Today's the day that one of London's runtiest railway lines gets runtier. The GWR branch line to Greenford is currently served by half-hourly trains from Paddington, but the last one of these departs just after nine o'clock this evening, and passengers will then be on their own.
The Greenford branch line is an anachronistic leftover from an Edwardian agricultural show. It's almost three miles long, and links the Great Western Railway to the Central line at Greenford. It serves some minor communities to the west of Ealing, and its four stations are all amongst the twenty least used stations in London. It sees no trains on Sundays. It probably ought to have been closed by someone at some point, except it remains a remarkably useful freight link, and those minor communities are very grateful.
Unsurprisingly Crossrail is the catalyst for change, requiring the use of two out of four of the GWR's tracks when services kick off in May 2018. Greenford's pootling two-carriage trains are getting in the way, so are to be cast out, which will leave the line through to Paddington clear. Instead, rather than connecting to the big city they're to be cut back to Ealing... and not even Ealing Broadway, but the unconvincing backwaters of West Ealing.
West Ealing station used to serve the adjacent London Co-operative Society creamery, with a special terminating platform for the milk train. That platform was swept away when the creamery closed, but Crossrail have decided it needs rebuilding to accommodate trains from Greenford. Platform 5 is still a mess of building works at present, as is the milk depot site where a new step-free station will arise. But when it's finished, which is scheduled for the New Year, trains from Greenford will be able to keep out of the way of more important services, and shuttle back and forth forever.
A massive shutdown is taking place west of London over Christmas, with no services into Paddington from 24th-29th December. This means no services on the Greenford branch whatsoever, nor on the following days up to 2nd January, with passengers turfed off onto ordinary buses instead. And when trains kick off again on the morning of Tuesday 3rd, passengers will have to alight at West Ealing and wait for a connection, sometimes only a few minutes, at other times rather longer. In a couple of years that connecting service will be able to take them into the heart of London and onward to Stratford and Shenfield, which'll be great. In the meantime, well, it's not ideal.
I thought I'd take a last through train, so turned up at Paddington yesterday and climbed aboard. Nothing happened. "Sorry, train's cancelled," said the driver, "there are problems down the line." The Greenford trains are the easiest to cancel in such circumstances, only inconveniencing a few, although I was impressed by how many passengers actually trooped off. Those signalling problems then lingered, so they cancelled the next train, and the next one, and I could see where this was going so I went and walked the line instead.
Peter's Hairdressing Salon, A 2 Zee's Cafe and the Brookford Launderette are going to do very well when the new West Ealing station entrance opens nextdoor - that or be consumed by redevelopment that's passed them by for years. An industrial estate fills the triangle of land where the branch line bears north, and the next station's not much further along. Drayton Green's barely ten minutes on foot from West Ealing, across the greenspace of the same name, so no wonder passenger numbers are light. I noticed one man sitting in the shelter on the down platform, either oblivious to the serial cancellation of trains, or unaware of how short a distance it was to walk.
The railway line then ducks into a long tunnel, all the way to Castle Bar Park, not because of contours but because a housing estate has been built on top. It's all quite post-modern too, in contrast to the avenues of semis to either side, but all can't be well because the flats adjacent to the next station are boarded up. From the station footbridge you get a really clear view up the arrow-straight line towards Greenford, with tiny Central line trains snaking past in the distance. As a joyful throwback, Castle Bar Park's ticket office is supposedly open every weekday morning between seven and ten, despite it having far fewer passengers than every single station on the Underground.
I chose to cross to the east of the line and walk up the edge of the Trailfinders Sports Club, eventually reaching some blocks of flats close to the River Brent. In a world with unlimited money this is the obvious place for an intermediate station - five bus routes pass underneath the railway - but in every other world the expense of hanging platforms off a viaduct in a location surrounded by sports grounds is entirely unviable. Pretty viaduct, though. I should blog this walk in more depth sometime, I thought.
Eventually the footpath reached a golf course and then South Greenford station, which is the third least used station in London, accessed via two long ramps up from Western Avenue. Here I found a gentleman with a large camera tripodded on the platform, and wondered what on earth he was doing given that there were no trains. The answer came once I'd departed - a long freight train rumbled through, and later what looked like a train from Hull, although I might have been imagining. This last trek up to Greenford in the shadow of the railway embankment will be familiar if you've ever walked the Capital Ring, it's the end of section 8.
And what do you know, by the time I reached Greenford trains were actually up and running again. It was initially impossible to tell, because Greenford is a TfL station and they don't have any obvious electronic signs detailing departures on the GWR line. I don't know how long some of the passengers there might have been waiting, but eventually the diesel came slowly round the corner and nudged into its peculiar mid-platform terminus. It didn't take the driver long to change ends, and then we were off on the full ride into Paddington, picking up a not insignificant number of passengers along the way.
When I said you'd never be able to do this again that's not quite true. From 3rd January the first Greenford train of the day will set out from Paddington, simply to get the unit onto the line, and the last will head back all the way. But if you're not up at 0542, or out at 2152, all the other trains will do a stunted eleven minute shuttle. Today's your last chance at a sensible time in daylight hours. And then, unless you live out this way, or the Overground ever takes it over, you can forget the Greenford branch ever existed.