considered by the St Albans City Council on 19 February 2007 and was promptly refused. The Council, in its original planning decision, considered that the rail freight proposal would cause harm to the Green Belt. It also felt that it would be contrary to the Local Development Plan. This led to an appeal. The Planning Inspectorate then held its first public inquiry that commenced on 6 November 2007 and finished on 19 December 2007. The Planning Inspector subsequently sent a report to the Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, who dismissed the appeal in October 2008. The ground for dismissal was that the evaluation of alternative sites was inadequate and the failure to demonstrate a “compelling” case for building in the Green Belt. To the objectors this was a momentous victory, whereas to Helioslough it was a technical defeat. To the dismay of the objectors, Helioslough regrouped and submitted a second planning application that addressed the issues. St Albans’ councillors, who found they had no choice but to consider this second application, faced a further round of beans from the local electorate and refused permission for a second time. Helioslough Ltd then appealed for the second time against this decision to refuse planning permission for the interchange on land at the former Radlett aerodrome. A second Public Inquiry was held in November and December 2009 and ended with the Inspector’s recommendation to accept the revised proposals. This culminated in a decision by the Secretary of State, dated 7 July 2010, to dismiss the appeal and again the Senatus Populusque Verulamii sighed with relief.

The fight, however, was not over yet. Helioslough then challenged the Secretary of State’s July 2010 decision in the High Court. On 1 July 2011, a High Court Judge found that the Secretary of State did not properly explain his reasons for disagreeing with the Planning Inspector’s recommendation that the proposed development be allowed. The High Court referred the matter back to the Secretary of State to re-determine. The Secretary of State invited all parties to the planning appeal, including the Council, to make further written representations. The Council made its further representations on 14 October 2011. In a letter dated 29 March 2012, the Secretary of State informed all parties to the appeal that he had decided to delay his decision. He invited further written representations on the relevance of the recently published National Planning Policy Framework. The Council provided its representations on 16 April 2012.

The Secretary of State wrote to the Council in a letter dated 19 September 2012 to seek views on a proposal to re-open the Radlett inquiry. He proposed conjoining it with an inquiry into an SFRI site at Colnbrook near Slough. Interested parties were asked to give their views by 3 October 2012.

In a letter dated 14 December 2012, the Department for Communities and Local Government said that he has decided not to re-open the inquiry. Then a week later, the ticking stopped followed the sound of loud blasts and of the occasional damn.

It’s not the goal posts moving – it’s the pitch

Any decision to build a major infrastructure investment rests on assumptions. Again long standing readers will remember our espousal of the views of Bent Flyvberg in his book “Megaprojects and Risk” about the precarious nature of such assumptions. In part, this derives from a combination of imperfect understanding of market drivers and the triumph of self-serving hope over experience. Professor Flyvberg described an unhealthy cocktail of underestimated costs, overestimated revenues, undervalued environmental impacts and overvalued economic development effects. However, another key element is that, because megaprojects have a lengthy gestation, the goal posts that mark “success” tend to move. In the planning trade, this is known as MCC – “material changes of circumstances”. The SFRI at Radlett Aerodrome has not been immune to MCC.

Eric Pickles’ musing as to whether to conjoin the Radlett/Park Street and Colnbrook/Heathrow public enquiries was just the latest in a number of MCC’s that have occurred during the project approval process. As our chum, Lemmo pointed out, in his series of pieces on London’s rail freight scene, the capacity and future role of the Midland Main Line was about to change.

When the SRFI was first mooted, Network Rail’s perspective was conditioned by the 2007 Freight RUS. It was also reflective of the attitude of the Treasury, who together with their Marsham Street Minions (Steady Greg steady), appeared to have an antipathy towards further widespread rail electrification schemes. Following the completion of the East Coast Main Line in 1991, electrification stalled. Between 1997 and 2010 only an additional nine miles of existing track were electrified. The Midland Main Line (MML), having been electrified to Bedford in 1983, went on to the back burner. This followed a decision to replace existing HST stock with Bombardier class 222 diesel multiple units in 2004. The entrenched policy was abandoned in 2010.The Labour Government, shortly before losing office, set out proposals to electrify both significant parts of the rail network in the North West and on the main line between London and South Wales.

Following the 2010 General Election, the incoming Coalition Government reappraised these projects and announced that it would proceed with the electrification of the Great Western Main Line. It also announced proposals for the electrification of other commuter lines in South Wales. There had been a considerable kick back from the cadre of those MP’s though whose constituencies the Midland Main Line ran at being missed when the Great Western route was given priority and a constant campaign of ministerial questions and adjournment debates kept the pot stirred. When the government decided that a surge in “shovel ready” investment was necessary to counter the recession, the MPs, including a number of newly minted Conservatives, armed with previous cost-benefit analyses piled in.

