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.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.