They closed the line to Ongar in 1994. Many are amazed it lasted that long. A single track shuttle from Epping, with trains at peak hours only, serving a town of only six thousand inhabitants at the far end. Whatever the Central line was doing stretching this far into Essex, it was hard to tell. Funding and footfall were the problems. The shuttle ran entirely outside the capital so London Transport wouldn't subsidise it, so the service dropped to levels that weren't reliable, so Ongarians didn't use it. The town's been without a proper rail service for the last eighteen years. Until this last weekend, that is, when the Epping Ongar Railway celebrated its grandreopening.
They opened the line to Ongar in 1865. It wasn't part of the Central line in those days, but a branch line of the Great Eastern Railway. An extension from Loughton brought the railway into the heart of rural Essex, with trains from Ongar running overground all the way to Liverpool Street [map]. Only when the Central line was tunnelled out to Leytonstone did London Transport take over - that was in the late 1940s - which was also when the Epping to Ongar stretch was curtailed to a separate service. Steam trains (contracted out to British Rail) continued to run until 1957, when the more familiar electric trains started their lonely journeys. And it's to this former golden age of steam that the new heritage railway returns. You'll find no mention of the tube - no roundels, no hints of journeys to West Ruislip - the whole thing's done with proper trains.
The Epping Ongar Railway comprises a fine band of dozens of volunteers, and they've been toiling away for years to get the line open. They've not managed it all yet. Trains run only between North Weald and Ongar, a distance of about five miles, plus a shuttle west to Coopersale and straight back again. There's no link yet at Epping [photo], where the tracks beyond the Central line buffers remain overgrown and unused [photo]. A new platform is planned, maybe, one day, in an ideal world, if funding permits. It'd transform the nature of the attraction if EOR trains were properly linked to the tube network, making it much easier for Londoners to make their way out here. In the meantime they're using heritage buses to transport passengers from Epping station to North Weald, and then pick up the trains from there.
The bus in question is the 339, a former London Country service that used to run parallel to the railway [photo]. Tickets didn't used to cost £17.50, but for that you get unlimited bus and train rides for the day anywhere between here and Ongar, and a proper cardboard ticket just like in the old days. A number of the passengers on my bus were grandparents taking their grandkids for a grand day out, and they were having to explain patiently what a bus conductor did, and why he had to ding the bell when it was time to set off. The RT drew admiring glances as it rolled through Epping's streets. Sunday buses round here are normally infrequent modern cuboids with electronic displays, so the appearance of a 'proper' bus made many an elder resident stare. Mums halted their pushchairs to watch us pass, even kids on bikes did a sudden doubletake. Only the patrons of Costa Coffee in the High Street seemed immune, sipping and chatting on the front terrace entirely unmoved, but that's Essex car culture for you.
It was nearly fifteen minutes drive to NorthWealdstation, which in itself is a reminder of how time-saving the old railway used to be. The new railway has a freshly tarmacked forecourt [photo], carefully fenced off to prevent visitors parking (best go to Ongar if you're coming by car). It was heritage vehicles only up the drive, including an old red and cream Morris van parked up near the bus stop [photo]. The fresh-laid turf alongside looked either much too dry or much too wet, the latter if it was being sodden by a particularly persistent sprinkler. Volunteers were positioned all about the place to meet and greet visitors and direct them towards the entrance [photo]. There were rather a lot of entrances, depending on where you went next. Inside the old station building were ladies selling tea and girls selling flapjacks, plus a very small ticket office window (exchange your electronic ticket for that cardboard rectangle here). Or you could walk directly onto the platform [photo], or veer left to cross the tracks to the opposite platform, whichever. Best not to disturb the alsatians behind the stationmaster's back door - their combined bark is far louder than the whistle of an approaching train. [photo]
The closest platform is for the shuttle service to Coopersale [photo]. This is the lesser of the two services, to be frank, but you need to ride it for your moneysworth. A diesel combo pulls out every half hour hauling a motley collection of old-ishcarriages. Some Inter City stock, some compartmentalised first class, nothing like you'd normally travel in these days and all the better for it. It's not going to be a long journey, and you won't be getting out at the other end, this is just a brief run a couple of miles closer to Epping and back. The train runs past the Epping Forest Woodland Burial Ground, where mourners must have thought their loved ones would be interred in peace but now face steam and whistles four times an hour every weekend for the rest of the year. The train dips beneath the M11, the walls under the bridge brightly graffitied, then comes to a halt in the trees just before the Coopersale bridge. There is nothing to see, bar a few rooftops and the hint of someone's messy back garden. A short pause, a pair of whistles, and time to shunt back again.
If the steam train's in on platform 2, the diesel waits patiently before crawling back into platform 1 [photo]. I'm not sure it's usual practice but there was a bloke up the top of the signal on Sunday, either lifting the bar manually or struggling with a black plastic sheet, it was hard to be sure [photo][photo]. It's a fun job if you can get it, no doubt, for anyone who fancies spending their weekend getting greasy in hi-vis overalls. Job done, the diesel eases in past the station building drawing to a halt by the footbridge [photo]. And look, I'm sorry I've written all this and still not got round to describing the main event, which is the long ride out to Ongar. But tomorrow, honest, and in the meantime you might like to spoil the surprise by ploughing through all my photos if you haven't already.