The great rail robbery? Why will there no longer be trains between Stevenage and Hertford and who was responsible for Stevenage's lost station funding
PUBLISHED: 11:12 28 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:47 28 January 2018
So who or what is really responsible for ambitious £50 million plans to move and rebuild Stevenage railway station being shelved – and why are we not getting a fifth platform any time soon to carry trains to Hertford?
Although the Government decided not to grant the cash to Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership for a major scheme to build an entirely new station – slightly south of the existing site – in February 2017, the issue has resurfaced again recently.
Rail replacement bus services are set to be introduced this May between Hertford North and Stevenage to allow for the introduction of more fast services along the main lines to and from London.
This is because Stevenage is without a fifth platform to accommodate trains on the so-called Hertford Loop.
Stevenage MP Stephen McPartland claims rail bosses told him the plans for the regeneration of the station – developed by the LEP along with its Stevenage First partners, Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce, Stevenage Borough Council and Hertfordshire County Council – got in the way of the fifth platform, causing Network Rail to delay it because there was so much uncertainty surrounding the future of the station. In fact he lays the blame squarely on Stevenage Borough Council for this.
Certainly the so-called ‘turnback’ platform was originally scheduled by Network Rail to be completed in a time period known as ‘Control Period 5’, which finishes later this year.
Rail bosses have now pushed it back to ‘Control Period 6’ – meaning it will not be delivered until somewhere between 2019 to 2024, and leaving bus services on the Hertford Loop until then.
But were Network Rail bosses really so spooked by the LEP’s regeneration proposal or were there other factors at work?
Officially Network Rail says it put back the fifth platform because of a study called the Hendy report, which recommended cost saving measures which it needed to make. This study – published in November 2015 – put off the ‘Stevenage turnback’, listing it in Control Period 6.
And the LEP’s bid for growth deal funding was not submitted until August 2016, well after the Hendy report had already delayed it.
However, the initial plans to completely redevelop the station were published by the LEP in the Stevenage Central Framework in July 2015 – leaving open the possibility that rail bosses in fact were aware of them before the Hendy report was completed, as Mr McPartland suggests.
At any rate, it was not until February 2017 – long after the fifth platform had been delayed – that funding for the LEP’s plans for the regeneration of the station was officially turned down by the Government.
The government department said it had concerns about the security of some £250 million private funding from Network Rail and Legal & General, which the LEP said it could lay its hands on.
Secondly the Government said it had concerns that Stevenage First – the multi-organisation group overseeing the regeneration – did not have the “capacity” to deliver such a huge project and that it would need to be replaced with a different, independent organisation to oversee it. It was stated this must include Mr McPartland.
The Stevenage MP was among those who strongly opposed the station plans as he believed relocating the station would have been disastrous for the economy because of the disruption it would cause.
Exactly how much influence he had over the decision not to grant the funding remains unclear, but it is known he was working closely with government minister Sajid Javeed and his officials on the matter.
A letter seen by the Comet from the LEP however is also very revealing. It states that its station regeneration proposal “was cognisant of the fifth platform proposals” by virtue of design and timing considerations and would not have in any way prevented it being built.
Put simply, the new station was not reliant on the new platform, or vice-versa.
So the truth about this still remains murky. No doubt the timing of decisions may have been reliant on conversations held behind closed doors which the Comet was not party to, but the official record seems to suggest passengers having to get on buses between Stevenage and Hertford for years to come should be looking to blame Network Rail cost cutting as much as the grand designs to revamp the station.