Their efforts bore fruit when the Midland Main Line finally received approval in July 2012 as part of a new north south ‘Electric Spine’ involving:

  • Midland Main Line electrification
  • Basingstoke to Reading electrification.
  • Bournemouth to Basingstoke conversion from DC to AC electrification
  • Oxford – Nuneaton via Leamington – Coventry electrification
  • Midland Main Line Enhancement Bedford – Corby
  • Midland Main Line Leicester capacity improvements
  • Midland Main Line – Derby journey time and capacity improvements
  • Oxford – Bedford electrification

Network Rail’s business plans now include a £514.61m commitment for the electrification of the Midland Mainline that links London to Sheffield. Line speed improvements at various locations along the Midland Main Line between London St Pancras International and Sheffield will raise the speed for passenger services from 110mph to a maximum permissible speed of 125mph. Martin Frobisher, route-managing director at Network Rail, said, “Our route plan sets out the investments we are making for the future, particularly our focus on new technology and electrification and creating more capacity.”

In addition to passenger services, the Department of Transport had also brought forward a raft of other proposals affecting the MML. In November 2011, the Secretary of State reiterated continued support for the SFRI concept:

“The Government does not consider that the United Kingdom’s current predominantly road-based system of logistics represents an economically or environmentally sustainable model for the future. Even in the event of a significant future road building programme – which in itself would have major environmental implications – the forecast growth in freight demand would lead to increasing congestion both on the road network and at our ports, together with a continued increase in transport carbon emissions.

To avoid these unacceptable outcomes we need to secure substantial modal shift to rail which, in turn, will require sustained investment in the capability both of the national rail network and in the terminals and interchange facilities which serve it.

This was reinforced in the subsequent HLOS:

The creation of an electrified route linking the core centres of population and economic activity in the Midlands and North with the major container port of Southampton is a crucial step in creating the right conditions for significant private sector investment in electric freight locomotives, which offer more efficient, capable and sustainable freight haulage. The rolling programme of electrification is expected to help make rail freight commercially more attractive across England, supporting our growing international trade and the transfer of container traffic from road.

The work should include gauge clearance for large containers and appropriate electrified links to adjacent electrified routes, depots and freight facilities. Opportunities should be pursued to speed journeys through efficient enhancements in conjunction with the improvements, notably between Bedford and Corby, and at Derby. The Secretary of State wishes to see sufficient capacity to provide for forecast freight flows crossing the Electric Spine at Leicester. The industry is to undertake further development work to confirm the full scope and requirements for the delivery of this scheme, which the Secretary of State believes is deliverable within the SoFA.

Courtesy Andrew HA

Courtesy Andrew HA

Courtesy Andrew HA

Our thanks and copyright acknowledgements to Andrew HA for this picture of a class 66 hauled freight trains at Harpenden and Bedford

Hitherto, Network Rail’s attitude to the SFRI had been conditioned by the real constraints on train paths north of Bedford and no real prospect of changing the situation. By not being included as part of the Strategic Freight Network, the principle southern sector MML freight flows are aggregate, fuel and bin-liner trains to small dedicated terminals. Following the July 2012 announcement, Network Rail has been obliged to step up to planning for a busier railway. One immediate consequence of electrification would be the introduction of 125 mph electric multiple units. These would import similar disparities in line speed between freight and passenger trains to those found on the West Coast Main Line. Causal rather than symptomatic changes are therefore required.

Evidence of such changes appears in Network Rail’s input into the Statement of Agreed Facts (SOAF) prepared jointly with the other participants in the second public inquiry. SOAF’s are an essential tool in de-cluttering the public enquiry process. They enable the Inspector to focus upon the contested issues – where Ministerial arbitration may be required. Our thanks are due to our chum Mackenzie for a piece of diligent information excavation amongst a briefing on the SOAF produced by St Albans’ planners for the City Council:

Gauge pending enhancement

7.126 In order for an SRFI to operate as such it must be capable of being accessed by wagons carrying containers from around the UK and from the deep – sea ports and the Channel Tunnel.

7.127 Radlett is capable of being so accessed now (and, with the gauge enhancement works envisaged in the s.106, will in the future become even more easily accessible to the larger containers on standard wagons). On the last occasion the SoS accepted occupation of no less than 175,000m2 before any gauge enhancement works were necessary.

On the current gauge, intermodal trains can access the site without any enhancement works. DBS has no concerns about operating the intermodal facility on the current gauge pending gauge enhancement works and regularly runs services on the lower loading wagons that would be used here pending gauge enhancement.

7.128 There is no reason to suppose that, pending gauge enhancements, services will be uneconomic and will require subsidy and it was telling that there was no cross examination of Mr Smith on this issue which lies at the heart of the Council’s case.

There is no reason why profitable, unsubsidised services cannot be operated from this site prior to the gauge enhancement works.

