From air base to rail freight terminal near London

A former strategic military airfield near London is to become a strategic rail freight interchange, despite significant local opposition. It is the abbey town of St Albans. What part to play for the UK’s newest approved facility, now that the local authority has shelved opposition?

The long-standing opposition of St Albans district council and Hertfordshire county council, along with vocal community and back-bench parliamentary resistence, has been silenced by a compromise on local development opportunities.

The disused airfield of Radlett, on the northern edge of London, played a part in the early days of military aviation. It was active in the Cold War era, but has latterly been the site of a very heated battle between the community and developers. Now, after years of legal tussle, it is rail freight that has been given a green signal to proceed.

Midland Main Line upgrade underway

The site, the southern perimeter of which carries the M25 motorway around London, will be connected to the Midland Main Line between London and Leicester.

Upgrades are already underway on the Midland Main Line (Network Rail)

Network Rail, the infrastructure management agency, is already engaged in an upgrade programme on the line. There was some controversy with that programme, when a political decision was taken to cut back on a full electrification scheme.

Two-way distribution role

The acrimonious battle to oppose the terminal would appear to have reached its conclusion. The compromise reached, will allow the local authorities to build extensively elsewhere in the locality, in order to meet extensive targets for new homes.

Although details are difficult to obtain, the strategic rail freight terminal will likely fill a two-way distribution role – transferring intermodal loads from the M25 for destinations in the north of England and in Scotland, while also transhipping to destination around the orbital motorway.

Forefront of aircraft heritage

Significantly, the facility lies only a few metres to the north of the M25. If that motorway were to become the boundary of a restricted road traffic zone, the terminal would be very well placed for the future. In any eventuality the terminal has a good business case, given the location.

Cleared, but not for take off. The disused Radlett Airfield will become a strategic rail freight terminal (Network Rail)

Having been at the forefront of aircraft development, the new terminal, when built, could have a similar role in future for rail freight operations.

Controversial future

However, given almost unanimous local opposition which has been overturned on the grounds of national interest, the terminal would seem to be regarded in future as nothing less than controversial. An unrelated terminal near Wolverhampton – the West Midlands Freight Interchange on the West Coast Main Line – faced similar opposition, but was finally given the go-ahead in May, as reported here by RailFreight.com.

Despite the finality of the decision, the local member of parliament, St Albans MP Daisy Cooper, has been reported by local media as willing to continue the resistance to the plan. In local media she has expressed her dismay at the local council administration’s decision to effectively give up the legal struggle against the rail terminal – named locally as Park Street, after the nearest village to the site. Councillors locally claim that the council’s withdrawal from the fight will be disastrous for Park Street and commuters.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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