diamond geezer

 Monday, December 14, 2015

The second Sunday in December is the traditional day for train timetables across Europe to be updated. Full UK details can be found here (or will be when somebody gets around to collatng all the information). Some of the largest London-centric changes are on Thameslink and c2c routes, and there are also a number of specific improvements to weekend services. In particular, three London stations are getting a Sunday service for the first time, which is clearly excellent news. I took the opportunity to make an inaugural journey between two of them.

Train 1: Emerson Park to Upminster [Sunday service from 13th December]
Of all the places for TfL to be throwing additional money, the runt of the Overground seems an unlikely choice. The single track branch line between Romford and Upminster joined the orange network back in June, and has continued to shuttle back and forth half-hourly since. But not on Sundays, the logic of the line's previous franchisee being that a route of such insignificance didn't merit a Sunday service. Indeed the single intermediate halt at Emerson Park is the least used station on the entire tube map (just ahead of Beckton Park on the DLR and Roding Valley on the Hainault Loop). Residents in the Hornchurch area remain in thrall to their cars, which is only to be expected in a part of Outer London which still likes to believe it's in Essex. But hurrah for transport equality and social justice, which means the linking of this Havering outpost to the remainder of the network seven days a week.
What's new
On Saturday evenings trains finish later (the same time as Monday to Fridays)
A Sunday service is introduced, with trains running every 30 minutes
A variety of measures have been taken to inform passengers on the route that a Sunday services is being introduced. There's a new timetable leaflet for starters, which at 12 pages long is possibly the most overblown piece of free paperwork TfL currently produces. Romford to Upminster has probably the simplest railway timetable in the whole of London, and covers only a single page even in really big type. The leaflet's front cover shows the route map, which at three stations long is hardly rocket science, while the centre spread shows the entire Overground network, of which this branch is an entirely disjoint part (meaning the map is no use for any onward connections). Page 9 is an advert stating that there are "staff at every station from first to last train", which at unstaffed Emerson Park absolutely isn't true. Most of the remainder of the booklet is general information about tickets, smoking and bikes... a small credit-card-sized leaflet might have done just as well.

Passengers at Emerson Park will have seen a poster announcing the changes, although this includes a sentence saying "timetable leaflets are now available to pick up from this station", which they evidently aren't. The remaining customer information on the platform appears equally ill-thought-through. Nobody's put up a copy of the new timetable yet, so only the version with No Sunday service remains. As for the list of "London Overground train service alterations for the week Monday 7 to Sunday 13 December", this also specifically stated No Sunday service, which will have been true for the last 26 weeks but is resolutely untrue this.

I've reported on the anomaly of Emerson Park before, visiting the station before it was embraced by the tangerine tentacles of the Overground. Nothing much has changed under TfL control apart from several extra signs and an orange tube roundel - even the Network SouthEast logos embedded into the platform remain. Standing here between trains it still feels like the back of beyond, especially when no other passengers turn up, which in my experience is most of the time. There's no CCTV at Emerson Park, which adds to the feeling of disconnect, although I found this securitylessness reassuringly retro. Meanwhile a next train indicator diligently reels off two hours of departures, with every train shown as calling at Platform 1 because there is only one.

Contrary to expectations, several passengers were aboard my selected Sunday morning service. Indeed half a dozen or so alighted from the train at Emerson Park, having presumably been up to something brief and exciting in Romford earlier. Oddly too the guard hopped off and went across to wave some electronic gizmo at something on the wall, as if he was checking in to prove the train had been here. Somebody else official had definitely been on the platform within the previous half hour because the Service status board (locked in its poster frame) had been timed and updated... or maybe that was the guard too, performing a multiplicity of duties.