7.129 At the last inquiry, based on Laser Rail work, it was assumed that the MML was W7 gauge. Mr Thorne did not claim that on that W7 basis the current gauge caused substantial difficulties. HS was positively criticised by the Council for using gauge constraints to reject alternative sites. We now know that the MML is in fact W8 to Cricklewood (9/HS/3.2 – Network Rail Route Plan Midland & Continental). The current position is materially better than that assumed at the last inquiry.

7.130 In respect of the cross London routes, para 2.6 of the Statement of Agreed Facts with Network Rail (9/CD/7.4) (“NR SOAF”) is clear and no questions have been raised on it.

On the route to Acton Wells Junction, whilst further detailed gauging work is required, “preliminary gauging assessment indicates that scope may exist to carry [9 foot 6 inch] containers carried on FAA wagons (if correct, this is a further material improvement on the position assumed at the last Inquiry). This would provide for FAA (not the low loaders) to carry the largest containers to the Channel Tunnel and Southampton

– wagons, which DBS currently use, on a significant number of routes.

In respect of Felixstowe, the low loaders (KTA) could gain direct access through Carlton Road junction.

7.131 It can thus be seen that even now and even on current assessment, the gauge allows for access to all routes. Para 2.8 of NR SOAF is important:
“Subject to further gauging analysis by Network Rail, it is possible that other combinations of inter-modal wagons and containers can operate on the MML in line with relevant Railway Group standards.”

7.132 DBS has run trains on routes, which are identified as too low a gauge but which in fact, can accommodate their trains. Mr Smith explained the process used by NR. NR is in the process of looking more closely at what a line can practically take rather than what gauge it is theoretically identified as accommodating.

7.133 Detailed work on current gauge will of course be undertaken as part of the process of working up rail access proposals for the SRFI (prior to gauge enhancement). Even if it demonstrates no enhanced accessibility, the position is plain – freight trains can access the SRFI from all the key destinations.

Engineering Work

7.134 The engineering requirements for gauge enhancement have been grappled with by the Inspector at IR16.66 – 67 and nobody claims any MCC in this regard.
“[NR] does not consider there to be any major technical obstacles to achieving [W10] enhancement works (NR SOAF para 2.19)”.

7.135 As Mr Gallop pointed out the works to deliver Thameslink create a significant window of opportunity for these engineering works to be carried out in existing possessions: see also NR SOAF para 2.20. In any event, NR has a good record of planning such possessions: see Mr Hirst Appendix A1.2 letter from EMT. It is to be noted that, of course, these works will be inevitable anyway if the MML is to fulfil its new role as part of the Strategic Freight Network (“SFN”).

MML as a core freight route

7.136 At the last inquiry much was made of the MML not being a core freight route. In that regard, of course, there is a significant MCC in favour of the proposals with the MML being identified as a part of the SFN. This is backed up by RUS and proposed electrification. There is also the opportunity to clear the MML to continental standards (UIC) – NG para 4.17 p11.

Miscellaneous Points

7.137 The south – facing only connection was considered at the last inquiry by the Inspector [IR16.67 – 16.68] and was not criticised. The SRA policy (para 4.32) relied on by the Council to show that the lack of two way access is a material disbenefit was current at the last inquiry. The SRA policy in any event makes clear the latitude to consider other arrangements: see para 4.33. SIFE has an eastward facing connection only.

[Note: That is Colnbrook, facing towards Paddington]

7.138 The future potential for the northward connection is a significant benefit: NR SOAF para 2.18 although it is accepted that that has not been subject to environmental assessment.

Before the Ministerial announcement, Network Rail’s role was to provide a technical solution for the SFRI as a stand-alone project. Now the emphasis has shifted to being an integral element of the wider scheme. Economies of scale become possible. Small projects often take up time and resource out of proportion to their scale relative to larger ones. Uncertainty, that key driver of, the bogeyman of construction costs, the provision for contingencies has reduced because of intervening events. For example, the intervening growth in intermodal traffic has justified the closer examination of the gauging needs of freight operation with refinement of initial calculations. The development of electric freight engines with” last mile” off the wire capability will make accessing the depot easier. Perhaps most important the facility will be better orientated to what could well be the site’s predominant traffic flows.

Exactly what these flows could be still depends on the interrelationship between Radlett and the other putative SFRIs. The Minister of State may have hoped that his festive season decision was going to be the end of the matter but, in the cold light of the New Year, he will be obliged to explain his workings. The response of St Albans City Council, reported in the Herts Advertiser on the 25th January 2013, has been to instruct their learned friends:

The decision to give the green light to a massive rail freight depot in Park Street is “flawed” and recent decisions could be the subject of a Judicial Review in the High Court.
St Albans district council has given the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles seven days to respond to their request that he should reconsider his decision of December 14 not to go ahead with a conjoined inquiry into rail freight schemes for the former Radlett Airfield and Colnbrook in Slough.

