There's life in the old track yet

London Underground is trying to sell a redundant piece of its network. David Bowen reports
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The Independent Online
LAST Tuesday, an unusual advertisement appeared in the Financial Times. "Epping to Ongar Line," it said. "A serious commercial opportunity." London Underground is, for the first time, offering part of its network for sale. A line that everyone assumed had gone forever may come back to life.

It might also mark the start of the privatisation of London Underground: if by chance the Conservatives win the next election, insiders believe LU would be high on the privatisation list. It made an operating profit - of pounds 128m- for the first time in two decades in the financial year to the end of March.

The big question on Epping to Ongar is whether a commercial operator will make a pitch for the six miles of single track tacked on to the eastern end of the Central Line. Before it closed last September, it was carrying fewer than 80 passengers a day. A London Underground spokesman says this is because Essex villagers chose to drive to Epping and get the Central Line there.

But London Underground believes it may be possible to find a buyer - perhaps a commercial operator who would run the line on weekdays and turn it over to a "hobby operator" for weekends. It could also be revived purely as an attraction. A company with theme park interests, such as Pearson, might be interested.

Another possibility is that someone intending to bid for BR franchises, for example a bus operator, might buy the line to practise running trains. Chris Jack- son, deputy editor of Railway Gazette, is doubtful. "It's been run down so badly I would be surprised if anyone bids for it," he says. If the bidding process fails to stir interest, LU is likely to let an enthusiasts' group take it over. The Ongar Railway Preservation Society is standing by to do just that.

The line has always been one of Britain's oddball railways. It was opened by the Great Eastern Railway in 1865 as part of an overground line that ran from Ongar to London.

When the Central Line reached Epping in 1949, London Transport took over the six-mile stretch. As it was not electrified, passengers still had to change to a steam train to get to Ongar.

The push-pull puffers were a curiosity that did not disappear until 1957, when the track was finally electrified and underground trains were introduced. But passengers still had to change at Epping on to special two- or three- car trains: the power supply was not strong enough to run full-sized trains.

At its peak in 1971, 750 passengers were making the return trip. But even then the track was hardly an economic proposition although the staff did their utmost to drum up business. In 1965, an Ongar station foreman bought five (harmless) European scorpions in a Camden pet shop and let them loose in his goods yard. This formed the basis of one of the few scorpion colonies in Britain, which became an attraction. The staff kept quiet about its real origins, and encouraged speculation that it arrived in a banana van in the 1860s.

When the line closed, it was losing pounds 7 on each return trip. But the Department of Transport told LU it could close it only if it offered it for sale within three years. Under the Private Finance Initiative, the Government is trying to inject private money into infrastructure projects, and is also keen to raise any funds it can from its redundant assets.

In contrast to the British Rail sale, this deal would involve one company buying the entire track and buildings. It would then have to provide its own rolling stock: London Underground says it would be prepared to supply electricity only to a "serious railway provider" that could match its maintenance standards. Anyone else would either have to find another power source or use diesel or steam (in which case it would have to lower the track under the M11 bridge, which is high enough only for a tube train).

The Ongar Railway Preservation Society has been looking after the track and is keeping its fingers crossed that no commercial bidder comes forward. "If it cannot find a commercial buyer, it will be allowed to offer it to a preservation society," ORPS's Bob Yeldham says. It has bought the last three-car set, called the Craven set, to run on the line. This is the first time London Underground has sold a train. The society would like to take over the line, first under a lease then by buying it, so that it can run the Craven electric set on the part of the line that passes under the M11, and a steam train on the other half.

The London Underground system has had few closures. The Aldwych to Holborn spur of the Piccadilly Line closed at the same time as Epping to Ongar; before that the last closure was in 1959, when a spur in Acton was shut.

The real costs of running a low-frequency railway are demonstrated by the Preservation Society. It is running the Craven set between Grange Hill and Epping, and is charging pounds 15 for a ticket. Trains leave Grange hill at 10.38 and 13.23, and Epping at 11.53 and 14.31.