THE former London Underground Central Line branch line between Epping and Ongar has now lain dormant for a decade and still its future remains unclear.

London Underground decommissioned the six-mile track along with Ongar and North Weald stations in September 1994.

When the line was auctioned off, Ongar Railway Preservation Society which had been campaigning since 1991 to keep the line operational entered a £325,000 bid on the basis that the line would be run as a charity, displaying steam engines.

Shortly after the bidding deadline, privately-financed company Pilot Developments Ltd (now Epping Ongar Railway Ltd) bid higher, persuading London Underground to re-open the 'tender' and finally accept Pilot's slightly higher offer. Bad feeling has continued between the company and ORPS but residents are just keen to see the rail service back on track.

There appear to be four possibilities for the future of the line:

  • Epping Ongar Railway Ltd will run a heritage line between North Weald and Ongar, as there are problems with sharing platforms at Epping Station with London Underground.
  • Epping Ongar Railway will run a commercial commuter service between Epping and Ongar if something can be arranged at Epping Station.
  • Essex County Council is in discussions with Epping Ongar Railway Ltd to buy the track. Should this happen then Ongar Railway Preservation Society plans to apply to run the line as a heritage site on behalf of the council.
  • Local authorities could agree on an expansion using the line to service Harlow, Stansted, Chelmsford or North Weald airfield on a commuter basis.

Epping Ongar Railway director Nigel Sill said: "I've never known a project to get so bogged down in politics. We would like to get it resolved as soon as possible and discussions are continuing with the county and district councils.

"All that causes uncertainty, which makes it difficult for us to spend money on it, so we're sitting on our hands while they make a decision."

Malcolm Hills, volunteer liaison officer for Epping Ongar Railway Ltd, said: "We're working on the basis of this being a heritage line with fare-paying passengers. We can't tie ourselves to a particular running time but hopefully in time for the Easter holidays."

Mr Hills leads a group of 20 rail enthusiasts in maintaining the line, one day a week. He claims Epping Ongar Railway Ltd will be applying for Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate's approval in a matter of weeks and if that is passed, the company will apply to the Health and Safety Executive.

When these obstacles have been overcome, Mr Hills said, Epping Ongar Railway anticipates the North Weald to Ongar stretch will be opened to the public. Mr Sill admitted the stations still do not have the infrastructure in place to open to the public and the company was yet to source a steam engine, which are in high demand.

"We can and will be running trains (on the line) but until we get a connection at Epping Station, it's not very attractive to the public," he said.

A London Underground spokesman said it had been in discussions with Epping Forest Council and the adjacent landowners regarding further development, but no decisions had been made.

The district council says another platform at Epping Station is needed to serve the Epping-Ongar line. There is concern that any extra platform must be close enough to both lines for passengers to transfer easily.

Ongar parish council clerk Enid Walsh said: "Everyone is very worried about the loss of another valuable service. The present key issues consultation plan calls for the re-instatement of the Epping-Ongar line."

Mr Sill said: The famous Bluebell Line took a long time to build up and I think the Epping to Ongar route could be one of the most successful in the country.

"It really could do Essex and Ongar a lot of good."