A mysterious train runs between North and South London during the week, direct between two stations that shouldn’t be possible to travel between. Once in the morning, and once in the afternoon – and never at weekends.

From Wandsworth Road to Kensington Olympia – this is London’s Parliamentary Train Service.

It doesn’t exist to serve our elected masters in Parliament, nor is it required due to some little known outpost of the Palace of Westminster in Wandsworth – it is in fact a relic, a remnant that exists simply because of a strange bit of legislation passed by Parliament.

Following the outcry that accompanied the swift culling of services following the Beeching Report, Parliament made it much harder to close lines down in future. In fact, it is now so difficult and expensive in legal hassle to close a line, that sometimes it is simply cheaper to leave an unnecessary service running. Pointlessly travelling between A and B, or calling at long since abandoned train stations, these ghost trains have been nicknamed Parliamentary Train Services.

And there is one such service in London, a relic left over after the paperwork to close the Cross-Country Birmingham-Brighton rail link accidentally forgot to mention a short stretch of track between Latchmere No 1 Junction and Longhedge Junction.

(Often incorrectly cited as the Latchmere Curve, which is a nearby, but different bit of track)

Legally, that bit of track is still active, and someone has to run a “revenue earning train” across that track everyday between Mon-Fri to comply with the requirements to keep the line alive.

I decided to do my bit to generate some revenue for it and went to catch the afternoon return trip, that leaves Wandsworth Road at 4:12pm and travels direct to Kensington Olympia arriving just 17 minutes later. To do that trip at any other time would involve changes at Battersea Park and Clapham Junction and would have taken 30-40 minutes, so the ghostly service has its uses.

Arriving at the unstaffed station which has little to appeal from the outside entrance, but has had a lick of paint at the platforms recently, and flowers that lined the slope suggest someone cares about the place.

Wandsworth Road Station

A self-service ticket machine, with coin slots blocked off – so payment by credit card for the special trip to Kensington Olympia. It may be an Oyster zone station, but anyone taking the special trip will want to buy a ticket for keepsakes. Won’t they?

My Parliamentary Train Ticket

Of course, when you turn up to an empty station to try and catch a strange train, there is always the risk you have totally misunderstood what happens and wasted the afternoon. Until that is, you see the following on the announcement screen.

The Announcement Board

The local train route map by the entrance to the station was also reassuring, showing a strange line running from Wandsworth Road station that doesn’t appear on the usual TfL route map.

Local map with the mysterious track shown

At 16:12 precisely, in came a…. freight train. Yes, the Parliamentary Train was being held up by a delivery of freight. I bet they don’t have this sort of problem in the Palace of Westminster.

Eventually though, in came the rather ordinary looking Parliamentary Train, which I really think should have some sort of banner on the front proclaiming its uniqueness. But the train company evidently disagrees.

Other local trains that had called at Wandsworth Road had two carriages, but this was a full four carriages long. And I was the only person to get on board.

How often do you get a private train all to yourself?

The Parliamentary Train Arrives

Leaving the station, past the German tourists who had just arrived and were waiting for a train to more sensible locations, and slowly the train curved away from the usual track and onto the remnant that was left open by an accidental slip of a bureaucrats pen.

Schematic of the tracks in the area

Schematic of the tracks between Wandsworth Road and Imperial Wharf - from Carto Metro

Crawling very slowly over Stewart’s Lane Train Depot, and seeing it from an angle that is rather less usual than the thousands of people who pass by it would normally see.

A gentle meander around Pouparts Junction and under the tracks taking people on more conventional trips in and out of Clapham Junction. Out of the underpass and despite the late departure, a stop by a junction for a while, then a short trip to the very end of the errant length of train track, just above a road bridge, where we sat for a few more minutes.

Off again, and now we (and I say we for there was just myself and a train driver on this trip) joined the same line used by London Overground that runs up towards Willesden Junction and carries rather more passengers than the service I was using.