Less than a week later, Mr Pickles announced that he was “minded” to give planning permission to Helioslough to develop a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) on the Park Street site subject to legal technicalities. As an interim decision that cannot be challenged at this stage.

If Mr Pickles does not respond over the issue of the conjoined inquiry within seven days, the council has served notice that it will challenge the decision at a Judicial Review.

The council’s argument is that the Secretary of State’s view that he sees, “little reason to conclude that Colnbrook would meet the needs for an SRFI in a less harmful way” than that at Radlett Airfield, is contrary to his earlier positions in 2010 and 2012.

It believes that the decision fails to take into account the lack of any proper and adequate comparative assessment of the relative merits of the two sites and that Mr Pickles’ assessment of the position regarding Colnbrook is entirely inconsistent with his reasoning in his decision of July 2010 to refuse Helioslough planning permission for the Park Street SRFI.

The council also contends that the change of position stands “wholly unexplained” and was reached on “an irrational basis or by taking into account immaterial considerations.”

The council’s decision follows the receipt of legal advice, which reflects that received by campaign group STRiFE from their legal experts that the decision not to go to a conjoined inquiry could be challenged.

St Albans MP, Anne Main, who has managed to get a Westminster debate next Tuesday, January 29, entitled Protection of the Green Belt and Radlett Aerodrome site, has also backed the council’s decision.

She said: “I completely agree with the council’s decision; there was no explanation of the about turn in the Secretary of State’s position given his strong support for conjoined inquiries mere months before.

“I, along with the council, wrote to the Secretary of State to support conjoined inquiries as we believe that seen side by side it strengthens our argument.

“The Secretary of State said that conjoining the inquiries would, ‘lead to a more coherent and consistent decision-making process overall’ and I agree.”

She added: “I do not understand why he did not follow through with conjoining the inquiries and we have been given no reason why he did not. What changed? I am suspicious that it had more to do with national economic strategy than planning policy.”

Mrs Main pledged that the fight would continue “until the very end” with every avenue explored both inside and outside of Parliament to expose the decision-making process.

Mr Pickles has agreed to Helioslough’s request for a one-month extension to its “planning obligation” deadline. He originally proposed to allow until February 28 for the Section 106 planning obligation to be submitted, but this has been extended until March 28. This is to allow HCC’s cabinet to consider the matter at its meeting on February 25.

We will pick up this story again and move on to examine the progress or lack of it of other candidate sites. In the meantime fortified by suitable snacks, we will be watching the Westminster Hall debate web stream with great interest. Potato salad, anybody?

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There are 51 comments on this article
  1. John Bull says:

    EDITORS NOTE: My very rusty Latin A-Level was at full stretch correctly identifying the declension and genitive of Verulamium for Mwmbwls there (2nd declension, so ii?).

    If a passing classical scholar wishes to correct me, then please do!

  2. Mwmbwls says:

    Indeed we speak of little else in the forums,wine houses and baths of Verulamium.

  3. john b says:

    Blimey, I grew up in Herts and I’ve gone through over 25 years (from first primary school trip to the town, and via Latin GCSE) believing the Latin name for the place where Alban had his head chopped was Verulanium with an N. Out of all of the misapprehensions that I might have expected to have been corrected on LR, that wasn’t one of them 😉

  4. Whiff says:

    My Latin is just as rusty but I do remember from GCSE History that the Great Crash was 1929 not 1925 – apologies for the pedantry.

  5. mr_jrt says:

    I’m glad to see this go ahead (and hailing from Bushey, so reasonably local), but I still think they are missing a trick when they dismiss the notion of reviving the link to the Abbey line for WCML access.

  6. mr_jrt says:

    …especially when the planned MML access lines up with it so well, were it not for the big-ass northernmost warehouse.

  7. Greg Tingey says:

    “In respect of Felixstowe, the low loaders (KTA) could gain direct access through Carlton Road junction.”
    Over the un-improved, un-electrified GOBLIN line – nice piece of joined-up thinking there, I see!

    Something I DO NOT SEE in the picture is, erm, err, any rail connection at all to the vast depot shown.
    Shome mishtake shurely?
    I presume, somewhere there is an actual, you know, PLAN?

    In Verulamium you have some excellent pubs – what is this “wine-house” thing of which you speak?

  8. Mwmbwls says:

    @Whiff – thank you. I stand corrected.
    @John B – I shared your view as to city’s name but on checking the Saint Albans City web site I found this
    @Greg – The rail connection is on the eastern side of the MML next to the slow lines and runs in a semi circular underpass under the MML before emerging between the two banks of buildings. There is no direct northbound connection and therefore any northbound train exiting the terminal would have to reverse. The link can be seen in the render. I have commented on the lack of a northbound link in previous articles. The SOAF quoted above indicates that this ommission was not considered material. Personally, I am not so sure and I plan to touch on where trains that will use the terminal might originate in a future article.

