To a full house of over 65 people at the Bricket Wood Social Club, ABFLY played host to a Public Meeting on 6th July, at which overwhelming and at times vociferous support for the rail link was expressed.

Commencing with an update from train operator London Midland, Terry Oliver – Head of West Coast Services, explained that the line continued to be one of the most punctual routes on its network, with performance at 99.6% in the last period (trains arriving within 4 mins 59 seconds of schedule at destination) compared with 83.2% on its London Euston mainline service. This success is due largely to the Abbey Line’s self-contained nature. Mr Oliver reminded the meeting that performance is a constant challenge for all London train operators due to ever-increasing congestion on the network. Britain’s railways are now carrying more people than ever before and the reliability of the infrastructure continues to be a concern.

Several questions to Mr Oliver concerned the longstanding problem of patchy revenue collection on the branch. It was agreed that current ticket sales figures do not reflect the true usage of the line and as such, this may undermine the case for future investment. However, following a series of revenue ‘blockages’, a business case had now been made for putting an extra ticket inspector on the branch between the hours of 7am and 3pm Monday to Friday. This appointment was taking time to go through LM’s recruitment processes but Mr Oliver expected the position to be filled by late August / early September.

Mr Oliver confirmed that every train that runs on the branch has a driver and conductor. Conductors should always have mobile Ticket Vending Machines (TVMs) but there had been some issues of late with unreliability of the machines. Another issue, long highlighted by ABFLY, was that conductors do not always have time to walk through the train issuing tickets between stations because their duties require them to operate the doors. Ticket sales can generally  only be done from the back cab with the current rolling stock (Class 321s). It may be the case that the overhaul of ex-Thameslink Class 319s, due to replace Class 321s in September, will include provision of door controls at every door, which should help, but this is yet to be confirmed. More ticket machines at station platforms are another solution but Mr Oliver was at pains to stress that “this was more complicated and expensive than you might think” and getting a return on them was difficult especially at quieter stations e.g. Park Street and How Wood. Future franchises, “might help the situation” but Mr Oliver would not be drawn on any specifics due to commercial sensitivity.

Note that ABFLY continue to collect data on revenue collection. Passengers are encouraged to log whether they had a ticket inspection on their journey, or not, via a simple online form on the ABFLY website: www.abfly.org.uk/revenue. More people doing this will enhance the quality of statistics on the matter.

Another questioner asked whether through services were a prospect. Mr Oliver explained that ‘paths’ through to London in the peak hours, were unlikely at present, and if they could be found, it would be difficult for 4 car trains, given capacity on the West Coast Main Line is at a premium. This poses a problem for the Abbey Line in its current state because its platforms can only accommodate 4 cars. However ABFLY noted that potential solutions may be found if Selective Door Opening (SDO) or splitting and joining of trains at Watford Junction could be adopted. These methods are used elsewhere on the network, for example at Braintree where trains from Liverpool Street come out to Witham as 12 cars, drop 8 in the loop so that only 4 go along the branch. Alternatively ABFLY noted that there is land available for platform extensions at all but one of the stations on the Abbey Line and Network Rail have in recent years built many such extensions using a modular system at relatively low cost. This will be a service improvement which ABFLY will be pressing the DfT and future franchise bidders to consider as a priority.

Mr Oliver also spoke briefly about train cleanliness and presentation. Regular feedback about the state of the trains is being fed to LM via John Lepley, of the ABFLY committee. Mr Oliver explained that security guards were now paid to pick up litter and the situation was improving. This will continue to be monitored by ABFLY.

Next to speak was Janet Tyndale, Abbey Line Community Rail Partnership Officer, who gave an update about recent CRP activities including the successful completion of the ‘Abbey Gateway’, further art projects and the winning of three prizes at the Community Rail Awards.

Finally to speak, about the draft Hertfordshire Rail Strategy and its consultation, was a trio from Hertfordshire County Council (HCC) consisting of Cllr Derrick Ashley (Executive Member for Environment, Planning & Transport), Trevor Mason (Safe and Sustainable Journeys Manager) and Liz Drake (Strategic Rail Officer). Cllr Ashley briefly introduced himself as taking over from Cllr Terry Douris, explaining that Cllr Douris’s old role of Cabinet Member for Highways and Waste Management, which used to cover Rail, has now been split into three – Roads, Rail and Buses, with Cllr Ashley heading up the Rail team and Cllr Douris going back to his former specialism of Roads.