We may share the same tracks, but this is still the Parliamentary Service that only runs between two stations and wont stop for passengers waiting at intermediate platforms. So whizzing past Imperial Wharf and up towards West Brompton.

No stopping here – this is the IanVisits Express and it doesn’t stop to collect the little people!

Passing West Brompton - 2

An unintelligible announcement from the train driver and a few minutes later we pull into Kensington Olympia, but not on the usual Northbound platform – for this is not a normal northbound train – but on the Southbound platform.

The Parliamentary Train has now shed its legally imposed identity and is now just a normal Southern train, heading, aptly southwards again a few minutes later. How many people waiting on the platform realise how special the train is as it pulls into the station?

For just over a quarter of an hour, I was able to have my own private train carry me from Wandworth to Kensington. How often can you get to do that? Well, every Mon-Fri afternoon as it happens.

Now a normal train, leaving Kensington Olympia

We can possibly laugh at the silly legal niceties that these Parliamentary Services throw up, and there are quite a few of them dotted around the country, but they exist as a consequence of public outrage at how easy it was to close train services in the past.

To abolish these wasteful Parliamentary Services would require a relaxation of those same restrictions that make it very difficult to close down services, and would you vote for such a change, knowing that your local service could vanish as a result?

As it happens, Southern is currently trying to extend the service one stop southwards to call at the more passenger friendly Clapham High Street. That may start at the end of this year – so if you want to catch a probably totally empty train, you need to get down there soon.

Some more photos in my gallery.

« « Previous Blog Post Next Blog Post » »

Sign up for my free weekly email newsletter

Sample Issue

59 Comments

  1. What a lovely little journey – did you catch the service going in the opposite direction later in the day?

    • IanVisits

      The other service is in the morning, just after 9am – which is more of a hassle for me to get to.

      So I just did the afternoon return trip.

      Might make the morning trip if/when they extend the line at the end of the year though.

  2. M@

    Having covered London’s oddities for over six years, it’s not very often that I read something that truly surprises me these days. What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a great tale. This is an example of what made England great!

  4. Nick

    Of a similar “flavour”: there is a single weekday Chilterns service from Paddington which runs up to High Wycombe. This takes an unusual route — I’d expect this is the only passenger service running this way on a typical day. It swings right at Old Oak Common depot and runs up through North Acton and follows the West Ruislip Central Line route onwards, joining up with the High Wycombe line from Marylebone. I believe they only run the service to keep their drivers aware of the route.. when I went on it I was one of ~three passengers.

  5. Splendid stuff.

    There are quite a few “Passenger Train Services over Unusual Lines” in London (see list), but this must be one of the more intriguing ones.

  6. What a unique little trip. Thanks for sharing.

  7. marek

    Lovely story and a great find – but I don’t understand the connection with the closure of the Birmingham-Brighton service, since that didn’t go along the section from Latchmere Junction to Longhedge Junction in the first place – it went from Latchmere 1 Junction to Falcon Junction.

  8. What a fascinating little journey, thanks for sharing!

    Just when you think there isn’t anything more odd to learn about this city…

    How do we find out more about the other “Parliamentary Services” dotted around the country?

  9. what a great read. Obviously I didn’t know such trains exist but I understand the complicated bureaucracy involved to change all of this. Would love to hear more unique train rides as this. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Oh how interesting!

  11. Do I get kudos for being able to say I’ve driven this service?

    Very rare to see a passenger on board – usually only railway enthusiasts trying to a bag a bit of track that is otherwise freight only. There is a conductor on board though as well as the driver (DOO is not passed on the West London line) so if you were the only passenger on this trip, Ian, then you were outnumbered by the train crew!

    • N O'S

      You certainly do get kudos Pete! Thanks; nice that you posted.

