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Feature: Havering's lifeline rail service, the Liverpool Street to Shenfield line

PUBLISHED: 14:00 25 January 2013

Romford station in the 19th century (picture courtesy of Brian Evans)

Romford station in the 19th century (picture courtesy of Brian Evans)

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Signal failures, faulty cables, engineering works, snow, offensive graffiti, disorderly passengers - it feels like every other day trains on Havering's lifeline rail service are delayed or cancelled.

June 4, 1910: The new embankments for Squirrels Heath and Gidea Park Station are complete. The station name was reversed in late 1913 to read Gidea Park and Squirrels Heath Station. The name 'Squirrels Heath' disappeared later (photo courtesy of Brian Evans)June 4, 1910: The new embankments for Squirrels Heath and Gidea Park Station are complete. The station name was reversed in late 1913 to read Gidea Park and Squirrels Heath Station. The name 'Squirrels Heath' disappeared later (photo courtesy of Brian Evans)

But new punctuality figures show such occurrences are rarer than they seem – little comfort as your toes turn numb at Harold Wood, maybe, but good to know when planning your next trip.

In fact, the Liverpool Street to Shenfield line recently achieved its best-ever punctuality, with 97 per cent of trains reaching stations within five minutes of when they were supposed to.

On average, 94 per cent of trains on the line ran within five minutes of their schedule in 2012 – although just over 71 per cent ran within a single minute of the timetable.

Service user and train enthusiast Daniel Woodhouse, 32, said he’d noticed the punctuality getting better.

Harold Wood stationHarold Wood station

“It seems to have improved compared to how it was under National Express,” he said. “There’s something in the air – it feels like it’s better than it was.”

Mr Woodhouse, of Victoria Road, Romford, said he used the trains two or three times a week for a combination of work and leisure, mainly at off-peak times.

But it’s a different story for peak travellers, as a glance at Greater Anglia’s twitter correspondence shows.

This morning AJ Imber (@imberz) tweeted: “First wk commuting from romford, every train day and night has been screwed up @greateranglia tell me it’s just been a bad week!?”

Romford Station todayRomford Station today

Last night Jonathan Stewart ‏(@JohnStewart1987) wrote: “Wait 20 minutes for a train at Stratford to Romford to be told they’ve been suspended until further notice! #nightmare”

And just days earlier Gracie (@IbizaRocksGrace) was among those complaining that “TRAINS FROM ROMFORD TO LIV ST NOT ON ATM DUE TO BROKEN DOWN TRAIN!!! Gutted for everyone needing to get into the city!! Enjoy the cold!”

Some problems are more unusual. One Monday morning last November, a train was cancelled because offensive graffiti was spotted on its side. The train was taken out of service at Ilford so it could be cleaned.

Facebook users weren’t happy. One, Rebecca Snell, wrote that she’d “rather see the rude words and for my train to run. Clean the graffiti when the train is not needed.”

Greater Anglia now operates trains on the Liverpool Street to Shenfield lineGreater Anglia now operates trains on the Liverpool Street to Shenfield line

And Mary Dixon added the graffiti “would have given the travellers something to talk about on a Monday morning for a change.”

But despite our frustration we keep coming back, and the line continues to ferry many of us to and from our homes on a reliable daily basis.

It nearly wasn’t so. Sally Evans’s 1969 book “Romford in the 19th Century” notes that the line was originally planned to bypass Romford and Brentwood entirely and head further north to Havering-atte-Bower.

There was opposition from locals too. Evans highlights a press campaign alleging the Great Eastern Railway “could only be a source of moral decay in the nation”.

Despite this, a line connecting Romford to Mile End finally opened in June 1839. Romford Station was apparently “little bigger than a large shed” and ended up being rebuilt 15 years later.

In the meantime, the line was extended to its present-day termini, and by 1906 there were 79 trains a day connecting Romford to London.

Station masters became well known figures. In 1910 a local newspaper carried an entire column paying tribute Frederick Flegg, the “highly popular and respected” 64-year-old station master at Harold Wood.

Tragedy struck in 1894 when MP James Theobald was killed after falling onto the track at Romford. Station staff quickly stopped the train and pulled him to safety, but he died in a public house soon afterward.

The line was electrified from 1949 and is today known as the “Metro” service.

Its Greater Anglia trains, built by British Rail in the 1980s, will be replaced by Crossrail later in the decade.

It takes 26 minutes to get through all the intermediate stations to Romford – but fast trains, stopping only at Stratford, can do it in 15.

So next time your journey is delayed because of offensive graffiti, remember in pre-electric 1922 the journey to Romford took a colossal 48 minutes – and spray paint hadn’t even been invented.

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