History of the Abbey Line
The first railway to pass through Watford
was the London & Birmingham Railway,
which opened from London Euston to Boxmoor
on 20th July 1837. The original Watford station
was sited just north of the present day St
Albans road overbridge, and the original
station building still exists today, in use
as a used car sales office. In 1846 the London
& Birmingham became a part of the vast
London & North Western Railway (LNWR).
An up train speeds through Watford Junction
in LNWR days. Photo courtesy of and copyright
Ben Collins. The original London and Birmingham
station (still standing today) was just out
of sight, on the right, beyond the second
bridge in the background, which carries the
St Albans Road.
From very early on, a branch line railway
had been proposed to link Dunstable, Luton
and St Albans with the new main line at Watford.
However, for various political and economic
reasons, the line was only ever to reach
St Albans. Had the plan to extend the line
to Dunstable and Luton ever been fulfilled,
the line may have had a considerably different
character from today's tranquil single-track
The LNWR received parliamentary powers to
construct the 6 mile, 32 chains long branch
line on 11th February 1853. Work started
in the early months of 1856 and the line
was opened to public traffic on Wednesday
5th May 1858. By this time the LNWR had constructed
a totally new and much bigger station at
Watford, on the site where it has stood ever
Intermediate stations were initially planned
for "Aldenham Road, Smug Oak and Park
Street", but there were only two to
begin with; at Bricket Wood and Park Street.
Neither station served a large population
centre, and in the summer of 1858 (a matter
of months after opening), Park Street closed.
It appears Bricket Wood temporarily befell
a similar fate around 1859, but by 1861 both
stations had reopened.
Bricket Wood station, some time in the Edwardian
era, pre-1913, before the passing loop and
second platform was built. Photo copyright
Whilst Bricket Wood station has always been
in the same place, the original site of Park
Street is a contentious issue. It is thought
that it may originally have lain very close
to the Hyde Lane level crossing, which is
now where How Wood station is to be found
(opened 1988). A crossing keeper's cottage
stood at Hyde Lane until the 1960s, and this
may have been part of the original station
building. The current position of Park Street,
adjacent to the Watling Street overbridge,
is thought to date from the 1890s.
In the late Victorian and early Edwardian
eras, Bricket Wood became an unlikely tourist
destination because of two funfares situated
nearby. Hundreds of people passed through
the station, particularly in the summer months,
many of them on day trips to escape the crowds
of London. An additional platform and 'passing
loop' were installed by the LNWR at Bricket
Wood in 1913, to cope with the large increase
in excursion traffic. This allowed two trains
to operate on the branch, and the new platform
could accomodate up to 9 carriages. However,
the funfares went into gradual decline in
the 1920s, and the line never saw such a
high level of traffic again. The passing
loop and second platform were eventually
demolished in 1966. Today's station is
much closer in atmosphere to what it must
have been pre-1913!
Bricket Wood station on 19th February 1961, showing the second platform,
passing loop and signalbox, which were all
demolished in 1966. Photo courtesy of Ben
In about 1910, a small station was opened
in an area of Watford known as 'Callowland'.
This was built to serve workers from the
various manufacturing companies that were
springing up around there. The station was
soon renamed 'Watford North', but
it was not until the 1930s, when massive
housing development took place on fields
around the station, that the station really
came into its own. There was a proliferation
of sidings for freight round the north Watford
area, extending almost as far as the present
day Garston station (some remains can still
be seen). Indeed, freight played a significant
role on the branch until well into the 1960s.
Today, Watford North and Garston are the
busiest intermediate stations on the branch.
Watford North station (formerly 'Callowland')
Photo courtesy of and copyright the Oakwood
The Abbey line was the first railway that
the ancient city of St Albans received. The
people of the city were very supportive of
the scheme, and the new terminus was a hub
of activity. Known originally simply as 'St
Albans', the name was only changed to
'St Albans Abbey' in 1924, to distinguish
it from the former Midland Railway station
now known as 'St Albans City' which
was opened in 1868. In 1866, the Great Northen
Railway also built a branch line, from Hatfield,
that terminated at the station. Extensive
sidings to the west served the local freight
needs, not least providing space for the
daily coal train that arrived to feed the
adjacent municipal gasworks. The station
buildings, although modest, provided a booking
hall, waiting rooms and toilets for passengers,
a far cry from today's simple waiting
shelter! A 'run-round' loop was provided,
which allowed locomotives to run round their
carriages at the end of the journey, so that
the loco was always at the head of the train.
