At face value, the London Overground line between Romford and Upminster might seem unimpressive. It has just three stations, takes nine minutes to complete and there’s an entire bus route that makes the same journey.
There’s no railway line in London that has so many unusual qualities. The line is part of the London Overground, even through it is unconnected to any other part of the London Overground, it is single-track, a rarity in London, and the trains can only go 30mph.
It’s an Overground oddball for sure.
Like all things weird though, it’s pretty wonderful and delivers a deliciously efficient service despite its relative quirks. MyLondon takes a look at the 128 year old outlier which has literally put a tiny part of East London well and truly on the (Tube) map!
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The three mile-long line has always had rather modest ambitions. Essentially a link between the London to Southend railway line and Romford, it starts at a platform hidden to the side of Romford station.
The platform, now numbered platform one, was originally an entirely different station when the line opened in 1893. Passengers used to have to exit the station, cross the road and enter the main station to change trains.
That’s not the reason why the line (or the train service on it) cannot be extended though. The line is effectively trapped.
At Romford, the only connection from the line to the other railway lines is a single connection to what is called the ‘Up Fast’ line (platform 2).
This means that trains are currently only able to move easily from the line towards Liverpool Street (called the ‘up direction’), not from Liverpool Street (called the ‘down direction’).
In order to get from the ‘Down Fast’ (from Liverpool Street) to the line, trains have to go into platform three, reverse, cross tracks back to a signal just beyond platform two, reverse, go through platform two and then use the connection to the line.
This procedure is carried out in the mornings when the Overground train comes from Ilford depot to run up and down the line. Confusing? Yes, and expensive to do anything about.
The other issue which prevents the line being extended is that the fast lines at Romford are full. Even if you built an extra connection to link the ‘down’ direction, it would cause so many knock-on effects to the fast trains, it would create an additional problem of taking up too much space and slowing other passengers down.
As the slow lines (soon to be used by the Elizabeth line ) are on the opposite side of the station, a bridge or underpass would be required to connect the line to it.
Such a development would cost millions for little impact – Transport for London (TfL) estimated that just 638,445 people per year used the Overground to/from Romford prior to the pandemic, a fraction of the overall 9.3 million when combined with Greater Anglia and TfL Rail.
At the other end of the line, the scenario is even more complicated. When the Overground line from Romford approaches Upminster, it runs on one side of the District line, with the London to Southend line (now known as c2c) on the other.
The Overground and c2c lines both use similar trains, are signalled in almost the same way and have the same form of electrification – overhead power lines.
However, the District line in the middle is completely different on all of these aspects. It means that the two lines cannot meet, preventing the chance of a Romford to Lakeside or Ilford to Tilbury direct train.
It’s not an Emerson Park thing
Since the line became part of the London Overground in 2015, it has appeared on the Tube map. If you were unfamiliar with the area, you would suspect that the main purpose of the line is to get people to and from the only station entirely on the line – Emerson Park. That assumption would be wrong.
Although the line is tiny, it plays an important role in orbital journeys across East London. It allows people from places such as Chadwell Heath, Ilford and Harold Wood to get to key leisure and work destinations such as Lakeside, Grays and Basildon without having to go into London and back out.
This is largely reflected in TfL figures, which show that the number of people who enter/exit Emerson Park is fewer than those at Upminster and Romford -meaning there must be a significant amount of people making journeys from east/west of Romford, to east/west/south of Upminster, using the line as a rat run.
The name helps stop people from having to crush onto the line in search of Hornchurch, which by the time you wait for the half-hourly Overground you could have made the extra walk to the more frequent District line.
The entire line is duplicated by the route 370 bus, which continues to Lakeside shopping centre. It is one of the few scenarios in London where the train is cheaper and quicker than the bus, costing £1.50 off-peak and taking nine minutes compared to the bus’s £1.55 at 22 minutes.
Level crossing Easter eggs
The line has three level crossings which are highly unusual and are not signposted clearly from the street meaning they can easily feel like Easter eggs hidden in a video game. The crossings are at Osborne Road, Maybush Road and Woodhall Crescent.
Most pedestrian level crossings in London have been removed in an effort to improve safety on the railways, eliminating risk. On the London Underground, there’s only one left open to the public and no Tube trains can go across it.
Yet on this tiny line, there are two, one of which you have to climb over a stile to get to, which isn’t always the most accessible idea.
As the line is single-track, there is only one signal, which faces Upminster just before the connection to the ‘Up Fast’ at Romford meaning the rest of the line has no signals – another rarity.
In the past six years, the line has received more than just an orange lick of paint. It’s been well and truly Tango’d! It now uses new Class 710 trains which have walkthrough carriages, air-con, USB ports and Wi-Fi all in glistening London Overground orange.
The slick TfL operation has standardised the timetable meaning trains run at the same minutes past the hour every 30 minutes throughout the day, including Sundays. Despite the low frequency, it’s easy to remember the times. Trains end earlier than other lines in the evenings at around 8-10pm.
Being boxed in means that unlike other lines, disruption does not spread to it because it is isolated. The one train can power back and forth between Romford and Upminster uninterrupted by whatever misfortunes have been afforded to surrounding lines that day.
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