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Railways to Epping and Ongar

Introduction

The Eastern End of the Central Line had its origins in a group of lines built by the Eastern Counties Railway and its successor the Great Eastern Railway. Like some outer sections of the Northern line they were incorporated into the Underground as part of the 1935 New Works Program. Many original GER structures including station buildings remain to this day.

Epping Station in 2001

1856 to the 1930s

The lines that exist today were built in stages. The Eastern Counties Railway opened the first section from Stratford to Loughton in 1856. The new line diverged from the Stratford - Tottenham Hale route at Loughton North Junction and close to the site of what was to become Temple Mills yard. Stations were built at Leyton, Leytonstone, Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill. At this time the land around the line was mostly undeveloped.

The towns of Epping and Ongar were targets of further extension but construction had to wait until the ECR was absorbed into the GER. The line to Epping and Ongar was completed in 1865. This was at first a single-track line. The station at Loughton was re-located; the old site became sidings and was for many years used as a coal yard. Stations were built at Chigwell Road (now Debden), Theydon, Epping, North Weald, Blake Hall and Ongar. Extensions beyond Ongar, to Dunmow or back to the GER mainline at Chelmsford were contemplated but never acted upon. At the time of opening trains ran to Fenchurch Street and even at this early stage the service was geared to meet the needs of commuters. The GER tried to promote rather more "up-market customers" than on some of its other routes. Unlike some ot its other lines first and second class traffic was encouraged while workmen's fares were not available. When the Ragged Schools Union built a retreat for deprived children from the East End to enjoy the forest they travelled by train. There were complaints about the state that the children left the carriages in!

Leyton Station - Leyton junction was just beyond the bridge

When the new terminus was opened at Liverpool Street most services were diverted there. By this time Loughton had a daily service of 40 trains. Suburban expansion soon began to increase traffic levels although beyond Loughton the line remained rural in character and farm produce including milk was carried. Epping forest was a popular destination for day trips. The GER and the LNER sought to promote this by cheap fares. There was also excursion traffic in the opposite direction; trains ran to the south coast resorts via a reversal at Liverpool Street and the East London Line. These specials continued into the age of tube train operation.

The Fairlop loop, a 6.5-mile line linking Woodford with a triangular junction on the GER mainline between Ilford and Seven Kings was opened in 1903. This was a highly speculative move based on the assumption that housing development north of Ilford would continue rapidly. Stations were built at Newbury Park, Barkingside, Fairlop, Hainualt, Grange Hill and Chigwell. Anticipating heavy traffic all the stations were substantial structures with long canopies and large waiting rooms. However the anticipated development did not materialise. For the early years the solidly built stations stood isolated in open countryside. In 1908 Hainualt station, barely 1/4 mile from Fairlop, was closed.

Battery locomotives at Roding Valley during track replacement work

Housing development did begin again in the 1920s. By 1930 it was deemed worthwhile to re-open Hainault and in 1936 Roding Valley opened, initially as a halt to serve the surrounding developments. By the 1930s the line was largely surrounded by housing as far out as Loughton. The same was true of the other lines into Liverpool Street. Dissatisfaction had begun to rise. A solution to the overloading was required. Electrification of lines into Liverpool Street had been considered for some time. The LNER argued that it lacked the financial resources for such a project. Local rail users proposed an extension of the Central line to Eastern Avenue. The LNER proposed a straightforward overhead electrification of the line to Shenfield and the Fairlop loop. Investigation showed that both schemes would be loss making. A subsidy could not be agreed. A compromise was agreed with the Central line taking over the Fairlop loop and the line to Loughton. The future of the Loughton to Ongar section was not considered at this stage.

The New Works Programme and The War Years

The compromise solution was included in the 1935 New Works Programme. Construction of the extension began in 1936. A new line in was to be built from Liverpool Street to Leyton via stations Bethnal Green, Mile End and Stratford. This was to mostly be in tunnel. At Stratford the line would rise briefly to the surface to allow cross platform interchange with local services. Another pair of short tunnels linked Stratford to the existing line just to the south of Leyton Station. A third section of tunnel would link Leytonstone with the Fairlop loop at Newbury Park. A new depot to sevice the increased number of trains was to open at Hainault. The work was scheduled for completion by the end of 1941.

Although World War Two delayed the opening of the branch significant works had been completed and were used during the war. The new station at Loughton opened in 1940. The completed tunnel between Leytonstone and Newbury Park was used by the Plessey Company as an underground factory for aircraft components. The newly built depot at Hainault was used to store surplus tube stock throughout the war. From 1943-45 the depot was also used as an assembly point for rolling stock belonging to the US Army Transportation Corps. The unfinished works were also the scene of a great tragedy in 1943. The station site at Bethnal Green was used as an air raid shelter. On March 3rd a crowd entered the shelter as the alarm sounded. A woman with a child tripped on the staircase, some of those following fell over resulting in 173 deaths. More information on wartime use of the London Underground can be found at the Underground at War page.

1945 - 1970

After the war the works continued. Electric train services were opened in stages, gradually replacing the steam trains.

