Appearing before the "Railfreight" Inquiry

Today was the opportunity for general objectors to make their case against the proposed freight depot on the former Radlett aerodrome at Park Street. 

Some excellent submissions were made by local interest and residents' groups and I had my two pennyworth as well.

You can read what I had to say below.

I am just so angry that we are having to have this Inquiry at all with all the expense to the local council taxpayer - and worried that the Government may ignore all the evidence and bulldoze through the scheme whatever the inspector says.

We shall see.

The Text of my statement to the Public Inquiry today 

I am Sandy Walkington, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for St Albans Constituency.  I am an independent Communications Consultant, but until 2006 I was the Director of Public Affairs for Transport for London.  I have also been a member of the CBI National Council.

I spend most of my time in the constituency which is bounded by the A1(M) in the east and the Grand Union Canal in the west.  The A414/A405 dual carriageway is effectively the spinal cord of the area defined by the parliamentary boundaries: St Albans city, Chiswell Green and Bedmond to the north of the road; and Colney Heath, London Colney, Park Street, How Wood and Bricket Wood to the south of it.  I live at the eastern end of this road and drive along it in both directions on a daily basis at all times of the day and evening, entering and exiting at all the major junctions.  So I am very familiar with its patterns of usage. 

My first point is the carrying capacity of this road infrastructure.  The A414/A405 roads always back up at peak times and they are so close to capacity that very minor disruptions cause major problems.  This happens regularly when lanes are coned off for verge cutting or lamp standard maintenance or simply when there is a minor bump or breakdown.  It also happens whenever something impacts on the adjacent stretches of the M25, M1 and A1(M).  When these incidents occur, the traffic backs up in such a way as to make it very difficult to enter the road from either the city or the villages except where there are traffic light controls as at the London Colney roundabout.  There may be benefits in introducing such traffic controls at other key junctions – not least for cyclists and pedestrians - but any introduction of additional light controls would decrease rather than increase the carrying capacity of the A414/A405.

My second point is the impact on rail commuters.  It is probably true to say that London is the biggest single employer of St Albans residents.  The commuter train services are under intolerable pressure as a result, with long overdue improvements finally being provided by the Thameslink 2000 project.  Patterns of usage are likely to be further impacted by the opening of the new Eurostar terminus at St Pancras and the associated St Pancras International commuter stop – as well as by the ambitious new TfL London Overground services, with which I had a close involvement.  Any interruption or disruption of these commuter services caused by the major rail infrastructure works necessitated by this project will have ripple effects – as people move to different rail routes, different modes of transport, move away from St Albans or simply lose valuable working time in longer journeys.

My third point concerns the restrictions of rail access and loading gauge for the site.  I attended a private briefing by Helioslough on 23rd May 2007 at the Westminster office of Lord McNally, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.  The meeting was also attended by Lord Berkeley of the Railfreight Consortium and by Lord Bradshaw, former Director of Strategy for British Rail and now spokesman on transport matters for the Liberal Democrats.

Messrs Michael Hughes and Keith Rodwell of Helioslough gave a bullish presentation but they were totally frank that even after all the works they would carry out in the Elstree Tunnel lowering the track bed and setting the rails in concrete, plus using the concept of dynamic gauge (ie slowing down the trains through tunnels) they still could not achieve better than W9 gauge. 

It is hard to see how a restriction to W9 gauge and rail access only from the south can leave this site as a serious contender as a Strategic Railfreight Terminal – and if it is not strategic, then the destruction of Green Belt and impact on local infrastructure cannot be justified.

Leaving aside the issue of what happens to commuter and long-distance passenger services while the tunnel floors are being lowered, it is also hard to see how ambitions for more commuter rail can be accommodated if additional train paths are to be required for freight trains which will take more time to pass through this section of track than other movements as they are deliberately slowed through the Elstree tunnel and then to negotiate the new junction onto the freight terminal spur.

My fourth point is the risk to an irreplaceable view of national significance – and again it is associated with the Midland Main Line.  I still have a vivid memory of my first ever view of St Albans in 1978: from the window of a northbound train across the flat expanse of this site – then empty runways - to the city on the hill with its skyline of Cathedral, Clock Tower and St Peter’s Church.  It is not at all far-fetched to liken it to the views of the similarly ancient cities of Durham or Oxford from their respective railway lines.  London and its satellite communities are left behind and St Albans is emphasised as a distinct, separate and historic city.  It is impossible to put a value on this kind of view – and it will be completely destroyed if the foreground is occupied and dominated by massive slabs of industrial warehousing.

My fifth point concerns the East of England Regional Economic Strategy and the East of England Regional Spatial Strategy.  The draft Regional Economic Strategy emphasises the importance of a low carbon economy – particularly if we are to reach the emission targets set by the Government.  We live in a high employment area.  It is admitted by the appellants that much of the workforce for the proposed development will need to travel from outside the immediate area.  Of course any Strategic Railfreight Terminal will generate lorry movements, and all things being equal in terms of infrastructure capacity, the cost-benefit judgment must rest on the gain from the environmental benefit of railfreight.  But if the workforce is not adjacent and has to drive considerable distances to work, the cost-benefit is instantly adversely effected as compared with other prospective sites adjacent to areas of real employment need.

Finally we are waiting to hear the outcome of the Secretary of State’s review of the East of England Regional Spatial Strategy which concentrates on meeting suggested housing demand and which is already threatening Green Belt to the west and east of St Albans.  Up to 100,000 additional housing units are proposed for Hertfordshire which would increase the number of units in the county by about twenty percent with all the attendant impact on transport infrastructure, utilities and public services.

All the local authorities are opposing the scale of the proposed development but the decision is out of their hands and lies with the minister.  The locations for the major house-building programme, which will be required when the Strategy is confirmed, have not been finalised but everyone is expecting the minister to adjust the Green Belt boundaries east of Hemel Hempstead on land within St Albans district and west of Hatfield, also encroaching onto St Albans district.  Both sites are at the respective ends of the A414/A405 spine road, and they will generate yet more traffic.

As the Green Belt is redrawn east and west of historic St Albans, it further emphasises the vital Green Belt contribution of the former aerodrome site in preventing the visual coalescence of historically distinct communities.

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