Deep in the Essex countryside, at the sleepy far eastern
end of the Central Line, lies this branch with a history more
interesting than the line itself. The bucolic qualities of the
line, serving a sparse local population, would have made it a
prime candidate for closure under Dr. Beeching's axe but it survived
a bit longer having been taken over by London Underground. However,
a loss making line was never going to last forever (or to quote
Lewis Cox, it was closed "...because no-one used it.").
Brendan Ratcliffe has argued however that the circumstances
that made closure inevitable were caused by the railway and political
authorities of the time and that closure of the line was actually
"I believe that at that
time the population of Ongar was in the region oftwenty thousand.
Much of the working population worked in London. The lack of
passengers was not due to a lack of demand, but because of spiralling
cost of using the service and its increasing infrequency. This
was particularly acute when the GLC withdrew its subsidy for
the service on the grounds that it was not in Greater London.
Most folk in Ongar used to drive to stations from Epping to South
Woodford as the cost of using the service became uneconomic.
The resultant traffic congestion was quite noticeable."
David Burrows subsequently argued
that the problems started long before that:
"The use of the line declined
immediately it was electrified, presumably so that London Transport
no longer had to pay the Eastern Region to provide engines, stock
and crews which enabled Epping engine shed to be closed. The
wonderful new electric service started on a cold, foggy November
day in 1957, when the passengers, formerly used to a delightfully
warm (steam-heated) train, which being a push-pull set had the
engine attached and providing heat all day, found that the replacement
underground train had absolutely abysmal heating, made worse
by the fact that the train stood for some time at the end of
each journey with ALL the doors open. Not only that but
the minimal heat produced between stations promptly left as soon
as all the doors opened at each stop. Winter was not the best
time to introduce such 'improvements'. The riding of the electric
trains was very poor when compared to the steam-worked stock,
the motion being akin to a small boat in a storm, bouncing up
and down and from side to side. There was much adverse comment
in the local newspaper 'Express & Independent' at the time.
"Since the line was electrified
'on the cheap' only single units could be used as there was insufficient
electricity available beyond Epping to run 8 car (two unit) trains
through to London. There were allegedly sometimes even
problems when two trains passing at North Weald tried to set
off simultaneously, each attempting to draw maximum power. At
such times accelerations was less than rapid! Thus all passengers
had to transfer at Epping via the footbridge for London trains,
and with car ownership increasing at that time, many former passengers
chose to drive to Epping to catch trains to London.
"There was also the London
Transport operated 339 bus route, every 30 mins for most of the
day between Epping station and Ongar via North Weald village
(and passing Ongar station), although this took rather longer
than the train. Alternate journeys continued to Warley, passing
Brentwood station with its electrified regular suburban service
to London. With this bus service being operated by LT there was
obviously not a great incentive for them to encourage use of
the train service.
"The decline in train passengers
was used as an excuse to remove the passing loop at North Weald
as an economy measure, thus only one train could shuttle between
Epping and Ongar, giving a maximum service of every 40-48 minutes
even in the peak periods, approximately half that which previously
operated. This led to even more people using alternative transport
as, unless they managed to catch the right train from London
to connect, they could have a long wait at Epping for a cold
train forward. It was soon time for the service to be reduced
to peak hours only, with LT claiming that at other times there
was the 339 bus! There was a brief period when trains were restored
between the peaks but by then enough passengers had found alternative
transport so it did not last long."
After closure, London Transport sold the line to the EOR (Epping
and Ongar Railway) who in 2004 finally
opened some sort of service on it (Sundays only, from Ongar to
For up to date information about the current status of the line,
here for the Epping and Ongar Railway's website.
From a neutral's point of view, stopping at North Weald (i.e.
not connecting with the Central Line at Epping) and running on
Sundays only, may not seem particularly useful but at least it's
a start. It also provides quite an entertaining day out, especially
given that there is now a bus link from Epping station. The staff
(volunteers) who run the line are ridiculously friendly as well.