A strategically significant 11-mile stretch of London main line became the first victim of HS2 on Friday (7 December 2018) when train 2M29, the 11.35 Chiltern Railways service from London Paddington to High Wycombe, became the last scheduled service to travel over the Acton to Northolt line, a route running alongside the London Underground’s Central line and extending from Old Oak Common to South Ruislip.
This former inter-city route that once carried crack Great Western Railway expresses from Paddington to Birmingham (Snow Hill), Wolverhampton (Low Level) and Birkenhead (Woodside) has survived in recent years as a diversionary route, for use when engineering work closed Marylebone station, occasional freight and stock turning moves, as well route of the famous weekday ghost train.
That ghost train, which was even the subject of a Rail Accident Investigation Branch report in 2014 when a northbound service had somehow failed to stop at two of Greenford East’s semaphore signals set at danger, has seen a Chiltern Railways unit run largely unnoticed from South Ruislip into platform 14 Paddington for the past few years, before returning a few minutes later and, for the past two years, running non-stop to High Wycombe.
It seldom carried any passengers and was run to
sustain the route knowledge of Chiltern Railways crews for those occasional diversions to Paddington. Travelling on it two years ago, in December 2016, I had been the only passenger in the southbound direction, but was joined by one other person for the return to West Ruislip (its then destination).
All was rather different on Friday when, to mark its demise, Chiltern Railways had thoughtfully inserted additional stops in the northbound trip at South Ruislip (12.00), Gerrards Cross (12.10) and Beaconsfield (12.17) for those wishing to make a sentimental last journey.
I counted 140 passengers on the in-bound service, operated by three-car unit 165038, while aboard the 11.35 departure from Paddington there were a total of 192 passengers, according to the helpful Chiltern Railways guard, who made a loudspeaker announcement as we pulled out of Paddington, thanking everyone for their support of the ghost train over the years.
Chiltern’s final Paddington departure was also announced at the station, where instead of being hidden away on platform 14, it was given pride of place in platform one. The atmosphere on board felt celebratory, rather than funereal, and after leaving the main line west of Old Oak Common we made good progress, passing the famous Greenford East Signal Box at 11.55 after a signal check and reaching South Ruislip just one minute late, at 12.01.
But this is not the end of Chiltern Railways’ ghost train operation. From Monday (10 December) there will still be a mid-morning departure from South Ruislip (11.02), but instead of Paddington it will head non-stop down the Greenford branch line to West Ealing (arriving at 11.20) then returning at 11.47 and running non-stop to High Wycombe (12.27).
So, while most of the former New North Main Line is being sadly lost in the name of progress, the revised service will at least have the distinction of being the only scheduled passenger service to operate between South Ruislip and Greenford South Junction.