Take a trip out of London on a West Ruislip-bound Central Line service and for a lengthy part of the journey – from North Action to South Ruislip – a little used and partly single track railway line runs alongside, and there are even a clutch of mechanically-worked semaphore signals to be seen as the tube train approaches Greenford station.
This is what was once grandly known as the New North Main Line, but is now less glamorously known as the Acton to Northolt line, running for a total distance of 11 miles from just west of Old Oak Common depot on the Great Western Main Line to a junction with the Chiltern Railways route from London Marylebone at South Ruislip.
What was once a major inter-city route, that was built by the Great Western and Great Central Railways, opening in 1903 to provide faster access to London for expresses from places like Birmingham and Birkenhead, is today a strangely neglected part of the UK’s rail network, used as a diversionary route, for the occasional turning of GWR’s HST fleet and by a solitary Chiltern Railways passenger train on weekdays only.
Like other “Parliamentary” or “ghost trains”, the 10.57 South Ruislip to Paddington and 11.36 return to South Ruislip and West Ruislip is not actually run for the benefit of passengers, but merely to sustain the route knowledge of Chiltern Railways crews and to avoid the huge cost of trying to implement a formal closure of the line to passenger services.
So for a bit of one-upmanship, those with a penchant for unusual railway journeys will not be disappointed if they turn up on Platform 3 at South Ruislip at around 10.30 on a weekday morning, when a two-coach Chiltern Railways Class 166/6 unit will be standing waiting to take you in splendid isolation on a sedate 14-mile, 26-minute trip to London Paddington.
My Monday morning journey on the 10.57 from South Ruislip in early December 2016 was probably typical of this curious service. There were three members of crew – a guard and two people in the driver’s cab, but I was the only passenger. The journey was rather sedate, but did offer the chance to see the remains of the second track between Northolt and Greenford – the route was largely singled in the early 1990s – and the fine collection of lower quadrant semaphore signals operated by Greenford East Signal Box.
Despite our rather slow progress for much of the trip, a good run on the main line in from Old Oak Common meant we made our unheralded arrival into platform 14 at Paddington four minutes ahead of our scheduled 11.23 arrival. The return was a good deal faster – and the passenger count had doubled to two – and with none of the signal and speed check encountered on the London-bound journey, we were back at South Ruislip at 11.57, nine minutes ahead of the scheduled time of 12.06.
Travelling on this token service bring home to you what a wasted asset this line really is. Marylebone station lacks capacity to handle the growing number of services it caters for and the double track from there to South Ruislip does not allow for anything like a regular service at the intermediate stations. Paddington will have more capacity once Crossrail trains stop using the terminus platforms in 2018, so surely there is a case for re-doubling and making far more use of the New North Main Line?