  9. mr_jrt says:

    @Greg, The rail access is on the right of the MML, clear as day. The white elephant in the room being how full the slow lines are with Thameslink services…

    …you may as well just extend the freight lines from Hendon then 😉

    Seriously though, linking to the WCML gives rail distribution options between the freight hub at Wembley/Willesden, which you would think would make a great deal of sense to link up to.

  10. NLW says:

    @Greg – me neither at first glance! I would have expected the rail element of a railfreight terminal to be emphasised more…

  11. Littlejohn says:

    I am originally from Ruislip, so a bit further away than Bushey, but I grew up firmly believing it was Verulanium. A quick Google search reveals we are not alone ––verulanium-museum–st-albans.html shows that even the people who designed and built the visitor centre have it wrong.

    I now eke out my pension with a part-time job (at least, it is supposed to be part-time) as the Clerk to a largish Parish council. From my experience with our local Unitary Authority, there is nothing unusual in councillors ignoring their own planning officers’ advice if it doesn’t fit the political need and the briefing quoted doesn’t seem to be helpful to the City Council’s case (I acknowledge Greg’s point about Goblin but I doubt if the councillors are that well informed). I also wonder how strong the green belt argument is. I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the green belt as I have green field restrictions to grapple with but I think the NPPF might allow the SFRI, as a stated aim is ‘to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land’ Radlett was used for many years as the Handley Page factory so the land is ‘previously disturbed’ and the last time I was there much of it was subject to gravel extraction; arguably it fits the derelict requirement well.

  12. Stu says:

    Shouldn’t the acronym STRiFE be STRaFE ? 😉

    What a “nasty” industrial development idea ! The purpose of an airfield was never related to industry, surely …

  13. Greg Tingey says:

    Mwmbwls & Mr JRT
    Thanks for that.
    You are correct, of course …
    1] Slow lines are going to be very full after T’link 3000 finally gets off the ground
    2] …& no N’bound connection does seem, erm, a little remiss, doesn’t it?
    3] connection through the Watford-St Albans branch would surely be a good idea. – which has also been missed.
    All in all a real failure in joined-up thinking, which, if the objectors get their act together might win them the day.
    ~ Which I hope does not happen.
    After all, this used to be a concrete-covered airfield & manufacturing plant, and tri-directional rail connections OUGHT to be possible

  14. Anonymous says:

    Yes, this Classics graduate is happy to confirm that Verulamii is indeed in the correct case.

  15. Littlejohn says:

    @Stu 06:05PM, 29th January 2013. Sorry Stu but in this instance, at least, the airfield is directly related to industry. It was built by Handley Page, then based in Cricklewood, specifically to build aeroplanes. It grew and grew, and concrete replaced grass as the surface of the main runway as aircraft performance increased. So 100% to do with industry.

  16. John Bull says:

    Yes, this Classics graduate is happy to confirm that Verulamii is indeed in the correct case.


  17. JimJordan says:

    Since I was introduced to LR I have been living in a nostalgic world! First I must say how pleased I am to anticipate the site being used for a constructive purpose. Prior to my working at London Transport I was employed by Handley Page, eventually at the Test House at the Park Street end of the site, It was a green and pleasant airfield apart from two runways, only one of which was used by the Victor bombers that we turned out. The railway helped to make the view from work a bit more interesting and there were hares on the grassy bits. Not really green belt though.

    It does seem a bit short sighted only to have a unidirectional connection onto the MML. Regarding the Watford – St Albans line, there is a scheme to introduce Tram Trains I believe, Would this mix with long, heavy freight?

  18. Anonymous says:

    SRFI rather than SFRI? But thanks for a fascinating article.
    [Well spotted. Now fixed. As I keep pointing out, no-one ever proof-reads headlines. PoP]

  19. Fandroid says:

    The planning rules have a very relaxed definition of ‘brownfield’ (including allotment sites!). As an ex aircraft factory, it would seem to be blacker than black in the developer mind, Definitely not green (belt or field).

    (Is there a short version of Mwmbwls’ article?)

  20. Twopenny Tube says:

    Over-used, sometimes erroneous cliches department.
    Second paragrpah of the ‘Goldilocks’ section: “It [Green Belt] now has an iconic status”.
    What is the Green Belt supposed to be an image or portrait of? Perhaps, metaphorically, it has become an ’emblem’, or prosaically, it is itself (not as a representation) an important policy issue, or sensitive topic?

    Interesting article and discussion, something that had, for me at least, slipped off the (metaphorical) radar, oops there’s another one …

  21. stimarco says:

    Re. The lack of a northbound connection: it’s a common mistake to aim for perfection from the outset. The trick, as with any political game like this, is to get *something* built. You can then add stuff to it later on.

