Every month this year (with the exception of January), I'm focusing on one of London Underground's underground lines. Last month I kicked off with the Bakerloo line, and this month I've decided to move on to the Central. I know it looks like I'm working through in alphabetical order, but that's just a coincidence, honest. Expect a March filled with various Central-related posts, here and there, every now and then, on diverse topics. As before I'm introducing things with a ride along the line, this the Underground's record-breaking longest possible journey. I've always wanted to do that...
It's 34 miles from West Ruislip to Epping, a journey scheduled for completion in an hour and twenty-five minutes. Normally only the driver goes from one end to the other, but I thought I'd join him, from the heart of Hillingdon to the edge of Essex. The journey kicks off in bright sunlight, although that doesn't stop some muppet in the West Ruislip control room pressing the "In these adverse weather conditions please take extra care..." button for an unnecessary tannoy announcement. Trains head off to Epping every six minutes from either side of the island platform, so pick carefully, and let's start the stopwatch.
To start with I have the entire carriage to myself. It won't last, as our journey through the metropolis rises to a midtown crescendo then fades away into the suburbs. In less than a minute we've passed over the Metropolitan line (a lost linkage opportunity?) then alongside a large Central line depot (where the Vickers Aquamatic washes trains). Ruislip Gardens isn't as green as its name might suggest, more the name of the housing estate to one side. My first fellow passenger is a coffee-clutching smartphone user with a ponytail, though very definitely not the Shoreditch type. At South Ruislip a silver Chiltern train rushes by without stopping, because these outer interchanges aren't important to long distance travellers. One day HS2 will pass this way too, running to the north along parallel tracks, but not if the angry residents of Northolt etc get their way. The Central line runs intermittently in elevated section, offering a mixture of rooftops, treetops and warehouse roofs. The view has improved considerably by Greenford, from whose raised platforms spires and hilltops can be seen amid the entire expanse of west London.
By Perivale there are five of us in the carriage, two jabbering away "yeah yeah yeah" about the cost of pay as you go. It may be mid-afternoon but, out here in Zone 4, passengers are having to make do with reading a Metro because the Evening Standard is for inner Londoners only. Housing slowly makes way for business and industry as we descend into the secluded heart of the Hanger Lane roundabout. We cross the Piccadilly line for the second time, skirting the Park Royal trading estate, before joining up with the Ealing Broadway branch of the Central at North Acton. A pig-ugly Holiday Inn peers down from the embankment above, adjacent to several other brown buildings designed by the same school of sadistic architects. By contrast the housing estate at East Acton has the finest chimneypots along the entire route, and even Wormwood Scrubs scrubs up well, its variegated gables seasonally visible through a screen of leafless branches.
The tracks swap sides (via an underpass) so that trains roll into White City on the right, then swap back again shortly after departure. We've dipped below ground now, where we'll stay until Stratford. Somewhere in the darkness is the site of the old WoodLane station, built on an inconvenient loop, and ahead is the sharpest curve on the entire underground network, but only for those travelling in the opposite direction. Westfield shoppers board in number at Shepherd's Bush, joining BBC types from the previous station, and it's starting to feel busy on board. One particularly wide bloke is taking up 1½ seats, while a narrow chap takes up two by resting his trainers on the moquette opposite. Holland Park and Notting Hill Gate are a little gloomy, the latter station frequented by unexpectedly stereotypical blondes who flounce aboard and natter.
A late arrival on the platform at Queensway manages to dash aboard between the closing doors without quite looking foolish. Then at Lancaster Gate two passengers deliberately allow our train to depart, intent on waiting for a Hainault service, not our Epping. We get our first "standers" at Marble Arch, the first boarders to ignore spare seats in favour of hanging around by the doors. And that's just an omen of what's to come at Bond Street, where central London hits big time. In they pour, one shovelling a Quarter Pounder inelegantly into his mouth, another lady finally taking the plunge and squeezing into the half seat beside the Three Hundred Pounder.
We've been running for nearly forty minutes and are now about halfway through our journey - currently rumbling beneath the retail turmoil of Oxford Street. Oxford Circus is the first station at which more people get out of our carriage than get on, but that's only because the horde of waiting shoppers have refused to spread out down the platform. At Tottenham Court Road a lady drags her small red suitcase over my feet "sorry" and plonks awkwardly "sorry" into the seat beside me "sorry". I'm voting Holborn the most crowded station en route, the first place where someone has to wander down and stand between the two rows of seats. Things could be much worse though - a couple of hours later people will be standing in vain on the platforms at Chancery Lane and St Paul's unable to squeeze aboard.
I'm expecting the brakes to screech as we round the sharp curve at Bank, but they don't. Instead a few financiers hop across the gap and ride one stop to Liverpool Street for their mainline train home. This is where the overcrowding situation in the carriage finally eases, with everyone now allocated a seat or at least their own place to lean. Those who remain on board are the true East Londoners - the skateboarder holder, the phone clicker and the headphone nodder - on the long run through to Bethnal Green. We stop. The doors open. "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand behind the yellow line as the train approaches" announces a disembodied voice, synchronised by some unseen idiot.
The cross-platform interchange at Mile End works like a dream for those who need the District line, on this occasion more by accident than operational design. Red Suitcase Lady stands as soon as we depart the station because she wants to alight at Stratford, but doesn't realise that's three minutes away and soon regrets her premature decision. At last we emerge into the sunlight, after ten miles underground from one Westfield megamall to another. And at last there are seats again, two of which are nabbed by a Rizla roller and a probable alcoholic. Leyton marks a full hour since we started out, and the first occasion we've been travelling fast enough for the train to rattle.
We shadow the A12 arterial to Leytonstone, where the line splits, and we're taking the overground route. Suddenly trackside looks properly suburban again, as do the stations. Snaresbrook has cute ironwork, and a cafe on the southbound that dispenses caffeine to early morning commuters, while South Woodford used to boast "The Railway Coffee Tavern" but no longer. It's school chucking-out time by the time we reach Woodford. A gaggle of girls hide away in the waiting room to gossip, while a lone boy boards the train, flips open a lime green iPad and downs a can of generic energy drink.
There are just ten passengers in the carriage as we cross into Essex, following a line of commuter settlements up the Roding Valley. Thin tongues of garden back down to the railway from neat rows of semis, interrupted at Buckhurst Hill by a very British Rail style station. By contrast Loughton has a splash of architecturalbrilliance that looks much more London Underground, its platforms dominated by "kidney-shaped flat-slab canopies" and "pairs of freestanding lamp-standards". After Debden it becomes clear we've finally left the metropolis behind, as schools and houses make way for fields and flowering gorse. Now only single cottages dot the countryside, and Theydon Bois feels more like a rural halt.
Ahead can be seen traffic on the M25, with streams of lorries rumbling ever closer until we pass underneath. And that's almost it, nearly an hour and a half after our journey began, because the town ahead is Epping where this train terminates. We pull into the left-hand platform by the ticket hall, and most of the remaining passengers head off to the adjacent oversized car park. The line to Ongar stretches deceptively ahead, unused now for almost twenty years because Transport for London has no desire to serve a minor Essex backwater. The driver emerges from his cab and wanders back down the train, which in six minutes time will become another record-breakingly long return journey to West Ruislip. Whilst this line may be called the Central, its outer extremities are truly anything but.