diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 09, 2016

The least used station in... Greater London
(Annual passenger usage: 19124)

The least used station in Greater London is used by fewer passengers than the least used station in Hertfordshire and fewer passengers than the least used station in Berkshire. For this we can blame Chiltern Railways, who provide Sudbury and Harrow Road with a minimal number of trains a week. It also has far fewer passengers than Sudbury station in Suffolk, and that's in a small town at the end of a branch line, not a built-up London suburb. But then the Sudbury I'm visiting today is quite well blessed with stations, and this is one of the two hardly anybody uses.

The busy stations in Sudbury are on the Piccadilly line, and they pull in more than two million passengers a year apiece. They're also Charles Holden classics, Sudbury Town particularly so, with its lofty block-like ticket hall, slab roof and unique 'petit-serif' typeface. Today's station is barely five minutes walk away but can't compete, either on architecture or frequency of service, indeed it's firmly beaten.

Eastbound (to Marylebone) Westbound (to West Ruislip)
0701 0756 0858 1041 1646 1739 1840 1948
(no trains Saturday or Sunday)

Chiltern Railways' problem is a two-track line, on which they have to run services to Aylesbury, High Wycombe, Oxford and Birmingham, none of which have time to stop. Into this mix they drop a handful of local services to West Ruislip, their job to serve four intermediate stations that nobody else stops at, with intermittent timing. Wembley Stadium gets the best service, with Northolt Park managing roughly hourly and Sudbury Hill Harrow fewer still, leaving Sudbury and Harrow Road with a paltry eight a day. And yes, there really are two consecutive stations with complex but almost identical names, which is another reason why Sudbury and Harrow Road rarely slips off a typical commuter's tongue.

The station is sparse and lonely, elevated high above the high street, its facilities unencumbered by significant capital spend. The entrance funnels in from the bus stop where the number 18 bus terminates, past two giant billboards and a cycle rack. There's no ticket office, nor even a ticket machine, merely a Permit to Travel box as if this were some rural halt. A tunnel then doglegs beneath the railway before steps rise steeply at a pushchair-deterrent gradient. The handrails used to be red but are now blue, and the brick walls whitewashed rather than badly daubed. And you exit into a gap between two wooden platforms, a glass shelter slotted inbetween with seats for a lucky four should the elements be in play.

Platform 1 is the least upgraded, edged by a diagonally-slatted wooden fence of somewhat ancient vintage. The fence on platform 2 must have rotted away or fallen because it's been replaced by metal railings in corporate blue, slightly bird-splattered but otherwise undistinguished. Between them is a grassy strip bursting with summer foliage and the occasional flower, as if the station has its own inaccessible garden, whereas the gap probably just gets mown once a year. A departure board lists the next trains, which might be some way off (on my visit brilliantly getting the first one wrong). And yellow lines demarcate over half of each platform to urge you to stand back, because the vast majority of trains pass by without stopping, quite fast, thanks to Sudbury's irrelevance.

While waiting, use the elevated vantage point to take a look around. The Harrow Road runs below on its way to Paddington, the interwar shopping parade liberally sprinkled with Indian and Polish outlets plus the usual fried and spicy chicken vendors. The sheds to the north conceal several car repair businesses, if that's not overselling a cluster of lowly dark garages operated by smiling men in overalls. In complete contrast, all the land to the south of the station either just has or is about to be turned into flats, a blunt development of grey-striped blocks in New London Vernacular, at one point so close to the tracks that you can see straight into the unfortunate tenant's bedroom. Parkside Place ought to be ideally suited for commuters, being "just 17 minutes" from Marylebone, but a lousy rail service means the much slower tube is the real selling point.

The park in question is Barham Park, Sudbury's greenspace gem, formerly the home of the chief local philanthropist. George Barham founded Express Dairies, suppliers of milk to Queen Victoria and thousands of Middlesex larders, but the estate passed into public hands in the 1950s, long before the white and blue milk floats faded away. Centrepiece of the park is a lush walled garden on two levels with balustrades and elegant beds, adjoining an attractive Georgian building which used to house the library (until Brent's cuts snuffed it out). Other reasons for visiting this part of town include attending one of Wembley FC's home games at Vale Farm, and watching amdram in the East Lane Theatre, which looks like a boarded-up youth club but puts on four shows a year in its tiny 75-seater.

The average train at Sudbury and Harrow Road picks up or drops off only ten passengers. The train I boarded disgorged at least double that, pouring off from the rear carriage down the narrow steps and into the surrounding streets and avenues. In such a typical suburban neighbourhood there's clearly the demand for a better service, but no sign on the horizon of anything more than a token rush hour presence, at the bleak halt every single other station in London soundly thrashes.

London's least used stations (2014/15)
No 1:
Sudbury & Harrow Road (19000)
No 2: South Greenford (47000)
No 3: Sudbury Hill Harrow (54000)
No 4: Angel Road (86000)
No 5: Birkbeck (104000)
No 6: Morden South (120000)
No 7: Belmont (152000)
No 8: Drayton Green (153000)
No 9: Emerson Park (157000)
No 10: Crews Hill (158000)

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