  12. Steve_way

    There used to be one train a day from Enfield Town to Stratford via Seven Sisters and South Tottenham at the end of the morning peak which was a parly, but sadly (or perhaps more usefully) this has been replaced by a regular Cheshunt-Stratford service. (and return, obviously)

    • Interesting! Do you know when that service ended?

    • njm

      I used to get that train! I wondered what had happened to it.

  13. Jo

    Lovely article! I had no idea there were rail services in London that weren’t shown on the TFL map. Fascinating stuff.

  14. Brilliant.

    I live near Wandsworth Road Station and i’m desperately trying to think of a reason to use this service!

    • David

      Hehehe – you need a reason?? :-)

  15. TGP

    Ian – this is one of my favourite ever of your posts. Superb. Thank you.

  16. ITV LONDON TONIGHT

    Hi Ian

    We are looking to do a piece on this story tomorrow. London overground service are saying that the train isn’t there’s and we are waiting for a reply from southern railway. So we were just wondering if you could let us know who’s train it was – from the picture i’m assuming it is southern? If you could reply asap that would be great! Thanks

    • IanVisits

      Email sent to you.

    • Cowardly bastard

      I saw your news story last night but must have missed the bit where you credited this blog for the tip off.

  17. Ayse

    I loved your post. It was very interesting and a pleasure. :D

  18. I think Parliamentary Trains predate Dr Beeching, for they are mentioned in Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ song in The Mikado:
    The idiot who, in railway carriages, scribbles on window-panes,
    We only suffer to ride on a buffer in Parliamentary trains.

  19. Richard Newman

    It reminded me of these lines from ‘The Mikado':

    The lady who dyes a chemical yellow
    Or stains her grey hair puce,
    Or pinches her figure,
    Is painted with vigour
    And permanent walnut juice.
    The idiot who, in railway carriages,
    Scribbles on window-panes,
    We only suffer
    To ride on a buffer
    In Parliamentary trains.

  20. Peter Neville

    At the time of “The Mikado”, Parliament had decreed (so as not to exclude the poor from rail travel) that train companies had to run at least one train a day on each line calling at each station at a minimum speed of 12mph and a maximum fare of one penny (0.4p) per mile. “Parliamentary Train” therefore became a byword for a slow train running at an inconvenient time of day. It seems quite apt to re-use the expression today for a pointless train running only because of Parliamentary requirements.

  21. London TravelWatch

    This may give readers some background (note, link is from 2.5 years ago)

    http://www.londontravelwatch.org.uk/news/2009/01/government-agrees-to-exorcise-ghost-bus

    Lovely little anomalies like this service (and the one mentioned above going into Paddington) are why people love London’s transport so much, but there is a serious side, as you note. This service was withdrawn without the proper procedure and it took concerted lobbying to persuade the DfT that this was wrong. Stations and lines will change with time, but this should not be at the expense of proper closure procedures laid down by statute.

    London TravelWatch

  22. Amazing post, thank you so much for sharing!
    I’ll have to find a reason to visit Kensington Olympia to use this service.

    • edward ginger

      Given the nature of the Parliamentary Train running out of Olympia it is ironic that TFL is currently proposing to axe the District Line service from there to High St Kensington and Earls Court.

      There is some sort of ‘consultation exercise’ going on with local residents asked to give their opinion but one has to be sceptical about the eventual outcome.

  23. edward ginger

    There are many reasons to visit Kensington Olympia – its fine restaurants, lively pubs and friendly inhabitants. As you may have surmised, I live in the area and was wondering what could entice me to take the train to Wandsworth Road…apart from the uniqueness of the journey, that is….

    By the way, it’s no surprise that the country is going to the dogs when the representative of a manistream television programme such as “ITV London Tonight” is unable to spell…”London overground service are saying that the train isn’t THERE’S and we are waiting for a reply from southern railway. So we were just wondering if you could let us know WHO’S train it was”…!!!

    Yours,
    Outraged of Olympia

    • Jane

      manistream….

