For the first time in five years, London has a new station. It's actually an old station, closed in 1985, but this turns out to have been a long-term error and so LeaBridge has been reopened. We have leftover Olympic cash to thank - Hackney council had £5m of transport funding going spare - which helped to get the platforms upgraded and step-free access added. No new track was needed, so it's an easy win, but also a rare success and to be greatly applauded.
Lea Bridge station lies about halfway between Stratford and Tottenham Hale, where the railway crosses the Lea Bridge Road. Its opening fills a large hole in the passenger rail network, with the nearest existing station at Clapton, one mile away. I've done a bit of calculating on a map and I reckon Lea Bridge is now the closest station for anyone living within an area of 3½ square kilometres, which is pretty good going for a brand new transport link. But this is by no means the most densely packed part of inner London. Most of the land to the west of the railway line is either river or marshland - specifically Walthamstow Marshes, Leyton Marshes and Hackney Marshes. Rather more people live to the east, in a series of terraced streets on the outposts of Leyton, and bus passengers streaming down from Walthamstow now also have an easier connection to Westfield.
Train services at Lea Bridge should have kicked off on Sunday morning, except there were planned engineering works on the line so the tracks didn't reopen until the evening. If nothing else this made it much easier to be present for the first train, which was scheduled to arrive at 8.18pm, hence a dusk rather than a dawn start. Quite a few People Who Like Trains were aboard, on a journey with a number of teething troubles.
At Tottenham Hale, the public address system wasn't able to cope with the introduction of a new station. Although both Lea Bridge and Stratford popped up on the display, the disembodied voice skipped a beat, announcing "calling at and Stratford" instead. Aboard the train, things were considerably less helpful. "This train is for Stratford only", said both the automated announcement and the scrolling display, which would have been true for every previous train, but not this one. "The next stop is Stratford where this train terminates", it continued, in a similarly unhelpful vein. I think the driver contradicted the misinformation, but so quietly that nobody heard, so several passengers were confused when the train reached the new station and they rose to alight, thinking they'd reached Stratford.
And the first train arrived late. It'd been held briefly at Coppermill Junction, a not entirely abnormal occurrence, arriving at Lea Bridge two minutes later than scheduled. Awkwardly the second train, in the opposite direction, was somehow two minutes early, making it the first train instead. The welcoming committee was therefore waiting on the wrong platform, which wasn't ideal, but there were only a few seconds in it so welcomed the intended first train instead.
A large group gathered by the front of the train, comprising those who'd been waiting and those who'd alighted specially. There was no time for a speech, no hurrah for the efforts of those who'd striven to get Lea Bridge reopened, but there was a sort of plaque, and a man had turned up with a guitar to play the train in, just as he'd played out the last service three decades back. This palaver delayed the train a little longer, but nobody minded, apart from the everyday passengers on the train who must have been wondering what the hell was going on and why they were lingering in this godforsaken spot. It's not such a godforsaken spot any more, with half-hourly trains to Stratford and the upper Lea Valley timetabled henceforth.
Once the first pair of trains had departed, there was plenty of time to look around. This wouldn't have been possible a few hours earlier, with workmen swarming over the station adding finishing touches and unpeeling the signs. But now finally the barriers were down, the lifts were operational, and if you fancied you could stick your card in the machine and buy a ticket from Lea Bridge on its opening day.
Before it was closed in 1985, the main entrance to Lea Bridge station was up on Lea Bridge Road. Not any more. The old entrance is boarded off, and a confinedfootbridge runs immediately behind the blue screen. I assume someone did a health and safety audit and decided the pavement on the bridge was too narrow to allow passenger egress. It's annoying, though, particularly for anyone using Platform 2 for whom the only access is up and over the footbridge, past the old entrance and back down. Those on platform 1, that's for trains heading towards Stratford, have it rather easier. A broad exit has been created partway down, with a long ramp between two short sets of steps, leading onto Argall Way. Though fundamentally necessary these days, I wasn't entirely surprised when the two cyclists present departed the station by lifting their bikes up the steps rather than waste time on the hairpin.
There are no obvious bike racks outside the station, but there is a locked glass shed trimmed with orange - one of Waltham Forest's trademark cycle hubs. You need a special fob to get in, which makes things very secure, but also impossible for non-residents to turn up and leave a bike. The immediate area is also blessed with bike-friendly improvements as part of the borough's Mini-Holland scheme, including a broad segregated cycle lane being laid down alongside Lea Bridge Road, and another already present up Argall Way. This is the location of the local industrial estate, a considerable affair, from the largest factory of which the intense smell of baking sweetly drifts.
Paradoxically Lea Bridge station does not appear on the map of London rail services pinned up by the ticket machines - presumably there'll be an update soon. Neither does it appear on the map of Abellio Greater Anglia services in the poster frame alongside - presumably they'll do a new one eventually. Meanwhile the timetabled service appears quite complicated, especially heading north. Trains from Platform 2 are generally heading to Bishop's Stortford, but might be heading to Hertford East during the evening rush hour, and are definitely heading there if it's a Sunday, while the first train on a Saturday goes all the way to Cambridge. Southbound it's more straightforward, the destination is always Stratford, except for the last train which continues to Liverpool Street, except on Sundays. Best check before travelling to be sure.
You'll find Lea Bridge station useful if you ever visit the Lea Valley Ice Centre, or the Lea Valley Riding School, or fancy a spin round the Waterworks Nature Reserve. But mostly it'll be invaluable to those who live nearby, or sort-of nearby, and now have a much faster means of escape. Inevitably this means pressure to build more flats, indeed there are already plans for three tower blocks immediately opposite the station, and more will follow. New transport links bring opportunity as well as convenience, and inevitably deliver change. Expect a more formal opening ceremony this morning, indeed the new Mayor may even turn up, even though he had nothing to do with the procurement. What I do know for certain is that the man with the guitar will be back, and so will the trains, as Lea Bridge stamps itself firmly on the map.