The Latchmere Curve makes its presence known in two ways. Firstly, it is one of those clunky railway bends trains must take slowly. Secondly, its existence necessitates one of the most ridiculous train schedules in Britain – highlighting how rail travellers are entangled in regulations which are relics from the Victorian era.
Yesterday, Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond proclaimed the benefits of HS2, the proposed high-speed line between London, the Midlands and northern England, which could nearly double the number of services to some destinations. But Britain's railway network is still labouring under 19th-century practices – resulting in pointless trains running to satisfy arcane legislation.
Every morning, commuters at Shepherd's Bush overground station in west London are warned that the 9.23am departure is different from the usual southbound trains. Instead of heading for Clapham Junction or East Croydon, it is destined for Wandsworth Road – near Victoria.
The one-way fare of £1.80 buys 15 minutes of rail travel, climaxing in the Latchmere Curve just before the destination. This quarter-mile stretch of railway, passing derelict buildings, scruffy undergrowth and some curious caravans, connects the West London Line with the main line south from Victoria.
The link was used for many years by Intercity expresses heading for the South Coast. When these services ended, the procedure for officially closing the Latchmere Curve was deemed so demanding it would be cheaper and easier to run a "ghost" service. For a while, the rail link was replaced by a once-a-day bus link between Ealing Broadway and Wandsworth Road, which was not advertised as a passenger-carrying service. There is now a revenue-earning train supplied by Southern, but the handful of passengers using the service contribute only a tiny fraction of the operating costs.
The absurdity of the "Latchmere Local" is demonstrated by the fact it runs only southbound. It is one of a number of "Parliamentary Trains" which serve no purpose other than to avoid cumbersome legal processes. The term was coined in the railway era, when politicians insisted at least one train a day offered fixed low fares. The railway companies often provided the service at an antisocial hour to discourage use.
Other examples include the once-a-week service from Stockport to Stalybridge in Greater Manchester, and a train from Lancaster to Windermere via Morecambe.
A variant of the "Parliamentary Train" is a station served rarely – such as Durham Tees Valley Airport. If you miss the 10.20 this morning from Darlington to the airport, the next train is in a week.
When I travelled on the "Latchmere Local" this week, commuters seemed confused: some inadvertently boarded the service and others tried to board the train at its terminus, convinced it must be going to London Bridge.
Buses in some rural areas also run so rarely they test the limits of the term "public transport".
Commuters in the Suffolk villages of Southolt and Bedingfield endure a service to Bury St Edmunds, which runs only twice a month. But the prize for the least useful transport link in Britain goes to the W13 bus from Milton Keynes to the Bedfordshire village of Henlow, which is timetabled to run only in the rare months in which there are five Tuesdays.Reuse content