The runt of the Overground litter is the newly acquired line between Romford and Upminster. Trains run every half an hour and shut down early in the evening, no trains run on Sundays, and there's only one intermediate stop (about a mile and a half from each end) in a place called Emerson Park. Most Londoners couldn't even tell you where that is, let alone think of a reason to go there. Perhaps not surprisingly Emerson Park is the seventh least used station in London, averaging 128000 passengers a year (which, if you work it out, is equivalent to 200 people getting on each day and 200 people getting off). Some might argue it's barely running the service at all, unless they live here of course, in which case it can be damned useful.
TfL didn't really want to take this one over. A single track branch line means no chance of a more frequent service, and a severed track at Upminster means no hope of rebranding this as a spur of the District line. But they were forced to assume control as part of the deal that delivered the rest of the Overground lines handed over this week, and hence this minor irrelevance now appears on the actual tube map.
Emerson Park is a sweet little station, more of a country halt than an urban hub. You access it down a ramp from the main street, entering a leafy cutting disconnected from the surrounding estate. A short white canopied roof provides brief shelter, and somewhere to hang an ageing TV-style display screen. Two Oyster validators have been provided (they're not new) to cater for the evening rush, but if you haven't bought a ticket you'll need to return to Joy's Newsagents up on (somewhat appropriately) Billet Lane. Listen carefully and you'll likely hear birdsong, and on a previous visit I've even seen a fox silently padding across the track in this virtually train-free habitat. 20th century branding lingers on in the form of a series of Network South East chevrons tiled into the platform. But there are also two large white and orange station signs, these probably the largest on the entire Overground network, the font size easily big enough to be seen by a short-sighted traveller on the farthest platform, if only there was one. [5 photos]
I visited on Sunday, which was technically the first day of service except that on Sundays there are never any trains. I'd seen a group of five Essex girls thwarted up the Romford end earlier, arriving at the foot of the stairs to platform 1 only to find it barriered off. Ditto at the Upminster end, where a totally unbranded platform 6 was sealed off for Sunday traffic. But things called 'buses' exist, with the 370 shadowing the line between its two termini, so getting around isn't exactly impossible. And Emerson Park is an ungated station, indeed I suspect always will be, so it's easy to drop in for a look around should you have nothing better to do with your time. The lack of a Sunday service isn't obvious at the station unless you find the timetable and squint at it, nor do TfL have any plans to advise the wider travelling public of this hiatus on their maps and rainbow boards. But there are plans to introduce a Sunday service in December, hopefully, and trains are already running two hours later on weekday evenings than they were last week.
Propped up against a wall at Emerson Park beside the local street map is a portable ramp, a sign of TfL's influence in taking over the line. In future if you arrive alone in a wheelchair you'll be able to board the train, and you won't even have to ring ahead for permission because the shuttle'll always have a customer service agent aboard. Your choice of destination will be limited because elsewhere on the line only Romford has a similar facility, but from there you can get to Liverpool Street and ultimately the world. It's a brave new dawn for this backwater service, which today carries mostly empty space, and which I hope TfL will one day rebrand the Emerson Air Line. If this scrappy little underdog can make it onto the tube map, there's surely hope for your crowded commuter service too.