The Holden F5s operated regularly on the Epping and Ongar railway and were the locomotives used during the last days of steam operation in 1957. London Underground closed the branch in 1994 – the hope remains that it will re-open as a preserved railway in the near future. This is the motivation for the building of a replica F5.
The Eastern Counties Railway reached Loughton in 1856. The new line diverged from the Stratford – Tottenham Hale route at Loughton North Junction and close to the site of what was to become Temple Mills yard. Stations were built at Leyton, Leytonstone, Snaresbrook, South Woodford, Woodford and Buckhurst Hill. At this time the land around the line was mostly undeveloped.
The towns of Epping and Ongar were targets of further extension but construction had to wait until the ECR was absorbed into the GER. The line to Epping and Ongar was completed in 1865. The 11-mile single-track line opened on Monday 24th April 1865. The station at Loughton was re-located; the old site became sidings and was for many years used as a coal yard. Stations were built at Chigwell Road (now Debden), Theydon, Epping, North Weald, Blake Hall and Ongar.
Most services ran only as far as Loughton, however Ongar was soon enjoying up to 14 daily trains to London. The Loughton – Epping section was doubled in 1892. Coal, general goods and even milk made an important contribution to traffic. Ongar station was laid out as a through station – extensions beyond Ongar, to Dunmow or back to the GER mainline at Chelmsford were contemplated but never acted upon. By the 1930s overcrowding was becoming a major problem for the services into Liverpool Street. Various solutions were considered, however, the LNER lacked the financial resources for major investment. Local rail users proposed an extension of the Central line to Eastern Avenue. The LNER proposed a straightforward overhead electrification of the line to Sheffield and the Fairlop loop. Investigation showed that both schemes would be loss making. A subsidy could not be agreed. A compromise was agreed with the Central line taking over the Fairlop loop and the line to Loughton. The future of the Loughton to Ongar section was not considered at this stage.
The compromise solution was included in the 1935 New Works Programme. Construction of the extension began in 1936. A new line in was to be built from Liverpool Street to Leyton via stations Bethnal Green, Mile End and Stratford. This was to mostly be in tunnel. At Stratford the line would rise briefly to the surface to allow cross platform interchange with local services. Another pair of short tunnels linked Stratford to the existing line just to the south of Leyton Station. A third section of tunnel would link Leytonstone with the Fairlop loop at Newbury Park. A new depot to service the increased number of trains was to open at Hainault. The work was scheduled for completion by the end of 1941.
The work was of course delayed by the outbreak of World War II. Electric train services were extended gradually reaching Stratford in 1946, Leytonstone and Woodford during 1947, Hainault and Loughton in 1948 and Epping in 1949.
Full-scale electrification to Ongar with through services to London was at one stage contemplated. However in the post-war era resources were not unlimited. In addition post-war planning had established the “greenbelt” to check the outward spread of London with future growth scheduled for the “new towns” further away from the capital. Suburban development around the eastern end of the Central Line would now be restricted.
Nevertheless a new platform at North Weald and changes to the track layout at Ongar allowed a 20-minute service frequency to be implemented in 1949. Services were now operated by a small fleet of push-pull equipped F5s (No’s 67193,67200,67202,67203 and 67213). However it was to be another 9 years (18 November 1957 – Epping – Ongar) before the electric trains reached Ongar. Initially the Ongar-Epping services were operated by the two-car 1935 stock prototype unit.
Some freight services to the many goods yards at stations along the line remained the responsibility of British Railways and were operated by J15 0-6-0 steam locomotives. Freight services were withdrawn from North Weald in 1964 and Blake Hall and Ongar in 1966.
The 1970s were a difficult era for London Transport. Cost rose rapidly whilst usage was declining. The 1969 Transport Act had transferred control of London Transport to the GLC. However the lines north of Woodford were in Essex. Essex County Council was reluctant to provide additional subsidy. Passenger levels on the Ongar section were also very light. London Transport first considered closure in 1970. Essex County council agreed to provide a subsidy provided that costs were cut. The service frequency was halved. As a result the passing loop at North Weald was no longer required and was removed in 1978.
In the late 1970s it again seemed likely that the line would close and a preservation group was formed. Fares also increased dramatically following the “Fares Fair” confrontation between the GLC and central government. Increasing car ownership, the need to change trains and the journey times on trains designed for short journeys all discouraged traffic. However the line survived, restricted from 1981 to peak hour operation only. Blake Hall station used by literally a handful of passengers was closed in November 1981. The station building remains as a private residence though the platform was later demolished. A brief attempt was made to promote the service and an all day service was operated for a while. However, by the early 1990s usage had fallen to as low as 100 passengers per day. The service was making a loss of £184,000pa or around £7 per passenger journey. In addition it was reported that the line would need £4m of maintenance to remain in operation. London Underground applied for permission to close the line. This was granted and closure came on 30th September 1994.
However this was not the end of the story. ORPS (Ongar Railway Preservation Society) had already formed and established good relations with London Underground. Notably this had allowed restoration of the disused North Weald signal box even before the line had closed.
It therefore came as a bitter and unexpected blow in April 1996 when a new organization Pilot Developments emerged as LUL’s “preferred bidder” proposing to operate both commuter services and a heritage attraction. The motives of the new bidder came under suspicion. How could a profit making business operate a loss making railway line? Further concerns were raised by the alleged lack of railway experience of the new operators. Pilot offered ORPS the opportunity operate heritage steam trains for a fee, it proved impossible to reach an agreement. Sale of the railway to Pilot was completed in September 1998.
Pilot began to gather rolling stock at Ongar. Two four-car units of 1962 stock were propelled to Ongar by battery locos in the autumn of 1996; the 10-vehicle train was probably the longest to have ever visited the branch! However, power cables and conductor rails were removed – restoring electric traction would now be very expensive. Heavily vandalised the 1962 stock was latter scrapped. A collection of 5ft gauge steam locomotives and carriages later arrived from Finland.
The following year Pilot pledged to have services operating by Easter 2000. A timetable was published. However though Carlton TVs series in Summer 2000 on the Underground showed a DMU in action on the line between Ongar and North Weald no public trains ever ran. The re-opening was reported as postponed; difficulties centred on access to Epping station. Central Line services now regularly use both platforms at Epping.
More recently further cars of 1962 Stock have arrived at Ongar – and then been scrapped whilst the DMU cars at Ongar have been advertised for sale. Further negotiations have failed to resolve the situation, although the EOR website states the intention of resuming services at Easter 2004. Meanwhile during 2003 other proposals for improving public transport in South – West Essex have included a wholly new railway line from Chelmsford to Stansted via Ongar or even re-opening Epping – Ongar as a guided busway have surfaced!
To find out more about ORPS visit their website.
Cravens Heritage Trains has leased the signal cabin at Epping and plan to restore it to 1940s condition.
For the latest local news coverage visit the West Essex Gazette
Great Eastern In Town & Country Vol. 3, Peter Kay, Irwell Press 1996 and London’s Local Railways, Alan A Jackson, Capital, 1998 provide further information on the history of railways to Loughton, Epping and Ongar.