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

The London Overground train at Upminster. Image: Phil Richards/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

 
 
 
 

Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”


Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.