  24. Simon

    I’ve heard that the Parliamentary train will be running to Clapham High Street rather than Wandsworth Road, which I reckon is much better (more buses/Tubes and bars!)

    • IanVisits

      I mentioned that in the article.

  25. Nick

    In fact the service might run as Kensington Olympia-Clapham High Street direct.

  26. james

    Unless the ubiquitous UK cameras are on the trains too, it sounds like a fun place for one of those titillating public trysts.

  27. j dog

    We’re getting this same ridiculousness in the States. And that’s on a route that’s supposed to have commuters rather than pols.

  28. Max Entropy

    Your tax money at work. The rail lines are required to keep unused routes open because people are afraid that other little used routes will be closed.
    Has rail service become a “right” also that justifies tax money being wasted?

  29. Curt Linden

    Sounds a unique journey to have undertaken !
    Tho Monday I travelled on another similar service – the 1136 from Paddington to Gerrards Cross, stepping off at South Ruislip. Its the only service of the day from Paddington, and I was the sole passenger on this Chiltern Railways service..

  30. Nigel

    I travelled on this service way back on the 4th May 1963 and still have my original card ticket (proper tickets issued on those days).

    It formerly ran from Platform 1 at Clapham Junction, a quiet and little used platform. My train was ‘steam hauled’ another added bonus.

    The service was originally planned and run for the benefit of the worker’s of the Post Office Savings Bank and did not appear in any published timetables. The single fare from Clapham Junction to Kensington (Olympia) on that day was 9d in real money, equating to just under 0.04p in todays decimal money. Now there’s a thing!

    Kensington (Olympia) Station in those days was greatly underused and generally only served the B.R. car transporter service and exhibition days at Earls Court. The line once formed part of the West London Extension Railway.

    Nigel

  31. There did seem to be a plan to run a daily train to Ealing from Clapham High Street too (mentioned on here: http://www.psul4all.free-online.co.uk/2011.htm) but it’s disappeared from the 2012 list of unusual trains.

    One day I’ll find the time to do this line and the Paddington one myself.

  32. FAC268

    thanks for posting this – interesting stuff and photos.

    On a similar note, I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned the Streatham Ghost Train which runs just once a day, making a direct connection between Streatham Hill and Tulse Hill….?

    This is the 1556 from Streatham Hill (SRH) to London Bridge (LBG) which instead of going ‘straight on’ to West Norwood, Gypsy Hill, Palace etc and on to LBG via the usual route turns left down a short curve (I think the technical term is a ‘chord’…?) linking it to the First Capital Connect line from Streatham (STE) to Tulse Hill (TUH). After TUH it continues to N.Dulwich, E.Dulwich etc and on to LBG. The short chord is only c.100 metres long.

    Obviously this one-off route is shorter than the usual SRH to LBG via CYP journey, so if you’re in Streatham around tea time and need to get to town, take the 1556 which takes 21 mins rather than the 1605 which takes 36…! Up until a year ago there was also an early morning service via this route which was a useful means for south west London based teachers/pupils of getting to the schools in Dulwich, but now the 1556 is the only one. As far as I know there is no equivalent service in the opposite direction.

    Those who know their London railways might naturally be assuming that this one-off starts from the Streatham Hill depot just west of SRH station…. However, apparently not, as I believe that this service actually starts at Victoria and runs empty along the usual Battersea Park, CLJ, WC, Balham route but without stopping, with SRH being the first pick-up and starting point…! When I travelled on this service from SRH to TUH in Sep 2010, it was a Southern 4 coach train. Interestingly the platform indicator told me that the ‘next train was not for public use’…

    Anyone else familiar with this service ? Does this also fall into the ‘Parly’ category…?