    I have no doubt that there’s a plan somewhere on a computer hard drive (or two) that includes an additional connection facing the other way. Once you’ve already got a rail-connected freight distribution centre, adding another connection is a lot easier to push though, politically.

  22. Anonymous says:


    Karlsruhe demonstrates that there’s no technical reason why tram-trains can’t mix with anything else running on the rail network.

    The Rotherham tram-trains will presumably be mixing with the trains that use the Midland “Old Road” to avoid Sheffield and Chesterfield, a major freight route.

  23. mr_jrt says:

    Yes, there is an intention to introduce trams. I misguided one in my opinion, but an intention nevertheless. …as far as I’m concerned, if they can find the money to build a tram depot and buy a fleet of trams then there’s enough money in the pot to add a simple mechanically-signalled passing loop and second platform at Bricket Wood and run a couple of class 378s on the line at 30 minute intervals.

  24. Paul says:

    You don’t have to go all the way to Karlsruhe to see light rail vehicles and heavy freight together, it has been happening for a good few years on Tyneside. Full length coal trains from Tyne Dock run on tracks shared with the Metro with no problems.

  25. Ian J says:

    @mr_jrt: the thinking behind the tram-train was that the pot of money you need to buy trams and build a small depot is less than the pot of money Network Rail quoted to signal the line and build a passing loop. And then the running costs are lower.

    At the moment the line is completely unsignalled and could remain so with trams (operating on a line-of-sight principle), but as soon as you start to want to have more than one train you need signalling on the whole line. I suspect not wanting to get lumbered with the cost of upgrading and signalling the line explains the lack of a connection from the Abbey line to the freight depot. However timeshare operation could be possible as I believe happens in San Diego – the line open to freight overnight and trams in the daytime.

    Another big issue for the terminal was that the Highways Agency wouldn’t let the proponents build a connection directly onto the M25 as the proponents had hoped, which means more traffic on surrounding (non-Highways Agency) roads to get to the motorway. This seems to still be the case.

    The Abbey Line tram-train proposal has gone ominously quiet with the last newsletter (March 2012) from Herts County Council containing phrases like “the project has proved more complex than originally expected and the team needs to take the time to resolve the issues highlighted” and “taking the line out of the national rail network has highlighted some issues – such as land ownership and responsibility for maintaining and renewing bridges and other structures”.

  26. HowardGWR says:

    I wonder if mwmbwls has a breakdown of envisaged end-destinations of these containers? I haven’t seen the previous articles (yet), but if containers merely arrive at the interchange to find their way onto HGVs that have longish journeys additional to the one that brought them from Felixstowe or Southampton, (noting the direct connections to A14 and then via A405 to M25) , one begins to wonder at the environmental benefit. Put simply, what is the point of such a movement, say, from Southampton to near Leicester, achieved Southampton to Radlett by rail and then Radlett to (somewhere near) Leicester, when it could have stayed on a train from Southampton to Leicester (if there was a container terminal there) with a very short urban ‘cartage’ journey to a perhaps non-rail-connected destination.

    As far as London destinations are concerned, it seems to me that the northern M25 is ‘too far out’ (ergo the Green Belt designation) to be of environmental benefit when London, proper, destinations are involved.

    It seems to me this type of depot is like the 1955 Modernisation Plan marshalling yards, except that the goods are transferring from rail to road unnecessarily? Bring back Feltham and Acton?

    Put me right everyone please!

  27. Greg Tingey says:

    Anon @ 22.14
    Karlsruhe demonstrates why our railway admin is utterly useless!
    How long have they been running trams, intermixed or on the same line time-separated with “Heavy” rail & freight now?
    AND, for how long have DafT (deliberately?) obfuscated, blocked, opposed and spun out any even minisule trial of a proven technology & operating system here?

    And Paul @ 00.40 proves the point even more graphically.
    Will some-one PLEASE explain why we can’t put a stop to this insanity & waste?

    Howard GWR
    Well, a lot of depots could not be rebuilt, having been sold off & built over. But Fetham, could be – much smaller, with modern freight-handling abilities – but handling a larger volume.

  28. Lemmo says:

    @ HowardGWR, you raise an interesting question, which I briefly touched upon in Part 2 of my rail freight series:

    Given the experience with Howbury Park and South Radlett, what then of SIFE Colnbrook by the M4/M25 interchange, or TfL and the SFN’s aspiration for a European gauge terminal in the Barking area? Perhaps the protracted battles and inability to secure suitable sites for SRFIs should prompt a fundamental re-evaluation of the whole concept, and perhaps consider a network of smaller terminals ?

    More broadly, does the case of the SRFIs in the London area provide a litmus test of the ability for rail planners to deliver on strategic freight objectives overall?

