‘I went on the West London ‘ghost train’ that only runs once a week and doesn’t appear on London’s rail maps’ – Callum Marius

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Have you ever wanted to close a railway line for good? It’s a long, complicated and drawn out process which involves public consultation, hundreds of hours of research, thousands of pounds in admin, agreement from several different public bodies, costly legal proceedings if challenged and crucially an Act of Parliament.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Instead, railway operators can close a line ‘by stealth’, in which they provide the absolute bare minimum rail service possible. They can then claim the line is still open, their traincrews are still competent to operate on the line and avoid the abovementioned debacle.

There’s one line in West London where this happens. With just one passenger train per week in only one direction, the Acton to Northolt Line is somewhat of a secret. It does not appear on London’s passenger rail maps at all. I went to find out what exactly is going on by taking a journey on that once weekly train – a ‘ghost train’.

READ MORE: ‘I went to London’s worst rated station and it left me feeling as run down as it was’



At West Ealing, the ghost train (right) departs from platform 5. Despite the signage it does not stop at Greenford.



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The ghost train runs at 11.17am every Wednesday from West Ealing to West Ruislip, taking 23 minutes with no intermediate stops. It’s also known as a ‘parliamentary train’ because it runs to avoid an Act of Parliament required to otherwise shut the line it runs on.

There are other ‘ghost’ (or parlimentary) trains running in London, including at Battersea Park, Tottenham and Beckenham, although they are diversions of otherwise standard train services. This one is a off-beat route which sees a Chiltern train reach the Great Western Main Line.

Before 2018, the ghost train started at Paddington and ran the entire length of the Acton to Northolt Line (then known as the ‘New North Main Line’), but when the line was severed for HS2 construction, the ghost train was diverted to start from West Ealing instead.



The train’s “Quiet Zone” was superfluous on this journey

I arrived at West Ealing on one of the frequent TfL Rail services from Paddington at the same time the ghost train arrived out of service ready to start its rather rare mission. It was a two carriage Class 165/0 train, which is usually used on Marylebone-Aylesbury services. With 170 seats and a total capacity of 229, I suspected even this tiny train by London standards would provide more than enough room for everyone.

The train waited in platform 5, where the GWR shuttle service to Greenford usually waits. Although the live departure screen to the side of the platform correctly indicated it was the 11.17am train to West Rusilip only, there was no physical hard signage on the platform which suggested any train other than the service to Greenford departed from here.

I spoke with the train guard as he walked through the train to ensure I was “definitely going to West Ruislip?!” There was a natural apprehension in the air given that the chances someone specifically needs to go from West Ealing to West Ruislip with no return on a Wednesday mid-morning in ‘new normal’ travel times is pretty slim.



The Chiltern train uses this line at Greenford (background), which is London’s only line with passenger trains to still use semaphores instead of traffic light signals. It runs parallel to the Central line (foreground) and is usually only used by freight trains like the one on the left.

He explained that he was one of two teams based at the Chiltern Railways Aylesbury depot which is competent (has the knowledge and official railway authorisation) to work the route, which can be used as a diversionary route in emergencies.

As he went to close the doors for a bang on-time departure, a passenger just managed to catch his attention and board with seconds to spare. I walked through the train and calculated that made a grand total of three.

That’s right, there were just three of us spread between the 170 seats in the two carriages. That’s a comfortable 56 seats per person – enough room to socially distance, just about. There was even WiFi, a toilet onboard and an onboard entertainment portal called Chil.tv which bizarrely included NOW TV and hayu meaning between the three of us we might have been able to get through an episode of Real Housewives. I do have the same birthday as NeNe Leakes, but I chose to ignore the opportunity.



The ghost train runs parallel to the Central line between Greenford and West Ruislip, only stopping at the latter

The train rushed through some of London’s least used stations, including South Greenford, which coincidentally also has the shortest platform. At one point it was five minutes early, quite possibly on track to be the best train journey I had taken in the capital in years.

In the front carriage, the only other passenger was Mark. Although he admitted an element of curiosity in choosing this particular train to travel on, he legitimately did need to go from Ealing to West Ruislip. He told me: “I would have got the train to Greenford and then the Central line anyway so this is actually quite convenient.” Alas, parliamentary bureaucracy did appear to work for somebody.

He went on to explain: “The train used to go non-stop through Ruislip to High Wycombe but since December it has changed. There’s no return so I can’t come back though. It’s definitely strange.”



The ghost train flies over the Chiltern Main Line just before South Ruislip, where then joins it for its final mile and a half to West Ruislip

We passed one of London’s few remaining semaphore signals. The line is so infrequently used that it has not warranted modern traffic light signals yet. The views weren’t exactly impressive, it was mostly suburban West London, the back of Westway Cross and the Suez waste depot near Ruislip. Still, it was exciting to run alongside the Central line at 50mph.

In the rear carriage, I met Janet, who wasn’t quite as lucky. “I thought it was the train to Greenford. On the platform as you change from the TfL Rail, you can’t see the screen and I just hopped on!”

Although Janet had to now embark on a roughly 10 mile detour, we had a delightful chat about how remarkable the little branch line between West Ealing and Greenford is, Hanwell station’s restoration and why South Greenford station is so quiet.



The ghost train is so infrequent it is not shown on Chiltern Railways maps onboard trains

Before we knew it, we were arriving into West Ruislip three minutes early after being held at South Ruislip to let a faster Chiltern train overtake. We arrived into West Ruislip on platform 4, which is usually used for trains to Marylebone, in the opposite direction.

That was it. No more until next week. Like a ghost, the crafty little white Chiltern train sneaked into the distance.



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