The Night Overground launched this morning. According to officialdom it launched on Friday, but that's because TfL decree that days continue until 4:30am, even though it was definitely Saturday by the time the first train ran.
Officialdom turned up at Dalston Junction in the early hours to celebrate the launch. They smiled, posed for photos and hopped onto the first southbound Night Overground train, departing for New Cross Gate at 12:35am. But the very first Night Overground train had in fact set off over quarter of an hour earlier, heading north from New Cross Gate, and that didn't get quite the same send off. I was on that very first train instead.
Friday night is party night in east London, and southeast London has a semi-banging time of it too. But up until this weekend the Ginger Line has always packed in just as things are hotting up, around half past midnight, leaving merry revellers to wait for buses, hail Ubers or simply hang out til dawn. In New Cross the Marquis of Granby is buzzing, the Venue bustling and the Amersham Arms somewhat quieter, so far as I can judge from the number of smokers stood outside. A conga of students spills onto the pavement, vodka bottles in hand. Someone has left half a clingfilmed panettone on top of a pillar box.
New Cross Gate station is bright and welcoming, even if the platforms are somewhat bare. There aren't many takers for the inaugural Night Overground service, it's heading against the flow, but there is a member of staff on board with a white and orange lanyard to answer any questions nobody seems to have. As the departure time nears, more than one driver walks up to the front of the train - perhaps there's kudos to being on this inaugural journey.
The first Night Overground train sets off at 00:19, bang on time, but mostly empty. A couple of the carriages contain only a couple of people. A press photographer bides his time waiting for something to happen. An evening shift worker tucks into a wrap and a bottle of cloudy lemon juice. Two bikes have been wheeled into the centre of the train. One over-merry bloke enjoys a quick workout hanging from the overhead bars.
At Surrey Quays things pick up a little. Four bickering mates stride aboard and get animated about how something isn't making them very happy. Thankfully for my ears they only stay on for one stop. At Canada Water the demographic shifts markedly, thanks to the Jubilee line connection, and my carriage companions are now well dressed white couples in scarves and berets. We're into the busiest section of the journey here, with possibly 60 or 70 passengers now on board, the Night Overground's most appealing feature being that it crosses under the Thames.
On every platform we pass, one roundel has been transformed with a sparkly vinyl ring, to add a little branding magic to the overnight line. As for those of us on board, what's nice is that our new service is entirely indistinguishable from a normal service, except that this train wouldn't usually be running at this time of night. Very few of the people on board look over 30. I may be the only one over 40, it's hard to tell.
At Shadwell the driver makes an announcement and welcomes us "to the first Night Overground train". He has a more important message for everyone, which is that "this train will not be stopping at Whitechapel". This station needs to stay closed to allow Crossrail work to happen overnight, which adds a somewhat annoying gap in the middle of the line. We sail through Whitechapel at normal cruising speed. At least five people head towards the doors, then look confused because we haven't stopped, and then check the maps, which give absolutely no clue as to what just happened.
The southbound platform at Shoreditch High Street is a lot busier than ours. A pair of police officers are waiting near the top of the stairs along with two Overground staff, forming a hi-vis quartet. By contrast Hoxton is pretty much dead, which might come as a surprise to all those of you who assumed it was party central. By my reckoning there are now fewer than 10 people per carriage, although that's not bad all told for this time in the morning. Most people are well wrapped up. A few Christmas jumpers can be seen poking out over zipped up jackets.
Somewhere between Hoxton and Haggerston the first southbound Night Overground train rushes by in a blur. Somewhere aboard is the Night Czar, clutching her special roundel and looking for smiling passengers to have her photo taken with. There are no such excitements on our inaugural service. Neither is there any special recognition when we finally arrive at Dalston Junction, indeed you'd never know any official ceremonial had been taking place on the platforms only a few minutes earlier.
The streets of Dalston are busy, especially with da yoof. Although most of the bars and restaurants have packed up for the evening, McDonalds is doing a bustling trade, and more than one kebab vendor is busy slicing meat onto trays of chips. On the main roads and up various sidestreets, certain doors normally ignored during the daytime have opened up, and a queue of would-be clubbers is waiting patiently outside.
Fliers for Atone are scattered on the pavement outside Dalston Kingsland station, which has just shuttered down for the night. Outside Voodoo Ray a man is breathing into a balloon, while passers-by kick several empty silver capsules along the pavement. Some teenage same-sex snogging is underway against the wall outside The Speakeasy. Only one police car speeds through, sirens blaring.
Back inside the station, a trio of tipsy women are annoyed to find there are no trains to Stratford. A member of staff suggests they could head down to Canada Water and change there, what with the Night Tube network being so restricted, but the girls have never heard of Canada Water and decide to take a nightbus instead.
According to the display in the ticket hall and the indicators on the platform, all the trains to New Cross Gate are departing from platform 2. This turns out to be very much not correct, and dozens of waiting passengers have to be cajoled over to the train on platform 1 instead. This departs, again on time, with a healthy cargo of bobble hats, bicycles and bleary-eyed travellers heading south.
This time I get out at Shoreditch High Street, where I'm impressed to see dozens of people on the platform, and less impressed when I have to nudge through a huddle to alight the train. Down in the ticket hall a group of posh lads is bemoaning the fact that none of the overnight trains are going to Clapham, without realising how lucky they are to have turned up on the first night there are any trains south of the river at all.
Once outside the station, Boxpark may have sealed up but the nightlife is buzzing. Groups of young people are clustered all over the streets, some walking between bars, others looking for one, and others keener to find something greasy to eat. It's easy to see how the Night Overground could be of long-term use here, and even more so when the extension to Highbury and Islington begins next year. But the overall overnight network remains somewhat limited, so I need to take the nightbus instead and head home the old fashioned way.