In later years an autotrain or 'push-pull'
arrangement was used, whereby the driver
could drive the train from a specially-converted
carriage at the opposite end of the train
from the loco. This dispensed with the need
to 'run round' and was the precursor
to modern operating methods.
St Albans Abbey station, 28th May 1947, showing a typical ‘push
Photo H.C. Casserley collection.
Being a branch line, trains were usually
made up of 3 to 4 coaches, and hauled by
a tank engine. These engines were invariably
housed or 'shedded' at the Watford
Junction engine shed (shed code 1C). Coal
trains, being much heavier than passenger
trains, were usually worked by tender engines,
normally 0-6-0s. Diesel trains gradually
started to take over in the 1950s, but the
technology was largely untried, so the Abbey
Line played host to a variety of experimental
designs until the branch was fully 'dieselised'
for passenger trans in 1955.
Watford locomotive shed, 1947.
Despite the substantial savings made by using
diesel trains, in 1963 the 'Beeching
Plan' proposed closure of the Abbey Line,
along with hundreds of other similar branch
lines the length and breadth of the UK. Luckily,
strong local protest kept the line alive,
and indeed the threat of closure as a heavy-rail
operation has been lurking almost constantly
every since. The line was to suffer heavily
from rationalisation - almost everything
save the track, formation and station platforms
was demolished in the 1960s.
A bleak and windswept St Albans Abbey station
after ‘rationalisation’, pictured
on 28th May 1983 with a DMU waiting to depart for
Watford Junction. Note the recently-demolished
gasworks in the background.
Today, we are left with the most basic of
'basic railways'. It hasn't
all been bad news though; since 1965, new
stations have been opened at Garston and
How Wood, and in 1987-88 the branch was electrified.
In the late 90's, after a fierce battle
to block the conversion of the line to a
proposed 'guided-busway' system,
a public consultation exercise resulted in
resounding support for keeping the Abbey
Line as a railway and a strategy that builds
on its strengths as a local transport link.
With that in mind, July 2005 marked the designation
of the branch as a 'Community Railway'
under the government's 'Community
Rail Development Strategy', launched
in 2004. Integral to designation was the
inauguration of a Community Rail Partnership
(CRP), set up by Herts County Council. Since
this, various improvements have taken place
to the fabric of the line, including the
installation of a real-time passenger information
system, the replacement of the level crossing
at Watford North, and king of them all -
the total refurbishment of St Albans Abbey
station, such that it is now a tidy, modern,
fully accessible station as befitting the
Long may the Abbey Line prosper!
St Albans Abbey station today. The station
was given a new lease of life between 2008-10
when significant improvements were undertaken,
in a joint venture between London Midland,
the train operator, and the Community Rail
Partnership. Improvements included a new
passenger shelter, bicycle shelter, ticket
machine, CCTV, signage, fencing, resurfacing
and remarking of the car park, a new footpath,
and finally a special ‘hump’
was installed at one end of the platform
to reduce the stepping distance between the
train and the platform. All of these improvements
make for a much safer, friendlier and more
welcoming station than the one pictured in
Photo copyright Rudi Newman.
I am strongly indebted to S.C. Jenkins (author)
and the Oakwood Press (publisher) for information
and photographs taken from their book, "The
Watford to St Albans Branch", the only
comprehensive history of the branch ever
May 5th 2008 marked the 150th anniversary
of the line, and a number of commemorative
events took place on the bank holiday weekend.
As part of these celebrations, the book was
reprinted and updated. See our Oakwood Press page
for more details.
Other photos credited here include (numbered
from the top of this page):
1) Watford Junction, Ben Collins.
3) Bricket Wood, Ben Brooksbank.
4) Watford North, Oakwood Press.
5) St Albans Abbey, H.C. Casserley.
6) St Albans Abbey, Rudi Newman.
Disclaimer: The information on this site
is provided in good faith by the Abbey Line
Community Rail Partnership. We have
tried very hard to ensure that the information
given is correct, but visitors to the site
are advised to check with the service
providers if any errors would cause them
inconvenience or expense. Contact numbers
for the service providers are given where
available. Please let us know of any
errors you find by emailing the Webmaster
"at" abbeyline.org.uk. Thank you.