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Ghost Train: West London Parliamentary Train

A ride on a UK ghost train, soon to be exorcised.

rain 13 °C

I have just turned 42 years old. Now, now, no need for the wailing. It’s not so bad. I find that I don’t wring my hands with worry and anxiousness too much about birthdays now I am in my 40s. In your 20s, your birthday is a cause of celebration. In your 30s, its about reflection and disappointment at the years slipping away with goals unachieved. In your 40s, expectations lifted, you are who you are going to be, likely, so you just roll with it. Or, more likely, you have kids and have to focus on their birthdays.

No kids for me, so just the freedom of not worrying about my birthday.

That is not to say I let the day pass unmarked. No, my hangover this morning is testament to the fact the day was celebrated with beer, gin, tequila and an ill-advised sambuca. The day was marked, and will be remembered. Other than the very last part of the night, which I struggle to remember now.

However, before the drinking... at least the heavy drinking... I fulfilled a bit of my inner-train-geekiness and rode a GHOST TRAIN!

<insert scary noises here>

Okay, it wasn’t actually an apparition of the Flying Scotsman rumbling down the tracks, nor even a train filled with the ghosts of long dead conductors. It was a Parliamentary Train.

A Parliamentary Train, while sounding quite grand - filled with MPs in plush carriages riding on secret railways to a station under the Parliament buildings - is in fact just a regular passenger train. These trains are just not run frequently, nor very well publicised, nor even really sensible.

In the Railway Regulation Act of 1844, the government of the day made it a legal requirement to provide passenger service along every railway line in the country. Not just between two stations, but on every single mile of track. To stop providing service on a train line, a train company and the government need to go through a very lengthy consultation process.

To get around this requirement in a crafty legal way, certain trains are run at very low intervals, just to provide service on a length of track. These trains, sometime running as infrequently as once a week, are called Parliamentary Trains, in reference to the act of Parliament which made these a requirement, though sometimes they are known in general chatter as ghost trains (mostly by the tabloids, who love to claim they are a sign of government waste. Government waste and sponging MPs is the third favourite topic of the tabloid newspapers, right behind how immigrants are ruining everything, and how fat or skinny celebrities are).

In West London, there is one such train. Running once a day in each direction between Kensington Olympia station and Wandsworth Road or Clapham High Street Station, the West London Parliamentary Train is in service to ensure that a passenger train runs over a small section of track on a branch connecting the train line into Victoria Station with the train line into Waterloo with the train line running round the edge of London on the west side. It’s probably no more than a couple 100 feet of otherwise unused(*) track along some of the busiest train lines in the country.

(*) Unused in the sense of no scheduled passenger service. The line itself is well used by freight traffic, charter services and to facilitate the movement of trains between their regular routes and maintenance yards.

2012-10-19..rn_Rail_Map.jpg

So this once a day service runs, 20 minutes from Clapham High Street to Kensington Olympia, even though there are multiple options that could do the same journey (with a change) in 35 minutes. The service is of little use to anyone, unless they happen to be there at the exact time the train is going, and is travelling between the few specific stations that this train services.

Or, you are a train spotter or other rail geek, and want to go on a strange, little ride.

Even though the consultation process is lengthy, it sometimes is determined it is worth doing. For this particular line, because a new service is about to open that will use some (though not all) of the line and therefore the train companies can free up the line. Come December 8th, the service will no longer run.

The opportunity to ride a ghost train, and one that is soon to be discontinued. Well, that was too good for me to pass up.

So, half day of work off for my birthday, I decided to treat myself, and planned for a trip on the 16:11 departure from Clapham High Street station to Kensington (Olympia), calling at Wandsworth Road, Imperial Wharf and West Brompton.

I left my house and headed towards Clapham High Street from my house near Clapham Junction station. I caught the 345 bus towards Peckham, which handily drops me right off in front of Clapham High Street Station.

It was a very rainy and grey London day, wet and dull when I arrived at Clapham High Street station.

2012_10_19..eet_Station.jpg

I arrived about 5 minutes to four o'clock. I looked at the departure board, and saw the 16:11 to Kensington (Olympia) listed as the 2nd service. The 15:58 to Victoria came and went, and the 16:11 service moved up to 1st on the departures board for platform 2.