Cllr Ashley then handed over to Mr Mason, introduced as a Technical Expert, who explained that the new Rail Strategy was conceived as primarily an advocacy document, its principal role being to specify ‘Conditional Outputs’ and short, medium and long-term priorities for the rail network in Hertfordshire, against which funders such as Network Rail and the DfT were encouraged to deliver. As such it is not a detailed plan or commitment to deliver, since that is not within HCC’s gift and there is no funding attached to the strategy. The philosophy is to, “influence not dictate”.

Several people pressed Cllr Ashley & Mr Mason regarding the inclusion of a Guided Bus option in what was supposed to be a Rail Strategy document. Factual inaccuracies in the document (prepared by external consultants Arup) regarding possible through-running to Euston were also pointed out by Robin White, who presented a letter from Network Rail stating that through-running over the renewed connection at Watford Junction was indeed viable ‘if requested by the train operating companies’, contrary to what was suggested in the consultation.

Trevor Gurd expressed the view that to even consider Guided Bus is a dangerous irrelevance – given their great expense, the well-publicised technical and legal challenges on the Cambridge to St Ives busway, and the failure of the Luton to Dunstable busway to live up to expectations. What is needed is to concentrate on improving and enhancing the existing rail service.

Robin White expressed disappointment and frustration that, after years of feasibility studies and a great deal of taxpayers money, the service on the Abbey Line is still fundamentally no better than it had been since electrification in 1988. ABFLY currently have a Freedom of Information (FOI) request with HCC to uncover how much has been spent on these studies over the years.

Mr Mason conceded that, in terms of improving the service frequency, the restoration of the passing-loop at Bricket Wood “is a no-brainer”. However, it was noted by David Horton of ABFLY that the draft Rail Strategy did not read like that – instead it seemed to dismiss the possibility of a passing loop citing previous studies which, in reality, are more than 10 years out of date. This air of ‘fait accompli’ was severely criticised. Mr Mason expressed regret that it had been presented in such a way, conceding after the meeting that it had been a bit of a ‘PR disaster’ and the wording would be revisited.

Mr Horton went on to explain that conditions in the rolling stock leasing market had radically changed since 2005, when a higher frequency ‘heavy’ rail service was last under serious consideration. It is thought, in particular, that there will soon be a glut of BR-generation EMUs on the market due to displacement by newer types. Some of these ex-BR EMUs may soon be out of work and hence leasing prices will be falling. In addition, Network Rail had designed and installed several passing loops around the UK since then, from which costs would now be better understood. Finally, it was now publically acknowledged that the line’s patchy revenue collection was resulting in severe under-estimation of current passenger usage, artificially eroding the case for investment. Hence it was time to reopen the book on a higher frequency service using heavy rail, taking all these factors into account.

Kevin Ambrose summed up the feeling of the meeting by saying that, although the concept of ‘Conditional Outputs’ was logical and to be welcomed, many people felt disappointed that HCC were leaving the delivery side of things to rail industry ‘partners’, without much evidence of leadership. This was in contrast to other County Councils, such as Suffolk and Cornwall, where passing loops have been delivered and local rail services improved, or Buckinghamshire where the Buckinghamshire Thames Valley Local Enterprise Partnership (BTVLEP) are known to actively be pushing for a passing loop on the Maidenhead to Marlow branch.

Mr Mason said that all opinions would be considered and encouraged everybody to have their say via the website http://www.hertsdirect.org/services/transtreets/railconsultation/. The consultation is open until 4th August and the final report will be published towards the end of 2015.

ABFLY’s views on the consultation and a template response letter, which can be easily personalised and adopted through a simple-to-complete online form, are available on their webpage www.abfly.org.uk/no2bus. To date at least 140 individuals have adopted the letter, through a strong marketing campaign involving the website, articles in the local press, posters and on-train leafleting.

David Horton rounded off the public section of the meeting by requesting a commitment from HCC that the business and technical case for a passing loop should be re-examined and that ABFLY should be closely involved in this study since they now hold considerable expertise on the subject. Mr Mason and Cllr Ashley agreed to this request.

The meeting was followed by a short AGM for ABFLY members which concluded at 2145.