    It is highly questionable whether the model of four huge terminals is still valid, or indeed even achievable given the level of local opposition. As I pointed out in my articles, investment that increases heavy freight but brings no local benefit such as improved passenger service will be fiercely resisted, and rightly so.

    A network of smaller terminals may be more appropriate, in which case the potential sites need to be quickly identified and safeguarded. But who might take the lead on that?

  29. Mwmbwls says:

    I propose to deal with the points that you raise in my next piece on this topic.

  30. Stu says:

    @ Littlejohn

    My omission of a smiley means I think you missed a heavy dollop of sarcasm in my last post. I was aware of the history and fully agree with you

  31. mr_jrt says:


    Why on earth would you need to signal the entire line? Operate it as two single lines with trundles that set the points to the diverging route to the other platform (and thus clear the route behind it) when a train enters a platform, and resets them when it either clears them or have them sprung so they close after the train clears them.

    …that’s absolutely trivial to build, and trains won’t be able to proceed until the train from the other section arrives at Bricket Wood or the trundle is manually activated for when there’s just the one train in operation.

  32. ngh says:

    Re: HowardGWR 06:24AM, 30th January 2013

    The idea of SRFIs is that the current model where containers from Southampton / Felixstowe (with high sales volume goods – for example Italian tinned tomatoes) which currently go by road (mostly) or rail to the National distribution centres in the midlands (Daventry etc.) where the containers contents are then emptied on to lorries that go back down the M1 to London/Southeast to either regional distribution centres or direct delivery to stores etc. is replaced with a model where the container from Italy arrives at Southampton get put on a train to Radlett where the pallets are emptied from container for onward local distribution.
    Goods for locations further north would go direct to the existing sites in the Midlands, (or Yorkshire locations / Trafford Park etc) with preferably more going by rail given the electric spine and Felixstowe to Midlands / North improvements.

    The logistics park at the London Gateway Port development (on the site of the former Shell refinery) fulfils a similar function in that most high sales volume goods for London/SE are split out at the park so they don’t go up and down the M1 (or down the MML and back along the M1) if they are going to end up at a supermarket in London.

  33. Littlejohn says:

    @Stu 10:26AM, 30th January 2013. I did wonder – I will try to be more awake in future. I think there is an important point here in that most airfields/airports encompass a wide range of planning Use Classes, such as shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and so on, and they are developed on a retail basis. Radlett is unusual in that it was built specifically as a factory and the runway was a function of that (the early Victors had to be taken away by road to conduct their first flights elsewhere) so it was not an airfield in the common sense. This distinction may be significant if/when it comes to a Judicial Review (or it might not, you can never tell with planning).

  34. Julius Caesar says:

    Salvete! Great to finally see some Latin on London Reconnections. You may remember my campaign slogan – nihil expectorant in omnibus. Valete!

  35. Malcolm says:

    I think HowardGWR may be mistaken when he suggests that near the M25 is “too far out” for goods destined for the London area. This is because the preferred truck route from anywhere inside the M25 to almost anywhere else inside the M25, is out to the M25, round the M25 to the exit closest to the destination, and then inward. So a freight transfer facility for London must be close to the M25. (Unless of course there are loads of them, say one per borough – but that would not fit with goods coming in by the trainload).

  36. HowardGWR says:

    Mwmbwls (gosh I have difficulty getting that one right!) thank you and noted about part 2. Also thanks to ngh and Lemmo. I should not pretend have no knowledge in this area (I designed distribution and retail POS computer systems for a large supermarket company in the Netherlands) so I look forward to further contributions with great interest.

    I expect that the inspector dealt with the distribution quandaries in his (well, their) reports but if they did not master the issues, then one could not weigh these against the damage to the Green Belt.

    I am also an environmental campaigner, and Iam afraid the value of the London GB was essentially destroyed when the M25 was built. The pressures to turn ‘greenfield’ (existing use agri) into ‘white land’ (open season for developers) thereafter is just too huge, as an eyeball of the sites with Google Earth of the areas near motorway junctions displays.

    Only well-heeled nimbyism will protect any of what’s left. Look at Woldingham as an example of folk with resources having it all – rural idyll and an half hour to the city or west end.

  37. Ian J says:

    @HowardGWR The same plan that led to the designation of the Green Belt in its current form – the Abercrombie Plan of 1943-4 – also envisaged the construction of what became the northern M25 as part of one of the five (!) ring motorways, so it was always likely the Green Belt would not remain a rural idyll. Bricket Wood was once a popular picnic destination for Londoners – now its surrounded by motorways. The sad thing is that the extensive network of new footpaths Abercrombie proposed to enable recreational use of the Green Belt never happened.

    The M25 goes further out north of London than south of London because it is an amalgamation of half each of two different concentric rings (and also because London suburbia stretches further out to the north, presumably because the huge suburban growth of the 30s encouraged by the expansion of the Underground to the north.

