A Brief History, Compiled by Harpenden Railway Museum
Harpenden to Kings Cross via Hatfield
The Act for the first railway through Harpenden was passed on 16th July 1855, for the Luton, Dunstable & Welwyn Junction Railway, linking the London & North Western line at Dunstable to the Great Northern line at Digswell (Welwyn). The Dunstable to Luton section was opened to passenger traffic on 3rd May 1858. However, the section between Luton and Welwyn had hardly been worked on and in fact the ceremony of cutting the first sod was carried out for a second time, on 28th January 1859, after which construction continued and the line was opened to passengers on 1st September 1860. The branch was worked by the Great Northern Railway Company from the outset and gave Harpenden access to London (Kings Cross) via Hatfield.
Harpenden to Moorgate & St Pancras
Competition came when the Royal Assent was given for the Midland Railway Company to build a line from Bedford to London on 22nd June 1863. Passenger services started on the 13th July 1868 to Moorgate and on the 1st October 1868 to St Pancras. Originally only two tracks were constructed but in 1905 two more were built through Harpenden, and a new platform built (now Platform No1).
Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead
Harpenden gained its third railway line when the branch to Hemel Hempstead was opened on 16th July 1877. However the track curved northwards at Harpenden Junction and, as there was no station in that area, branch line passengers wishing to travel to London had to go on to Chiltern Green or Luton and board a London-bound train there. Later the Midland Railway Company, who operated the line, received requests for the branch to terminate at Harpenden and so the old curve was abandoned and a new curve put in, enabling trains to run into Harpenden (Central) and giving more direct access to London. This work was carried out in 1888.
From Closure & Beeching cuts to foot & cycle paths
Because of the steep gradients on the Hemel Hempstead Branch, this was never an easy line to operate, and when the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Company were experiencing difficulty obtaining coal after the Second World War they decided to implement certain cost-cutting measures, one of which was to suspend passenger services on the Harpenden to Hemel Hempstead branch; in fact, they were not re-introduced, and the only passenger carrying trains to use this section of line since the 16th July 1947 have been a few ‘Specials’ run by railway enthusiast clubs. However, freight trains continued on the branch until 1968, when the Hemelite Brick Company took a lease on it and carried their own raw materials up until 1979, when it was closed. Two years later the track was lifted and the Nickey Line now lives on as a footpath and cycleway.
Down in the valley of the River Lea, the former Great Northern line managed to operate a passenger service until 24th April 1965, and a freight service until the 1st January 1966. The line had always carried a great deal of goods traffic from watercress to car parts, and hats to horses, together with large quantities of coal.
Passenger services began to be rundown following competition from buses. Again. following closure, the trackbed was cleared and the buildings demolished, but the course of the line lives on as the Lea Valley Walk. (For newcomers to Harpenden, who wish to locate the old Harpenden East Station, the entrance to Jarvis Builders’ Works [Mallard Close from mid 2000s] at the bottom of Station Road was the entrance to the former station).
Steam, diesel and electrification
The Midland main line, with its direct access to London, was the busiest line, having been worked by steam engines up until 1960, when a new diesel service was introduced. Electrification of the Bedford to St Pancras section demanded many alterations and modernisations, and much of the charcter of the old line was lost as manually-operated signals, bridges and buildings were torn down or blown up, to be replaced by modern equipment in the interests of providing an efficient service for passengers.