The final heritage railway visited on the Somerset and Dorset working volunteers’ weekend was the Epping Ongar Railway on Sunday 23rd April 2017.
History of the Epping and Ongar Railway
The Great Eastern Railway built the branch from Loughton Junction to Ongar and it opened in 1865. Before World War II, plans existed for London Transport to take over the branch as an extension to the Central Line from the terminus at Liverpool Street. The war delayed this so it wasn’t until September 1949 that London Transport took over the branch and then only as far as Epping. It was not until November 1957 that electrification of the single line section from Epping to Ongar was commissioned. In the intervening period British Rail Eastern Region operated it as a steam hauled shuttle service.
Compared to other areas served by the Underground system, the Epping to Ongar had a relatively small population density. This was reflected in the level of revenue and eventually services were cut back to peak hours only. The final closure came on the 30th September 1994. Within a few years of closure, the Epping Ongar Railway Society had plans in place for heritage railway.
Starting with a bus!
London Underground still operates Central Line services between Epping and the City. At Epping station, there is no room for heritage rail services so there are a number of other ways to get to North Weald station. We opted to travel from Epping station on board a heritage London Transport bus. I feel this was very appropriate given the Epping Onger’s railway history.
We boarded former London transport bus RTL 1076. This is the Leyland chassis version of London Transport’s RT class of bus, the forerunner of the more famous Routemaster.
Of course, on a double-decker bus you have to travel ‘up top’! Just prior to departure the conductor and his trainee arrived to collect fares. The conductor was great fun and pretended to be grumpy. As part of the banter we asked him to throw one of our number off the bus. He duly got hold of the unfortunates collar and pretended to lift him out of the seat – much hilarity!
RTL 1076 entered service with London Transport in December 1950. It was allocated to the old tram depot at Clapham but withdrawn in the 1960s. Exported many years ago to Prince Edward Island, it was eventually repatriated in April 2010 (reference Ian’s bus stop for this information).
The Epping Ongar Railway is very well-organized. We were able to purchase a combined bus-rail ticket from the conductor. This turned out to be an Edmonson ticket. We arrived at North Weald railway station and Routemaster RM 1993 was in station forecourt. Alighting from the RTL1076, Luke Knott introduced himself and offered us a tour of the railway workshop. Luke is an apprentice fitter and has also been a volunteer at the railway for five years.
We were shown a DMU vehicle and Luke outlined the work in progress including bodywork repairs and a bare metal repaint. Alongside was the camshaft from the engine of the railways Class 205 ‘Thumper’ unit which is currently being overhauled.
The shed also contained Class 47 47635 (built as D1606 at Crewe Works in 1964) sporting a large BR logo and Inverness depot stag emblems.
Stabled outside was GWR pannier 6430 on loan from the Llangollen Railway but not being used on the day of our visit it as it was designated a Diesel Gala.
After thanking Luke for his informative tour of the workshops we made our way to the platforms. Here Class 03 diesel mechanical shutter 03170 (formally D2170) was giving cab rides. This was one of the last remaining 03’s in BR service, withdrawn in 1989.
Shortly afterwards our train for arrived hauled by class 37 D6729 (TOPS number 37029) It is restored to its original BR green livery with half yellow front. Although it is great to see these locos in different liveries reflecting the longevity of the class, I think the livery carried by D6729 is the one most suited to these locomotives.
We had a glorious run through the countryside and arrived at the delightful Ongar station in bright sunshine. The signal box at Ongar was taken from Spelbrook and is an original great Eastern Railway signalbox. D6729 was detached and moved into the run around loop while class 31 31438 (formerly D5557) was coupled up on the other end ready for the return to North Weald and Epping. A BR blue Class 31 with blue grey carriages did make me reminiscent for the workings along the East Coast Main Line on the Great Northern suburban area in the late 1960s to early 1970s. I enjoyed this marvelous recreation on this railway.
The Great Eastern Railway built station is definitely worth a look round. One of the station volunteers Stuart Gibbard told us some of the history. He explained that the temporary shed was the site of the original Great Eastern Railway shed. After a friendly chat with the driver of 31438, we watched its departure. It really was like stepping back decades. I liked the mixture of blue grey with maroon coaches which typified the formations of the mid 1960’s to early 1970’s.
Class 20 Locomotive
The stock for our return trip was brought in by Class 20 8001 which is owned by the Class 20 Locomotive Society visiting from the Midland Railway at Butterley. We departed behind D6729 back to North Weald. We decided we should pay extra and have a cab ride to Epping on the class 37.
I hadn’t had a cab ride on one of these loco since the early 1980’s. At that time a group of us from the CM&EE London Midland Region at Nelson Street, Derby visited the West Highland line. Our Scottish colleagues at the CM&EE Scottish Region in Buchanan House arranged for each of us to take it in turns to ride in the cab of a Class 37 on a service train, swapping over at stations on route. On departure, the method of driving was to open the power controller slightly just to get the train moving whereupon it was opened right up. The incredible thing is that although the engine was at ‘full chat’ we were only doing about 30mph or less. The geography of the line consisted of many tight turns on gradients necessitating the full power of the loco.
D6729 didn’t have such a taxing situation on the Epping Ongar line though! We trundled gently over a tree-lined route to within a few hundred yards of London Underground Epping station. If you look carefully in the above picture you will see the ‘Permanent Stop Board’ and just beyond it a sleeper chained across the rails to protect Epping London Underground station which is not far round the corner.
Taking a ‘PNB’
On our return to North Weald it was time for a ‘PNB’ – in railway parlance a ‘personal needs break’. We visited the catering tent to buy food and drink and enjoyed friendly banter with the catering volunteers. It was a pleasant experience to watch the trains arriving and departing whilst consuming refreshments. 03170 was still providing cab rides as well, so there was lots to see.
This was my first visit to the Epping Ongar Railway and it certainly won’t be my last. All of the volunteers we met were most welcoming and the railway is a delight.
We rode on a London Transport country area bus RT 1700 resplendent in Lincoln green livery to return to Epping station. It was a perfect end to a perfect day.