There's only one train on the Romford-Upminster line, the ageing rolling stock a leftover from 1989. It was brought in from London Midland and is still full of adverts for the St Albans Abbey line, because no commercial concern would want to paste up new posters here. All the maps in the carriages are differently useless, because they show only the London Overground lines out of Liverpool Street, which are miles away from where this train goes. The seats are past their best, because it's not worth reupholstering them before new rolling stock is introduced in... oh 2018. But at least the train still has a first class section, decommissioned but ideal if you fancy a more comfortable journey in the meantime. Just don't get too cosy, Upminster's only a five minute dash away.

Train 2: Upminster to Stratford [Regular weekend services from Southend to Liverpool Street from 13th December]
c2c have always run trains to Liverpool Street rather than Fenchurch Street, but not terribly frequently. Certain late night trains from Southend have been diverted that way, and around Christmas a special Westfield-friendly service has run. But from Sunday 13th that Liverpool Street diversion becomes a permanent all-weekend feature, with two trains an hour from outer Essex shunted via Stratford rather than West Ham. It's what stakeholders want, apparently, because the City's dead at weekends, and because shopping rules.

The new c2c Sunday timetable is good for some and bad for others. It's very good for passengers at Purfleet, Rainham and Dagenham Dock who used to have one train an hour but now have two, and good for anyone out east who'd prefer a direct train to Stratford. It's less good for passengers from Southend who'll now see half their trains diverted via Grays, so taking longer to get to town, and bad for passengers in Basildon who'll see only two trains an hour up to London. It's also not good for anyone who turns up at Fenchurch Street or West Ham hoping to go to Southend, because half the direct trains now leave from the station up the road.

The Stratford diversion's not fast either. Inbound trains leave the normal route just past Barking and get to follow the Overground route towards Gospel Oak. Progress is sluggish through Woodgrange Park, because the Goblin isn't a speedy line, and because another transfer is required to join the Great Eastern mainline. Passengers who thought the train was going to West Ham are standing by the door at this point, trying to work out what's going on and where to get off to get to where they want to be. And the Westfield-goers are delighted, as they're ending up where they want to be considerably quicker. Every Sunday from henceforth, twice an hour.

Train 3: Stratford to Highbury & Islington
This isn't new, this is the normal Overground service from Stratford you've come to expect. But it's worth pointing out that ten years ago trains ran on this line only once every thirty minutes on a Sunday, and now it's every ten, and they're packed. These weekend improvements really make a difference.

Train 4: Highbury & Islington to Essex Road [Regular weekend services into Moorgate from 13th December]
Here's a welcome turn-up for the books, bringing two inner London stations into regular action at the weekend. The Northern City line used to be part of the Northern line, a stumpy peak hours service from Drayton Park to Moorgate. In 1976 the line was transferred to British Rail, and connected to suburban lines at Finsbury Park, so that commuters from Hertfordshire could travel into the City rather than King's Cross. But not at weekends. This means Essex Road and Drayton Park have long been closed on Saturdays and Sundays, which is perhaps why you've never been. Both stations are used by only half a million passengers a year, which is peanuts, although maybe that'll increase now.

Great Northern have started running all their trains from Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth down the Northern City tunnels. This may not be what their customers in Welwyn and Letchworth actually want, because Moorgate isn't the liveliest place of a weekend, but if they're too inconvenienced they can always change at Highbury and Islington on the way down. And this they do, it seems, pouring off onto the adjacent Victoria line platforms, while virtually nobody steps on board. Sheesh these Northern City underground stations are bleak, particularly when you're waiting around on empty platforms with last year's adverts plastered across the far walls.

Due to driver shortage, and Great Northern's recruitment incompetence, yesterday's inaugural weekend service was halved. This meant only a single train per hour, which didn't exactly inspire passenger usage, and activity at the intermediate stations was minimal. Barely half a dozen passengers alighted at Essex Road, an echoing tunnelled void, heading off down the staircase to reach the lift before rising to the surface. It's not an enjoyable experience, the entire exit procedure, but at least there's a fully staffed ticket office, which is the kind of retro provision north Londoners appreciate. From 'Essex' to Essex Road, a rail journey previously unattainable on Sundays, now joyfully (if pointlessly) possible.

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