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Transport / Mass transit

Romford to Upminster to Romford again: An ode to Transport for London’s most obscure branch line

Great news! The Romford-Emerson Park-Upminster line will be getting new train stock. One four-carriage Crossrail-style train will ferry people across the three miles of Havering the track covers. The train on what has been, since May 2015, the tiniest piece of the orange Overground network has been breaking down for days at a time recently, so an upgrade will be welcome.

Look at the top right of your tube map and you’ll see it. Situated completely in Zone 6, cut off from the rest of the network, the single-track line can only hold one train. So a shuttle service operates in each direction every half an hour, taking nine minutes to go from Romford to Upminster, with one stop at Emerson Park. 

Emerson Park, Wikipedia tells me, “has relatively low but fast-growing patronage for a suburban railway station, with 308,000 passenger entries/exits in 2017-18, compared to 114,000 five years prior and just 67,000 ten years prior.” That’s a huge increase – over 350 per cent in a decade – but the station still tops the least busy Overground stations list.

During the mid-to-late-Noughties, I was regularly part of the 67,000 entries and exits to Emerson Park station. I’d grown up in the neighbourhood and, by 2006, had come home after university to get started on my career. This involved a lot of temping and unpaid journalism work experience, which generally took place in Zones 1 or 2.

Emerson Park. Image: TBMurray/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s best to run a tight logistical operation if you’re going to take public transport in an area that’s barely connected to the rest of the network. Once that train’s gone off in the direction I needed, it won’t be any use to me for another half hour; the next time I’d see it, it’d be heading eastwards to Upminster, away from central London. Add in the solid 20 minutes of fast-paced walking from my family home that I’d powered through to be at the station in the first place, and I often found myself watching the four-carriager trundle off to Romford without me.


My house would be empty at this point, so without the option of someone giving me a lift, I had to make some quick decisions. I could wait 15 minutes for the train to return, then go to Upminster station (c2c, District line eastern terminus) in 9 minutes, adding another 24 minutes onto the morning commute. It was also further out of London than my house was, a psychological block.

Outside Emerson Park, buses one way would get me to Hornchurch station (District line) in 12 minutes – but they only run every 10 minutes. The other way, to Romford station (TfL Rail to Stratford, Liverpool Street), the buses go every 12-20 minutes, and took the same amount of time to get me there. That’s a lot of calculating to do in a very short amount of time, and back in 2006 I didn’t even have the CityMapper app. 

Little has changed in terms of those connections, but the continuing lack of back-up options, and recurrent train breakdowns, don’t seem to be putting commuters off. All those 308,000 passengers entering or exiting in 2017/18 are heroes of punctuality, true believers in TfL – or perhaps just know that they can get a lift to a better station with ease, and so entering and quickly leaving the Emerson Park station is no big deal for them. 

I really do hope that they enjoy their new trains. I’ll be thinking of them while I wait 19 minutes for the next train to Euston at South Hampstead station. That’s the second least busy stop on the Overground network, incidentally.
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