At face value, the London Overground line between Romford and Upminster may seem impressive. It has only three stations, it takes nine minutes to complete, and there is an entire bus route that makes the same journey.
There is no railway line in London that has so many unusual qualities. The line is part of London Overground, although it is not connected to any other part of London Overground, it is single track, a rarity in London, and trains can only run 30 km / h.
It’s definitely an Overground oddball.
Like all strange things, though, it is quite wonderful and provides a deliciously efficient service despite its relative quirks. MyLondon takes a look at the 128 year old outlier that has literally put a small part of East London well and truly on the (Tube) map!
READ MORE: ‘We were sold lies’: East Londoners hit the breaking point over continued Crossrail delays
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The three-kilometer-long line has always had rather modest ambitions. Mainly a link between the London line to Southend and Romford, it starts on a platform hidden to the side of Romford station.
The platform, now numbered platform 1, was originally a completely different station when the line opened in 1893. Passengers used to have to leave the station, cross the road and enter the main station to change trains.
However, this is not the reason why the line (or the train service on it) cannot be extended. The line is effectively caught.
At Romford, the only connection from the line to the other railway lines is a single connection to what is called the ‘Up Fast’ line (platform 2).
This means that trains can currently only move easily from the line towards Liverpool Street (called ‘upward direction’), not from Liverpool Street (called ‘downward direction’).
To get from ‘Down Fast’ (from Liverpool Street) to the line, trains must enter platform three, return, cross tracks back to a signal just beyond platform two, reverse, go through platform two and then connect to the line .
This procedure is performed in the morning when the Overground train comes from the Ilford depot to run up and down the line. Confusing? Yes, and expensive to do something about.
The other problem that prevents the extension of the line is that the fast lines at Romford are full. Even if you built an extra connection to connect the downward direction, it would cause so many knock-on effects to the fast trains, it would create an extra problem of taking up too much space and slowing down other passengers.
Since the slow lines (soon to be used by the Elizabeth line) are on the opposite side of the station, a bridge or underpass would be required to connect the line to it.
Such a development would cost millions too little impact – Transport for London (TfL) estimated that only 638,445 people a year used Overground to / from Romford before the pandemic, a fraction of the total 9.3 million combined with Greater Anglia and TfL Rail .
At the other end of the line, the scenario is even more complicated. As the Overground line from Romford approaches Upminster, it runs on one side of the District line, with London to the Southend line (now known as c2c) on the other.
Aboveground and c2c lines both use similar trains, are signaled in almost the same way and have the same form of electrification – overhead lines.
However, the district line in the middle is completely different in all these aspects. This means the two lines cannot meet, preventing the chance of a direct train from Romford to Lakeside or Ilford to Tilbury.
It’s not an Emerson Park thing
Since the line became part of London Overground in 2015, it has appeared on the Tube map. If you were not familiar with the area, you would suspect that the main purpose of the line is to get people to and from the only station completely on the line – Emerson Park. That assumption would be wrong.
Although the line is small, it plays an important role in circuits around East London. It allows people from places like Chadwell Heath, Ilford and Harold Wood to get to important leisure and work destinations like Lakeside, Grays and Basildon without having to enter London and back out.
This is largely reflected in TfL figures, which show that the number of people entering / leaving Emerson Park is less than those in Upminster and Romford – which means that there must be a significant amount of people traveling from east / west of Romford east / west / south of Upminster, using the line as a rat ride.
The Emerson Park station itself is another unusual feature of the line. It is actually the closest station to most of Hornchurch city center, although there is a Hornchurch metro station a mile away.
The name helps prevent people from having to crush on the line in search of Hornchurch, as when you were waiting for the half-hour Overground, you could have made the extra walk to the more frequent district line.
The entire line is copied by the Route 370 bus, which continues to the Lakeside Mall. It’s one of the few scenarios in London where the train is cheaper and faster than the bus, which costs £ 1.50 off peak hours and takes nine minutes compared to the bus’s £ 1.55 in 22 minutes.
Level-crossing Easter eggs
The line has three level crossings, which are very unusual and are not clearly signposted from the street, meaning they can easily feel like Easter eggs hidden in a video game. The intersections are at Osborne Road, Maybush Road and Woodhall Crescent.
Most pedestrian crossings in London have been removed in an attempt to improve safety on the railways, eliminating risk. On London Underground, there is only one left open to the public, and trains cannot be used.
But on this little line, there are two, one of which you have to climb over a stile to get to, which is not always the most accessible idea.
Since the line is a single track, there is only one signal facing Upminster just before the connection to ‘Up Fast’ in Romford, which means that the rest of the line has no signals – another rarity.
For the past six years, the line has received more than just an orange candy paint. It’s been really good Tango’d! It now uses new class 710 trains that have through carriages, air-con, USB ports and Wi-Fi all in shiny London Overground orange.
The smooth TfL operation has standardized the schedule, meaning trains run in the same minutes after the hour every 30 minutes throughout the day, including Sundays. Despite the low frequency, it is easy to remember the times. Trains end earlier than other lines in the evening around noon.
Being boxed in means that unlike other lines, interference does not spread to it because it is isolated. One train can run back and forth between Romford and Upminster uninterrupted by the mishaps given to the surrounding lines that day.
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