You have to wonder how Emerson Park station survives. The only stop on an out-of-the-way branch line between Romford and Upminster, served by one ageing train shuttling back and forth. A lowly halt with a single platform used by barely 350 passengers a day. A station with no services after 8pm and nothing on Sundays. It's definitely not somewhere you'll find on the tube map, or at least not at the moment. But all that will change next spring when TfL takes over the line, and suddenly Emerson Park will find itself thrust into the spotlight. Best get a heads-up on the place now, I thought.
So yes, there's this three and a half mile branch line linking the Great Eastern Railway to the District line, and it's been there since 1893. Emerson Park's a little younger, opened in 1909 at roughly the halfway point, four minutes from Romford and four minutes from Upminster. A peculiarity of the line is that there are no signals along its length - there's no need because the single track is served only by a single train. And the whole thing's in Zone 6, within the London borough of Havering, which is probably why you've never been. Here's Emerson Park's timetable so you can see what you're missing.
Westbound to Romford
Eastbound to Upminster
and every 30 minutes to
and every 30 minutes to
(no trains on Sunday)
For the full Emerson Park experience, join me on a journey out of platform 1 at Romford. This is a less than lovely spot, located far from platforms 2-5 where all the through trains stop. Platform 1 is accessed from the end of platform 2 via a footbridge over South Street, doglegging round to a lonely elevation above a pub's back garden. There are only seats for six on the platform, which is a bit feeble when the trains run every half hour, or if it's raining there's a not very enticing shelter. I ended up abandoning my seat for a loud Essex mum and her objectionable offspring, and stood instead beneath the crackly loudspeaker listening to announcements about trains that wouldn't be stopping here. When finally the inbound service arrived approximately two dozen folk poured off, most of these from Upminster rather than Emerson Park, and then the driver emerged and trooped up to the other end of the train.
Were this "the North", the line would probably be served by a Pacer or some other ancient one-carriage shuttle. Instead Abellio run a four coach train, the front half of which is essentially unnecessary because it never stops adjacent to a station exit. Indeed only an introvert would walk all the way up to the front carriage, and then all the way back at their destination... so obviously that's exactly what I chose to do. I was surprised to discover a first class section, complete with cheap antimacassars over the headrests, as if anyone on this line ever needs to pay extra for more space. I was less surprised to see an empty McDonalds takeaway bag on one of the first class seats, because I doubt that ticket inspectors pop by regularly to patrol patronage. All this and a vague smell of furniture polish, or was it petrol - this is a truly special experience.
The train follows the mainline for the first minute or two, before the single track branches off just beyond the first footbridge. It enters a cutting between the backs of houses, past garages and gardens, where the undergrowth closest to the track has been lopped to leave regenerative stumps. I spotted bluebells in amongst the long grass, as well as plastic bags, a couple of footballs and a bucket. At one point the railway spans the minor river Ravensbourne, and at another an ungated footpath crosses the tracks - a rarity within the London boundary, but safe enough when only a handful of 30mph trains ever pass.
Emerson Park station has a platform 1 but no platform 2, and a high wooden canopy above one end. A handful of artificial-looking hanging baskets dangle within, which saves money on gardeners and watering, while the next train indicator screen is dribbled with pigeon guano. According to the station sign this is still "Emerson Park Halt", the original name given by the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway. A series of Network Southeast logos embedded along the edge of the platform create another nice heritage touch, although only through lack of investment, and those at the far end have been lost through recent tarmacking. And if you stand looking down the long straight line under Butts Green Road bridge, you might just see a local fox patrolling the tracks. For most of the day this is her domain, and only occasionally does she have to patter off the rails and hide back into the undergrowth.
Exit up the long ramp to discover Emerson Park, a northern suburb of Hornchurch. It's pretty pleasant suburbia, with a parade of shops along the main road and some quite tasteful interwar housing in the streets beyond. The closest retail outlet is the bright orange Oh My Cod! fish and chip (and kebab) restaurant, opposite the Emerson Park Drycleaners and a place selling fireplaces and stoves. Head across the railway to discover a proper pub on what's essentially a traffic island, that's the The Chequers. And continue south past the 500-seat Queen's Theatre, Havering's main (and rather modern) arts hub, to eventually reach the delights of Hornchurch High Street. The District line station of the same name may get 20 times more passenger traffic, but Emerson Park is actually slightly closer to the town centre.
Returning to catch the half-hourly service to Upminster, look out for an unexpected geological treat a minute or two east of the station. When the railway was being dug circa 1892, an unexpected layer of boulder clay was uncovered in Hornchurch Cutting to the north of St Andrew's Park. What this discovery marks is the southern limit of glaciation in Britain, the furthest point reached by the Anglian ice sheets during the entire Pleistocene era. Indeed it's thanks to Hornchurch Cutting that we know the Thames was diverted to its present course less than half a million years ago, because here its layer of gravels lies above and not below the clay. Think on that as your train rumbles through past greenhouses and sheds, over a rich Jurassic fossil bed, through this site of prime stratigraphic importance.
Shortly afterwards the railway rises up to a leafy embankment and filters in to join the District and c2c lines. Actually there's no connection, the tracks are kept entirely separate (hence the lack of need for signals I mentioned earlier). And very shortly the train terminates at platform 6 of Upminster station, a quiet outpost accessed via a single footbridge. Six bright pink seats lurk in an alcove for those who wait, while the next train indicator states that "This service is operated by one", which is at least a franchise and a bit ago. Almost everybody else using the station is using the mainline or the tube, and giving not a second thought to this mere sideline to Romford. But when Emerson Park finally comes under TfL's wing next year, embraced by the tangerine arms of the Overground, expect passengers numbers to rise rapidly out of the bottom ten.