How well can you cross Hertfordshire by public transport - without going into London?
Matthew Smith, Local Democracy Reporter
- Credit: LDRS
If there’s one thing you pick up quickly after moving to Hertfordshire, it’s that the county is blessed with great transport links – as long as it involves London.
Small towns, and even a handful of villages, are connected directly to London by train, and those in the south of the county can even jump on the tube or Overground directly, but less is said about actually getting across Hertfordshire.
The estate agents and developers often boast that King’s Cross is less than half an hour away, which can send a shiver down the spine of many born-and-bred locals.
I’ve sat in plenty of planning meetings where projects have been described as sustainable because they’re located near train stations or along a bus route, while councillors’ questions about east-to-west connections often go unanswered.
As someone who regularly drives across the county but wouldn’t ever consider doing it on public transport, I asked whether it could really be that bad.
Hertfordshire County Council is currently in the early stages of planning a new rapid transport system for the area which will see Dacorum joined up to Harlow along the A414, so that seemed a challenge worth trying.
It’s not clear whether the new system will be a train, bus or tram service, but I wanted to set down a marker so I decided to begin in Berkhamsted and end in Hoddesdon to trace the route as closely as possible.
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Do you really still need a car to get across Hertfordshire, and can this really be any worse than the M25?
Three buses, a train and a mile-long walk later, I had a pretty conclusive answer.
Bus 1 – Berkhamsted to Hemel Hempstead
Berkhamsted is definitely one town to have benefitted from its rail links, elevating its status (and house prices) for those wanting to leave the capital for a bustling smaller town. From its railway station, commuters can get into Euston via Watford and Hemel Hempstead, but it remains well out of the way for anyone from further east.
I started on the train to Watford Junction and the Abbey Flyer to St Albans, but missing connections could have confused matters too much. The location of Hemel Hempstead railway station also remains a frustrating choice, and I would have needed a bus anyway for this approach, so I opted for the 500 to the Marlowes.
It was £3.40 for a single ticket, which seemed steep initially but it is in line with the similar rail fare, and I made it into Hemel Hempstead on time 18 minutes later.
Bus 2 – Hemel Hempstead to Hatfield
The bus driver gave me a strange look when I asked for a single here, and it turns out for good reason. I’d underestimated the cost, and I was charged £5.20 for the hour-long journey, which tipped me over the £7.80 cost of a day ticket for Arriva services.
From my anecdotal evidence, most of the demand was for the Hemel to St Albans leg which makes sense as that’s a 30-minute journey while also connecting neighbourhoods like Adeyfield or Leverstock Green which are well out of reach of the train.
However, the bus set off 10 minutes late, threatening the rest of my journey, which was already hanging by a thread.
As it knotted its way through the bigger neighbourhood, it wasn’t as scenic of a ride through the Hertfordshire countryside as I expected. The roadworks along Batchwood Drive in St Albans also didn’t help create any calming atmosphere.
It was particularly stressful because for the past 90 minutes I’d spent worrying about my connection from Hatfield to Hertford on the 641.
If I missed the 12:19 bus, it’d be a two-hour wait for the next service, or I’d have to wait half an hour to then go on a prolonged route through Welwyn Garden City.
Either would have been fine for me, as I had nothing waiting for me on either side, but if I was trying to get to work or just wanted to get home from a day trip, it could really sour the mood.
Fortunately, the bus arrived at Hatfield around 15 minutes late and meant I made the connection by two minutes – a welcome relief.
Bus 3 – Hatfield to Hertford
As someone who lumbered around the county without a car for months when I first moved, I was stunned when I realised how close these two towns actually are.
If I wasn’t as lucky with my connections, the recommended route on Google Maps is a 50-minute journey on two trains to get just eight miles, which makes travelling between the two pointless for most people. For reference, to get from Hatfield to Kings Cross is just 24 minutes.
This bus was an Uno service costing £4.20 for a single. The bus was much cleaner and more modern, but the fact there was just three of us on perhaps showed it wasn’t the most popular route.
The 20-minute ride got me into Hertford as scheduled, it’s just unfortunate that ‘as scheduled’ was exactly two hours after I left Berkhamsted.
That’s three times as long as it would take me by car, and it had crossed a line from it not being feasible for a commute, to it not even really being feasible for a day trip – and I dread to think about the journey if you wanted to enjoy the pubs and restaurants anywhere along the route and then try to get back. I had one connection to go before reaching my finish line.
Train 1 – Hertford to Hoddesdon
Here, I’ll take some of the blame. To try to beat Google Maps by a couple of minutes, I eyed-up getting off the bus, running to Hertford East and jumping on the train. This would tick off Ware on the list of towns I had reached, and save me a couple of minutes.
However, because I don’t visit Hertford enough I got completely sidetracked and missed the ideal connection, instead of having to wait for the next arrival and adding an extra couple of minutes to the journey. It did have a loo, WiFi and plug sockets though, all of which were welcome by this point in the trek.
But it highlighted something else that makes public transport so frustrating in Hertfordshire, the long walks between stations.
I got off at Rye House, and then it’s just shy of a mile to Hoddesdon town centre which can’t help attract many visitors. If the new HERT does stop in the town on its way to the new Gilston Garden Village, then hopefully this is something the planners take on board.
I finally made it to my end destination – the clock tower in the town centre – at just after 1:35pm, so 2 hours 50 minutes after setting off.
If the County Council are planning on easing access across the county, they’ll be hoping whatever they build moves a lot quicker than that.
Arriva single from Berkhamsted to Euston – £3.70
Arriva single from Hemel Hempstead to Hatfield – £5.20
Uno single from Hatfield to Hertford – £4.10
Greater Anglia single from Hertford to Rye House – £3.40
Total cost: £16.40
The return journey
For completion, I went the quickest route in reverse from Rye House to Liverpool Street and then from Euston to Berkhamsted, which cost £15.35.
This journey seemed a breeze in comparison and got me back in just under 90 minutes, along with much more comfortable seats for the duration.
A journey that long is still unrealistic for travelling to work, or just wanting an afternoon out, which means our towns must be missing out on loads of tourism and passing trade as people decide to head into London instead.
I understand why buses have to go around the houses, but I was surprised I couldn’t see a route that ticked off the town centres to speed up the journeys. Hopefully, this is where the HERT will come in and join up the patchy transport links that currently exist.
For now, sadly, I got a very firm answer that to enjoy Hertfordshire in its full glory it’s almost impossible without driving. The wait to ditch the M25 goes on.