A Brief History of the Epping Ongar Railway
Below is a shortened version of the interesting history of the Epping Ongar Railway. During your visit don't forget to pick up a copy of our informative Guide Book for only £2.50 from our Ticket Offices or Gift Shop (also available via mail order), which has a complete history following over 3 years research undertaken by the railway's General Manager.
In 1856 The Eastern Counties Railway (ECR), which later became part of the Great Eastern Railway (GER) opened a double track railway between Stratford and Loughton. A single-track extension between Loughton and Ongar was added in 1865. Increased usage on the line led to the building of double track between Loughton and Epping. At this point 50 trains operated between London and Loughton each day, with a further 22 continuing to Epping and 14 more to Ongar.
We have recently acquired some glass plate negatives which were stored at the Essex Records Office. They were taken by a Fred Spalding in the 1920's. Thanks go to Graham Rowlands and The Essex Records Office for allowing us to display these images on the site.
New Works Plan
The London Passenger Transport Board, later to become London Transport (LT) was established in 1933. Between 1935 and 1940 LT and mainline rail companies, with input from the government implemented their New Works Programme. This was a huge scheme, which aimed to, amongst other things, electrify main line track and work together to reduce costs to companies and provide an improved service. - At this point it should be noted that the government did not support the plans to electrify track. Under this scheme the Fairlop loop of the Central line was built.
During the Second World War (1939-45) extensions to the Central line were postponed and service between Ongar and London reduced to seven trains per day.
In 1946 the Central line extension reached Leytonstone, and in 1947 progressed to Woodford. It finally reached Loughton in 1948. A steam shuttle service continued to run from Loughton to Ongar and a passing loop was put in at North Weald the following year to allow more trains to operate. Following nationalisation of the railways in 1948 individual assets of the main line rail companies and LT were transferred to the control of new executive bodies. The London Transport Executive (LTE) was the inheritor of the former LT assets and as the line from Leyton to Loughton was served by LT trains the track, stations and staff were transferred to them. Questions arose about what was to happen to the service between Loughton and Ongar. The government initially resisted the electrification of the line however, the arrival of new housing in the area allowed electrification of the track through to Epping. The Central line officially reached Epping in 1949. LTE also took control of the branch line to Ongar, and hired the steam shuttle from the Eastern regions railways.
Improving the Branch Line
During the 1950's attempts were made to improve the steam service between Epping and Ongar. It was eventually decided to give the line light electrification: this avoided the need for a sub station at Blake Hall. Modification was made to the rail and signals in 1957 allowing two 4-car trains or one 8-car trains to run on the branch line, however, in practice the short platform length made the use of the 8-car train unworkable. A twenty-minute passenger service was offered between Epping and Ongar, although freight service continued to run on steam.
Decline of the Line
Due to reduced passenger numbers Blake Hall station was closed on Sundays and a reduced weekday timetable implemented from 17th October 1966. In the same year Central line 1962 stock replaced the two 4-car trains on the branch line. Continued decline in passenger numbers led to the decommissioning of the passing loop and signal box at North Weald in 1976, and complete closure of Blake Hall station on 31st October 1981. A reduced service operated on the rest of the branch line. In 1989 an attempt was made to run an all-day service. It was unsuccessful and London Transport closed the loss-making section on 30th September 1994.
Shortly after 1994 a private company 'Pilot Developments' purchased the Epping to Ongar section of the line. Despite assurances that they would run a passenger service within five years of the purchase, no trains ran. In the early part of the new millennium The Epping Ongar Railway Volunteer Society (EORVS) was formed. Initially, this consisted of a small group of enthusiasts, volunteering their time to repair and preserve, damage and wear and tear, to the neglected buildings and track. Working alongside the owners the volunteer group gradually restored the line and station building at Ongar so that trains could run once again and provide a passenger service to North Weald. On 10th October 2004, almost ten years to the day since the line closed, the first EORVS train service left Ongar at 11am. EORVS operated five train services every Sunday until December 2007.
A change in ownership occurred late in 2007. It was decided to cease running trains and to concentrate on improving the infrastructure both to enable locomotive hauled trains to once again run, and to secure the long term future of the branch. All these infrastructure improvements have been planned with our "Strategic Plan" in mind, and many are putting in place important parts to enable a future service to Epping.
Both Ongar and North Weald Stations have seen long over-due investments in their infrastructure as we undertake an authentic restoration of the branch:
The trackwork through the whole station was renewed and realigned, both to the correct height for the platforms and to reinstate the original track layout with access into the yard, run-round and locomotive shed. The Cattle Dock and Milk Platforms still remain, as does the main station building and outbuildings which has been repainted in GER colours (1880-1930's). Ongar is the only original operational GER station in GER colours!
The previous Good Yards area (wasteland for many years) was purchased by David Wilson Homes who have built a small collection of houses. This does not affect our ability to run trains and the main station site remains in place, with heritage trains running from here to North Weald.
Inside the original 1865 station, the rooms have been reinstated to their original layouts, including removing newer partition walls, and opening up original doorways and fireplaces. The Parcels Office has become "The Buffet Stop" cafe complete with history boards on the walls, and the Gents Waiting Room a Gift Shop. The station has been completely rewired, and fitted with period style lights to replace the LT surface ducting and florescent fittings. The volunteers were delighted to have won the "Volunteers Award" at the National Railway Heritage Awards Dec 2012.
A signalbox (formally from Spellbrook) has been brought to the railway, and installed at Ongar to safely control and signal the layout. This has been sited at the end of the main platform, and restored, complete with the original signal frame (donated by ORPS). A water tower will also be built to the original style, on or very close to its original foundations to provide water for the steam engines.
In addition to the main platform, the milk dock is being restored into a bay platform (Platform 2) which will be ideal for diesel multiple units, and just to the north of the old cattle dock will become Platform 1. There may also be space for improved refreshment and shop facilities to be built in future years when funds allow.
North Weald has been repainted in LNER / BR (E) (1940s-1960s) colours.
The track for nearly 600m has been renewed, with the track height being corrected for UK standard stock, and provision of points and track re-laid through the original Platform 1 (Up loop), and as well as into the bay platform. This 2-coach bay platform has been restored (Sept 2013) for passenger use, to enable 3 operational platforms to be used at North Weald.
Thanks to the signalling connected to the original 1888 signalbox, both Platform 1 and 2 are fitted for bi-directional working (trains can arrive / depart from either platform in either direction), and we have retained the King Lever so the signalbox can easily switch out when it is not required. The signalling and revised track layouts also enable access to improved siding facilities and enable safer and more efficient shunting.
Inside the station, the rooms have been comprehensively restored, a 1980s ticket machine room removed to open up the waiting room to its original layout, and extensive restoration in the Ladies Waiting Room, Toilets and Ticket Office. The station has been completely rewired, and fitted with period style lights to replace the LT surface ducting and florescent fittings. Disabled access ramps have been installed to both Platforms 1 and 2.
The original concrete footbridge at North Weald had become unsafe, and is in the process of being replaced by a GER latticework example, which was saved from further down the Central Line near Woodford. This was kindly donated by ORPS, and new access steps from both platforms need to be fabricated, which will occur when funds allow.
ALL of the essential infrastructure improvements (both track, signalling and rolling stock) that have and continue to be undertaken help to widen the variety and frequency of heritage services, and are all key parts towards our central goal - to once again run trains to connect at Epping; both as we preserve our transport heritage and to enable us to run services for the wider benefit of the local community, restoring this important link in our transport network.
Photographs reproduced with kind permission of: R Casserley, H Casserley, M. Covey-Crump and D.Kelley