I had been told that sometimes these trains don’t appear on the departure board, or are not announced, to try and keep people off them. Whether this is to keep up the pretence of the service not being needed in the event of a consultation, or simply because people could be confused about the destination, I don’t know. Surely if you arrived at Clapham High Street Station, which other than this one service only has trains going to Victoria Station, you could accidentally jump on this train without realising it isn’t going where you are expecting. However, this one seemed well advertised.

2012_10_19.._to_Olympia.jpg

I was meeting a couple of people at the station who were interested in riding the train, though I had only exchanged emails with them, and so we were meeting sight unseen. Having bent over to grab the above picture, I heard behind me a voice say, "you must be Greg." I turned around to see one of the people I was meeting coming up the stairs to the platform.

"Indeed I am," I said. He explained that he guessed that someone taking a photo of a train schedule wasn't your average commuter. The third in our party arrived shortly, and we waited patiently for our train to roll in.

Having heard that the doors only open very briefly on these trains, we made sure we were close to one of the doors once the train came to a stop, and I quickly hit the "door open" button. Luckily we had no trouble getting on, and were joined by a few other people who looked to be commuters rather than people there to experience a soon to be discontinued parliamentary train journey.

I commute from Clapham Junction into Victoria every working day, so the train itself was pretty familiar - a standard Southern commuter train.

2012_10_19..in_interior.jpg

Wandsworth Road station is where we pulled into next for a brief stop. The doors go in and out of service very quickly on these trains, only being active for about 30 seconds. A few people jumped on at Wandsworth Road station, but the train remained for the most part empty.

Next up was the unusual bit, where the train departed from the main line up towards Battersea Park and Victoria, and instead took the cord off over Factory Junction and Latchmere Junction No. 1.

Quite a grey day, which meant there wasn't great views of much. However, living in the area, I was pretty sure there isn't much of a view we were missing.

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There was a short delay as we sat on the track, part of a delay built into the schedule. We soon enough rolled on, passing not far from my house, and joining the line up towards Chelsea.

We crossed over a swollen-looking Thames, and pulled into Imperial Wharf. This station was busier than either Clapham High Street or Wandsworth Road, and we had a few people getting on, then upon hearing the announcement that the train was only going as far as Olympia, about half of them quickly jumped back off again.

The train passed by Chelsea's football grounds, quickly called at West Brompton and passed by the soon to be redeveloped Earl's Court before continuing to its final stop, Kensington (Olympia).

2012_10_19_Train_Exterior.jpg

It was a short trip, but interesting. For me, beside for soothing the inner-train-geek in me, it provided a few other interesting points. First, we past close by my current house in Battersea, and ended up departing at Kensington Olympia, about a 5 minute walk from where I previously lived in London. Secondly, living near Clapham Junction, I often take the London Overground Service. Much of the service we took (From Latchmere junction through to Imperial Wharf to Kensington Olympia) is covered by the existing Overground service from Clapham Junction to Willesden Junction. And most of the part that isn't covered by the existing Overground service (Clapham High Street to Wandsworth Road and then to Factory Junction) will soon be covered by the new southern loop of the Overground. This new service starts in December, and is one of the prime factors in closing this route. It is, in essence, a preview for me of additional transport options coming to my part of town. (In fact, we saw an Overground train in trials on this route while waiting at Clapham High Street station).

After the journey, our party decided to have a celebratory drink (part of the many layers of booze that brought on my aforementioned hangover), and as a former local, I suggested a local pub. Jumping ahead, turns out the pub had turned into an Italian restaurant, and while they had beer on tap, no real ale, which would have seemed more fitting for a day of train spotting. Can’t say we were typical train spotters, though, as none of us had beards nor were wearing an anorak. But that is jumping ahead in the story, we were still at the station.

We watched for a moment as confused train patrons thought about boarding the train, now going out of service, but were turned away by the announcements from the staff. Umbrellas up, we headed off into the rainy London afternoon towards the pub. I took one last look back at the train, now pulling away, out of service and off to the yard, and watched as it disappeared into the light rain down the line.

Ghost train, disappearing slowly into the mist.

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Posted by GregW 20.10.2012 10:24 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged trains train_travel

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