    @mr_jrt: You could signal the line in the way you suggest for a basic 2ph passenger service, but as soon as you introduce a connnection to the freight terminal you will start running into difficulties (how does the freight train at the terminal know the section is clear to the loop?). And a loop that can take a freight train will cost a lot more than a loop that can take a short passenger train: so who pays the difference?

    The important thing is to ensure a link to the Abbey Line can be built in the future, but I can’t see it happening at least until HS2 frees up some capacity on the WCML.

  38. The other Paul says:

    I find it hard to see how the unsignalled single track abbey line could practically share with freight, no matter what type of passenger trains or trams are running. Gauge clearance is likely also to be a problem.

    I suspect the costs of dualling, signalling and gauge enhancement would make it a whole project of its own. And isn’t the WCML rather too capacity constrained for more freight anyway?

  39. Dave says:

    “portfolio holder for planning”
    Will local government ever run out of these agrandising titles?

  40. mr_jrt says:

    Probably. Just saying it’s not inconceivable. The line is W6 with few underbridges, so should be easy enough to enhance to whatever gauge is needed.

    Back in the olden days the line had a LOT of freight on it…and could have again, given the will.

  41. MikeP says:

    @Dave – to be fair to local councillors, these aggrandising titles were pretty much forced on Local Government by the previous Central Government’s insistence (eventually – they gradually closed down the other options) on a leader-and-cabinet model of political structure, replacing the previous committee model.

    The concept (as in the executive mayoral model) is that this improves accountability as a specific, named, individual is responsible for a group of services provided by the council. Even worse, the pressure was very much on for every council to choose an executive mayor over leader-and-cabinet (the New Local Government Network thinktank being at the forefront of this). Fortunately the last round of referenda on the matter have hopefully made the political theorists and their followers (who on evidence are in both major national parties) rethink the public appetite (or rather bulimia) for this.

    Whether the goal of improved accountability was achieved by these “reforms” is left as an exercise for the reader 🙂

  42. Littlejohn says:

    @Dave and MikeP. The disadvantage of the portfolio system is that it can make councillors, who may well have no background in a subject, too reliant on officer’s advice. The big advantages of the committee system (otherwise known as the cabinet system) are that discussion of the pros and cons of a proposal is done in public and that the opposition gets the chance to be heard. This is probably why few councils have taken the opportunity, which they now have, to revert to committees.

  43. MikeP says:

    @Littlejohn – I hoped the smiley at the end of my final paragraph relayed my lack of belief in the sense of these changes, as one who was an elected member during their passage. Don’t get me started on “Best Value” being rolled out nationwide before the pilots had even completed, let alone reported back.

    The other major issue is that I never see mentioned is that concentration of power inevitably leads to greater opportunity for corruption.

    Way off topic now, though maybe not.

  44. Jimweibo says:

    I don’t live in St Albans any more (or even in the UK!) but I was in that city for most of the debate on the SRFI. The plan calls, IIRC, for ONE rail line, accessible only from the south, and more than six hundred parking spaces for trucks. I’ve seen a lot of rail freight depots around the world, but never one as cockeyed as this. It’s a road freight depot, with a rail spur included solely to try to appease the planners.

  45. Long Branch Mike 1 says:

    Can anyone explain who the Marshall Street Minions are? For lexicographical purposes…

  46. straphan says:

    @LBM1: The UK Department for Transport head office is located in the building on the corner of Marsham Street and Horseferry Road, London SW1. The building’s official address used to be at Marsham Street, but ever since the austerity-dictated downsizing the DfT decided to vacate one wing of the building, and so now their address is 33 Horseferry Road.

  47. Long Branch Mike 1 says:


    Many thanks.

  48. Graham H says:

    @LBM – for the sake of completeness, you will find that the term “Marsham Street mafia/minions/whatever” goes back well before they occupied “33” – their previous address was 2 Marsham Street – now demolished – in which the unified Department of the Environment set up camp in 1970, with Transport occupying the North Tower (and Railways the 18th and 19 floors thereof)

  49. Greg Tingey says:

    The Radlett road-hub (with a tiny, facing-te-wrong-way rail access, so as to make it look good …
    Has just been given guvmint approval
    We shall, presumably see what happens next & if any rail freight arrives, working across & blocking the main lines.

  50. mr_jrt says:

    I share some of the concerns, but I suspect it’ll work out fine. The junction is the least of my worries – in the imagery I saw it’s a flyover so no blocking will occur, and cheap southbound access is as easy as a siding that would enable freight heading south to reverse over the flyover without blocking the southbound slow line.

    IMHO, the government should be stinging Helioslough for much more cash though – the area will need road improvements between the site and the M25 for a start, and I’d casually suggest it would be eminently worthwhile to restore the link to the Abbey Line and upgrade that as required (I’ll spare you all the details I have in mind) to give rail freight access to the WCML as well.

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