  33. richardb

    Looks like this is now a stopping service calling at all stations:

    http://traintimes.org.uk/CLP/KPA/changes=0

  34. Biggles

    Just came across your article and v. good it is. Brought back a memory of mine from a couple of years ago. I was waiting at Ken. Olympia for the next train to Clapham Jct. A Milton Keynes to Brighton service (as it was) came in and me and about 20 others jumped on. 10 mins later we were still at the station with as usual no staff around to tell us what was going on. Suddenly doors close and were off. All was well until when we get to Latchmere Jct instead of going around the curve to CJ we disappear to Longhenge and pickup speed heading towards Wandsworth. Myself and other passengers now getting a bit concerned. Have we been hijacked? I go to the rear of the train and bang on the drivers/conductors door which opened and I enquire where the hell were going. He said that there was a broken down train at Balham and we were being diverted to make up some time. I said you could have told us and he said he made an announcement and I replied that noone in our carriage had heard a thing. He obviously didn’t believe me and came back to the carriage with me and others confirmed that no message had been heard. He did apologise for ‘equipment failure’ and told us that we would be stopping next at East Croydon and we would have to get back to CJ by the ‘normal’ route. So there, myself and others travelled over that part of the line which if it hadn’t been kept open by the ‘parly’ would have meant an extended wait at KO! The thought that came through my head was that my ticket did not say ‘via EC’ so thank gawd no ticket inspectors were on board because they would have never believed my story as trains don’t run that way!

  35. Ken Johnson

    The whole purpose of these ghost trains is to circumvent the law and the express intentions of Parliament. The railway companies should run proper services. Tees-side Airport is another station that’s served by one train a week in one direction.

  36. Andrè

    I was once lucky enough to catch the train from Olympia but it was operated by a Class 377. There is a ‘semi-parly’ in southwest London between Fulwell and Strawberry Hill junction which is used by trains between Shepperton and London Waterloo via the Reading line. It runs Monday-Friday during peak hours and I usually catch it from Richmond commuting to work.

  37. Stuart

    It is a shame that these rules have not made it very difficult for DfT to remove and change routes to make way for its surly crossrail project. I use Wandsworth Road – Victoria for my daily commute, which is being lost in favour of a train to Clapham Junction. I guess that’s another 50 -100 people per hour trying to squeeze on the northern line at peak times.. (10 min walk from Wandsworth Road station) – just what the Northern Line needs.

    • IanVisits

      That change is nothing to do with Crossrail and all about the extension of the East London Line. It is also an easy change at Clapham Junction for a train to Victoria.

      The changes were also subject to public consultations.

  38. Nick Biskinis

    Hi Ian – great website: the changes for Victoria-bound commuters are not easy: commuting to Clapham Junction and then changing platforms and trains etc adds far more to the journey time. Nor were the changes subject to any public consultation: indeed the the deal to axe the Victoria link in favour of the East London Line to Clapham Junction (which just parallels bus services) was done in private. I was the one who discovered this. People who argue Wandsworth Road doesn’t need a Victoria train should try and state why it is vitally important to have 4 trains an hour to Clapham Junction where there are plenty of bus links, but no other links to Victoria. For the future both radial and orbital trains are needed (and in fact orbital direct to Kensington Olympia, Imperial Wharf, West Brompton by-passing Clapham Junction). London Oveground will be providing station staffing also which is great news.

    There’s also good news on our unusual Parliamentary Service is that it will be continuing post-December. The proposal to axe the service WAS subject to public consultation and there were hundreds of objections. The only anomaly is that the service will begin at Clapham High Street, but the outward bound train (from Kensington Olympia) is still scheduled to terminate at Wandsworth Road: this hopefully will extend to Clapham High Street as there are (I believe) no pathing issues for such a short extension (it is another story for those keen on the train serving Denmark Hill)

  39. Dave H

    Some of the pseudo Parly trains are actually routr retaining services, the Chiltern portfolio includes a Stratford-Oxford and EN Trains has a St Pancras- Melton Mowbray which has recently been used from tha last train to Leicester running this way to clar the line between Kettering and Leicester for a blockade.

