This rather long note explains the current state of play with the Cottonmill rail crossing.
It remains closed, causing massive inconvenience to literally thousands of people and splitting the Sopwell community in two. The Rights of Way team at County Hall is completely clear that Network Rail has committed an offence and that it has no right unilaterally to close a right of way in this manner.
Network Rail is equally adamant. Their representatives admit they may not have followed proper procedures but they are stating that there are significant Health and Safety issues that trump everything.
What are these ‘health and safety concerns’? Some background: Network Rail has a national programme of closing all such footpath level crossings. They had begun discussions with the county council about replacing the Cottonmill crossing with a bridge. The county council rightly said that any bridge would have to be ramped as part of the new ‘Green Ring’ and so that existing crossing users with mobility issues and other wheeled users could continue to use the route.
A ramped bridge inevitably costs more than a stepped bridge so Network Rail decided to conduct a ‘census’ of users to check how much traffic there actually was on the crossing. This took place using discreet cameras over a nine day period in July and August.
First of all they were astonished by the volume of use – over 9,000 separate crossings in the nine day period (and we can assume less usage than usual in the school holiday period?). Secondly they were alarmed by some of the behaviours. The excerpts of footage we were shown at a meeting on Friday between Network Rail and county and district representatives did show some stupid actions including one case of a teenager lying down on the tracks and another of children standing on the track side of the gates while trains passed. Other ‘dangerous behaviours’ included people crossing while wearing headphones, children tripping over while crossing with their mums, someone stopping to tie a shoe lace, elderly people making slow progress while carrying their shopping.
While those of us from St Albans and the county council recognized that there were some issues with some of the teenage behaviours (possibly exaggerated by it being school holidays), we argued forcefully that the Network Rail response was wholly disproportionate and in fact illegal. They have not even followed Office of Rail Regulation procedures leaving aside their breaches of rights of way legislation.
We emphasized alternative ‘softer’ options - better warning signage at the crossing, the introduction of bells and flashing lights to indicate an approaching train, painting a clear pathway across the crossing, the possibility of a 20 mph speed limit at that point, lockable gates, visits into schools to warn against reckless behaviour, perhaps visible permanent cameras with clear warnings that people misbehaving will be prosecuted.
The important thing is to get the route opened without delay while work continues in parallel on designs for a bridge or subway.
So what happens next? The Network Rail representatives took away our alternative suggestions and will respond by this coming weekend before a further roundtable meeting next week. I asked the county officers to follow up on formal legal action and what powers they have to use the courts to force Network Rail to rescind this action (though legal action is rarely quick) – but I have to say that the Rights of Way team have been very robust in their dealings with Network Rail to date. And I have also asked for the issue to be put on the agenda of the transport panel at County Hall so that we can fully debate and understand the powers of the county council in circumstances like this where another statutory body just blocks a right of way and claims the legal right to do so.
The priority must be to re-open the crossing as soon as possible. Network Rail seems to have no appreciation of the damage they are causing by using a sledge hammer to crack a nut and sever this historic link. They have made no attempt to negotiate or collaborate.
The county council footpath closure sign on the gates is an unfortunate coincidence. An entirely different section of Network Rail made a routine request for track maintenance purposes. There is a six month window for this work to be carried out but the maximum duration the footpath can be closed under this notice is for one day only. In no way does it authorize the long-term closure instituted by Network Rail and this has been made very clear to them.
Finally I know from many people that they have found the advertised process for contacting Network Rail to be completely frustrating and not fit for purpose. The chief executive of Network Rail is Mark Carne – his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and I am sure his office will be pleased to forward your comments and concerns to the right place.
PS The picture was taken before the new Colditz fencing was put up. The Rights of Way team at County (as dismayed as I about the additional barrier) were assured by the team erecting it that it is bolted and dismountable. We shall see.
Recently I have received several e-mails on this topical issue. Please see the question and answer response below:
Dear Mr Walkington,
Last week, the head of the British Medical Association warned that after the election patients could be charged for basic NHS services.Will you commit to keeping the NHS free at the point of use?
The National Union of Teachers decision to choose St Albans for last night’s Hertfordshire education hustings in St Albans gave an early outing for the St Albans General Election candidates.
The event was held at Townsend School before a 100-strong audience and the panel was chaired by David Marley of the Times Education Supplement. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, was joined by Claire Robins, Head of Sir John Lawes School, together with myself, Kerry Pollard and Anne Main.
I am really sorry that Sam Jones is leaving West Herts Hospital Trust for a new national NHS role. It is clearly a tremendous opportunity for her. But her leadership at West Herts will be sorely missed.
There was a real sense that West Herts Trust’s longstanding problems were being gripped. Our local hospitals can hardly afford yet another turnover of top management, particularly in the middle of the strategic review of NHS services in the west of Hertfordshire.
I’m indebted to Liberal Democrat MP Mike Crockart for demonstrating how successfully the Liberal Democrats in government have recalibrated the tax system so that low and middle earners are paying less tax while big companies are paying more.
His study of data on tax take shows that tax collected from low and middle income earners has fallen from £3170 million to £2720 million over the last 4 years thanks to the Liberal Democrat policy of raising tax allowances.
2015 sees the launch of the long-awaited Youth Cinema at the Maltings Theatre in St Albans. ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is the first screening this coming Saturday 3rd January.
Doors open at 7 pm, the screening is at 7.30 pm, and the Film Club includes a café and chill-out space. Tickets are £3.50 in advance by e-mailing email@example.com or via the Youth Connexions Shop in Catherine Street - or pay £5 on the door.
I was travelling on this year’s Remembrance Sunday so I am paying my respects today at the Cenotaph in London.
My grandfather, Christopher Tom Walkington, was a genuine Tommy. He went to France in August 1914 as a private soldier with the British Expeditionary Force – one of the original ‘Old Contemptibles’ - and initially served in the trenches. He applied to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps and had to spend 100 perilous hours in the air as an observer before he could train to be a pilot.
He flew through the rest of the war, becoming a founder member of the RAF. He continued to serve through the Second World War as well, rising to the rank of Group Captain and commanding RAF Hornchurch. He flew Spitfires though not in combat.
He died when I was quite young but I can remember him as a kind white-haired old man. We recently found on the internet a picture of him as a newly qualified pilot – Corporal Christopher Tom Walkington – taken in December 1916 when he was 21. He looks impossibly young but had already seen two years of trench warfare and had two more years of the conflict ahead of him.
These are the people we remember each year.
I know this is not the kind of issue which is top of mind on the Rose and Crown but the Government’s Boundary Commission proposals for redrawing the boundaries of county council divisions in Hertfordshire and St Albans are potentially very damaging.
The recent Manchester Evening News claim that St Albans is the second least cultural city in the UK is absurd. Culture is not as they would have it 'eating in fine restaurants' or sitting watching professional performers, it's about people taking part
The Liberal Democrat policy of lifting the threshold for paying income tax is having a dramatic effect on St Albans residents. Thanks to the latest rise in basic tax allowances as confirmed in today's Budget Statement, 3,580 St Albans residents have now been lifted out of tax, and 60,200 residents will see their tax bill cut yet again.