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.