However it was to be another 9 years (18 November 1957 - Epping - Ongar) before the electric trains reached Ongar. F5 GER steam locomotives operated a push pull service. Services were provided by the Standard tube stock displaced from the Northern and Bakerloo lines by the 1938 stock. A light service of through trains to Epping was supplemented by a shuttle service between Loughton and Epping. Initially the Ongar - Epping service was provided by the two car 1935 stock prototype units.

Some freight services to the many goods yards at stations along the line remained the responsibility of British Railways and continued operating until 1966. Freight services were operated by J15 0-6-0 steam locomotives. As a result the old connections to the former GER system remained. The Newbury Park - Seven Kings route closed in 1956; for many years a short stub of track remained at Newbury Park and to this day the route is still largely uninterrupted. The connection at Leyton lasted a little longer; the last early morning trains from Epping to Liverpool Street ran in 1970. The connection was removed in 1972. An excellent description of the signal box at Leyton junction can be found at the Signal Box website. The goods yards were used as station car parks.

Traffic on the northern section of the loop remained light. The land lay just beyond the London boundary. The

"Greebelt" planning restrictions protected undeveloped
land. Growing car ownership also kept passenger numbers low. The train service tended to be a self-contained shuttle between Woodford and Hainault with a few through trains during peak hours. These started at Grange Hill and ran to/from London via Woodford. Possibly because of its self contained nature this section was used to test the Automatic Train Operation system to be used on the Victoria line. The Cravens units were converted for this purpose. Later units of 1967 stock were tested on the line before the Victoria line was completed. After testing 1967 Stock used the connection at Leyton to reach Northumberland Park depot. A 4-car unit of 1967 was used alongside the 1960 stock until the early 1980s.

The 1970s were a difficult era for London Transport. Cost rose rapidly whilst usage was declining. Fares increased significantly during these years. The 1969 Transport Act had transferred control of London Transport to the GLC. However the lines north of Woodford were in Essex. Essex County Council was reluctant to provide additional subsidy. Some of the least used stations on the entire system were found on these sections of line, so it is perhaps not surprising that they became the target for cost cutting. Closure of the Woodford - Hainault section was even considered. By the early 1980s the service frequency was 20 minutes - low by Underground standards, no trains ran after 8pm, while Roding Valley station closed at weekends. Timetable changes in the early 1990s saw more through trains whilst the advent of automatic ticketing allowed Roding Valley to open at weekends - it is now one of the few routinely unmanned stations on the LU network.

Epping Station in 1983. Garry Thorp.

North Weald in the 1980s. The passing loop was removed in 1976. Gary Thorp.

Passenger levels on the Ongar section were also very light. London Transport first considered closure in 1970. Essex County council agreed to provide a subsidy provided that costs were cut. The service frequency was halved. As a result the passing loop at North Weald was no longer required and was removed in 1976. In the late 1970s it again seemed likely that the line would close and a preservation group was formed. However the line survived, restricted to peak hour operation only. Blake Hall station used by literally a handful of passengers was closed in November 1981. The station building remains as a private residence though the platform was later demolished. A brief attempt was made to promote the service and an all day service was operated for a while. However, by the early 1990s usage had fallen to as low as 100 passengers per day. The service was making a loss of 184,000pa or around 7 per passenger journey. In addition it was reported that the line would need 4m of maintenance to remain in operation. London Underground applied for permission to close the line. This was granted and closure came on 30th September 1994 (the same day as the Aldwych branch).

One of the last trains leaves Ongar, September 1994. Garry Thorp. .

Overgrown tracks east of Epping in 2001.

Access to Epping Station has been a problem for EOR.

DMUs and steam locomotives from Finland at Ongar Station in 2001.

Ongar Station with steam locomotives and carriages from Finland November 2004.

Services are now provided by a 2-car DMU.

North Weald Station, November 2004

The bus service outside North Weald Station.


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1960 Stock

Our three-car unit of 1960 Stock operated on the Central Line until withdrawl in 1994. Since 1995 we have operated regular railtours on the Underground network. More...
Aldwych Branch Photos...
High Barnet Shuttles...
East London Explorer..

1962 Stock

Our second train also operated on the Central Line for 30 years and is now being restored at Hainault depot. More...

Epping Signal Cabin

Epping Signal Cabin became redundant in 1996 when re-signalling of the Central Line was completed. Since 2001 CHTL has leased the Signal Cabin - we hope to restore the frame and open a small museum. More...

L11

L11 is a unique locomotive built for shunting at Acton works now preserved by CHTL. More...

More Preserved Tube Stock

Many other items of underground rolling stock have been preserved. More...

Links

More railway and underground websites...

Photographs

Uxbridge Centenary
Central Line Track Replacement
Aldwych 2003
Wood Lane 2003
Isle of Wight 2003
More

The Holden F5 Trust

Re-building a lost steam locomotive... More...

The Pumphouse

Low Hall Steam and Transport Museum commemorates the industrial heritage of the Lee Valley. For more information visit the Pump House