    On Saturdays the WTT should show that the 04.26 Pendolino visits Cathcart, Bellshill and Wishaw, but not Motherwell, a very handy option, which has occasionally been called on to recover after an incident, and at Christmas the route I’d love to see with a regular service from a Holyhead-Euston service is being used. Euston-Nuneaton via Banbury and Coventry, how that could have ‘saved’ many disrupted journeys when the Class 90 went through the Bletchley crossover at 4 times the permitted speed.

  40. Dave H

    Oops EM trains – spellcheck – where’s the edit button?

  41. Eddie F

    Fascinating story, I’m in the process (its a very long-winded and time consuming one) of ‘ticking off’ all passenger stations and lines in the whole country – something that I’ll be very happy to have done by age 40 if I manage it.
    Looking at the maps there is a Seven Sisters to Stratford service curving on to the LO line, then straight back off at South Tottenham – I’ve looked high and low for this on the timetables but cannot find it at all – does anyone have any information on this parly route? I’m also interested in the curve after Acton Main Line which runs to Shepherd’s Bush.
    Also, there is a sort of parly service on the now Greater Anglia timetable whereby one of the very early morning services from Stratford actually starts from Liverpool Street and continues through to Hertford East. And there’s also the very few evening trains on C2C which branch off at Barking and run into Liverpool Street.

  42. Rob

    Since the Southern service linking Wandsworth Road with Battersea Park and Victoria has been withdrawn, there appears to be a new Parly train on weekdays operated by London Overground running at 06.18 to Highbury & Islington, arriving at Wandsworth Road at 06.21, with a return service from H&I at 22.17 calling at WWR at 22.57 and terminating at BAK at 22.59!

  43. stephen george parfitt

    Wonderful stories about Wandsworth Rd Olympia.I did this trip northbound by the 16.12 4 car train,on 2 September 2011.The Simon Calder video of BBC1 April2011,ref Shepherds Bush unadvertised 09.23 southbound to Wandsworth Rd is not correct in assuming that that is the ONLY train.I have also saved my ticket.I live in Kent and took our main line fast to Victoria and came back by South London Line 2 coach from Vic. to W.R.I couldn’t get the machine at Vic to thru’ ticket,(later realised I should have requested Kensington NOT Olympia)so also bought from W R Machine!
    Yes,others tried to board then hurried back off at announcement being NOT Victoria.On reaching Olympia,the loud hailer platform staffer cleared the service straight back to Clapham Junction,nobody seemed to join it!The driver changed ends and the Parly shot off back south.
    The route under Stewarts Lane is fascinating,I often wondered what was under there.A piece of non electric track seemed to be lifted with guys working on a bridge,and there’s some sort of gravel works down there too.Incidentally the Battersea Park stop seemed to be well used onto Clapham High Street etc,althought the South London is probably rarely used by Vic. to London Bridge customers? Middleton Press excellent psuedo bradshaw table 176 covers the Parly Trains-used to run North FIRST- then South later.
    Another Rail gem is the Crayford to Slade Green spur in Kent there ARE public services over this-I did the trip last year(2012)EG Abbey Wood to Slade Green from Cannon Street actually restarts at Crayford and runs back to Cannon Street,(via Sidcup)because the quicker option is the skip stop via Woolwich and Lewisham,the marketting of the line is Abbey Wood to Hither Green.The on board and station announcements are conflicting throughout and would confuse the hell out of the unwary,but sit tight and do not change trains,all will be well!
    With regards to reply 32 FAC 268.many years ago there was ONE train a day evening M-F peak,from Blackfriars to Streatham Hill via Tulse Hill working 2 cars,I think it ran about 17.40 or near.Hopefully Thameslink,FCC will bring in their plans for general extra services like the rare Ashford and Rochester Blackfriars and beyond peak trains.Any of their London bridge to Blackfriars trains are a joy to behold.

Trackbacks / Pings

Comments Closed

This article is more than a year old, so comments are now closed. Sorry!

web