There's a railway line in West London, over six miles long, that's never ever busy. You may have ridden alongside it but you've probably never ridden on it, not unless you're a confirmed and devoted trackbasher. It sees only one passenger train a day in each direction, both at an entirely unhelpful time. These trains run solely so that Chiltern drivers can keep their hand in along a route that disruption may someday force them to travel. I refer of course to the Ruislip ghost train, and I thought it was about time I took a ride.
Every weekday morning around eleven, a single 2-car unit sits purring in the platform at South Ruislip station. Not where the Central line stops but on the parallel and lesser-used Chiltern Railways side, and on the wrong-facing platform to boot. This is the 1057 service to London Paddington, calling at London Paddington only. On the off chance you're here and that's where you want to go, hop on, and the driver will be your personal chauffeur non-stop for the next 26 minutes. Every other eastbound Chiltern train heads off via Sudbury and Wembley to join the main line into Marylebone. But the ghost train continues straight ahead towards Acton, on its own unique tracks, past five consecutive Central line stations. It then joins the Great Western mainline near North Acton and rumbles into Paddington before heading straight back again. And that's where I came in.
For most of the week Paddington keeps it a secret. Chiltern Railways has no presence at this London terminus, and if you check the timetable boards on the concourse there's no mention of West Ruislip as a potential destination. But as departure time comes round the secret is silently revealed. An unlikely destination flashes up on the main destination board between Twyford and Cheltenham Spa, now boarding at Platform 14, and the daily window is briefly open. Platform 14's a long trek from the coffee-centric heart of the station, tucked alongside the Hammersmith & City line outpost in a gloomy suburban undercroft. Once the Oxford service on platform 13 has departed the Chiltern train has this outpost to itself, perhaps with a member of station staff lingering alongside. Why not grab a seat, there are dozens to choose from.
On the day of my journey something unexpected occurred - another passenger turned up! He took the front carriage and I took the rear, so we never met, and I never worked out if his attendance was deliberate or an unfortunate misunderstanding. Bing bong, this train is for West Ruislip, calling at South Ruislip and West Ruislip. Technically it's the 1136, but on my trip we departed two minutes late. The exit from Paddington station is fairly standard, past Crossrail workings and through North Kensington estates. But alongside Old Oak Common comes the linking curve that whisks us away from the ordinary, along the once-a-day Oyster corridor.
Very rapidly the line swings round to pass above North Acton station, with a clear view down onto the platforms, then clings to the Central line all the way to the Ruislips. The next six miles are single track for most of the way. They used to be double but Network Rail worked out they could save money by only maintaining one, leaving the second to become overgrown or simply decaying away. Originally this was the New North Main Line, opened in 1903 to provide Midlands trains with an alternative exit from the capital (much more information here, if you're interested). Local train services ceased in 1963, but a number of freight trains still take this route... except of course between eleven in the morning and noon.
I won't claim that this is a scenic ride. The Park Royal Industrial Estate is safely off the tourist trail, Wembley's arch is simply too far away, and the A40 Western Avenue looks no better from a train. What's unusual here is riding a single track beyond the tube lines, initially higher up, then at the same level, and later lower down. You get to see stations like Hanger Lane and Perivale from the side, and perhaps more oddly they get to see you. I wondered how many of the Central line passengers waiting for their train twigged quite how rare our passage was, a one-off backdrop on a train they couldn't catch.
From a railway point of view, the quirky treat comes on the approach to Greenford station. A triangular junction marks the top end of the Greenford Branch Line, with the Central line passing over the top via an elevated viaduct. Only from the Chiltern One-Off can you see the low arches from the side, and pass the ancient Greenford East signal box which (ooh) controls the last set of lower quadrant signals in London. The box's innards ought to have been upgraded years ago, but levels of traffic around here failed to justify the expense and so the dipping rectangle system remains. If this excites you, come take a ride.
This section of the journey has double tracking, for a while, and the train takes it quite fast. Beyond the Grand Union Canal the pace falters again, with Northolt the last station at which we do not (and cannot) stop. And that's almost the end of the exclusive ride, as the main Chiltern line from Wembley swings in and underneath to rise up alongside. This is Northolt Junction, although it's actually closer to South Ruislip station which is our first stop. It's here that my one fellow passenger alights and strides purposefully towards the stairs, his face so inscrutable that I still can't work out whether he meant to travel here or not. The electronic display on the platform remains blank, as if we are again the train that must not be mentioned.
So it's just me on the final run to West Ruislip, then? This is bog standard Chiltern territory again, nothing special at all, past the big Central line depot and over the Metropolitan. And so half an hour after leaving Paddington we pull in at platform 4, a distant-feeling frontier by the car park, ideal for a train that nobody uses. The driver steps out and heads purposefully up towards the footbridge, his line knowledge appropriately updated should he ever need to navigate this way again. And the train metamorphoses into the 1231 to Marylebone, which is a hugely more normal state of affairs, and nobody need ever know it spent an hour as a shadowy ghost service.
I might have been urging you to come ride the Chiltern parliamentary while you still can, because it might have been cast aside by HS2. This is destined to follow the route of the New North Main Line from Old Oak Common to the edge of the capital, it being an ideal corridor for the construction of a 21st century rail link at ground level. But repeated mitigation has forced plans to sink this whole stretch of HS2 into a tunnel, so that local voters need not have their gardens blighted, and so the Acton-Northolt railway will survive intact up top. In which case the 1057 from South Ruislip and the 1136 from Paddington will continue to run into the future for the benefit of almost nobody, at least until they change the timetable again, so maybe hurry after all.