Tube geek/watch (28)Roding Valley Of all the stations on the London Underground, the one you're least likely to visit is Roding Valley. It's on the Essex/London border at the eastern end of the Central line on the Hainault Loop, roughly halfway between Woodford and Buckhurst Hill (but not actually served by trains on that main branch). Three trains an hour, if you're lucky. And maybe that's why this station sees only 210,000 passengers a year (which is half the total of the second least visited station - neighbouring Chigwell). Roding Valley is the tube's most overlooked destination. So, obviously, I had to go and take a look.
Took a while. I had to let five Central line trains go past before a "Woodford via Hainault" train finally rumbled along. I was taken on a circuitous route around the London borough of Redbridge, eventually rumbling across the M11 and over a river whose name you can probably guess. I was surprised that there were still as many as nine passengers in my particular tube carriage as Roding Valley station approached. But I wasn't surprised when the doors opened and I was the only person on the entire train to step out onto the platform.
An entire TfL station to myself - this surely doesn't happen very often. But I did get a very definite feeling that I was being watched. There are a ridiculous number of security cameras at this station, pointing this way and that, ensuring that nobody can even pick their nose without being scrutinised from ten different angles. Loudspeakers are even more numerous, most of these planted on closely-spaced metal stalks, meaning there's absolutely no escape from announcements about engineering works and unattended luggage. So dense is the electronic forest sprouting from Roding Valley's platforms that I can only assume the Hainault Loop is some asbo hotspot (or else tube infraco Metronet were a bunch of scamming swindlers fleecing TfL's budget for every penny they could screw).
Or maybe all the CCTV is a revenue protection scheme. Roding Valley is one of the few ungated stations on the tube network, meaning it's perfectly possible for the criminally-minded to slink in or out without waving an Oyster card. Instead the two entrances are protected by an enamel sign warning of a £50 penalty fare, which is a lot cheaper to install than a full-time member of staff. Incidentally these are also step-free entrances, recently enabled, meriting Roding Valley a rare wheelchair blob on the Central line tube diagram. Just be aware that it's not possible to wheel from one platform to the other via the footbridge - a 500m trek along local backstreets is required.
When the next train arrived I was watching from the footbridge, looking down across the tracks curving beneath me. This particular service from Woodford was a little busier, this being the quicker route to/from central London, and a quartet of passengers disembarked and rapidly dispersed. I was then surprised by something I wasn't expecting to see at a reputedly unstaffed station - a TfL member of staff. There was me wandering around with my camera like I owned the place, and all the time I was being watched by the bloke paid to keep an eye on things. I gritted my teeth and walked down to the ticket hall to try to take some more pictures under his surveillance.
I needn't have worried. While I was snapping away the station manager popped over for a chat and was politeness personified. He said he'd seen somebody else taking photos of the tree-flanked platforms earlier, and wondered what the attraction was. He was also particularly keen to show me Roding Valley's unique front-of-station topiary - the hedge beside the bike rack that's been clipped and coerced into the shape of a steam locomotive. There's more than enough spare time inbetween trains for him to ensure its immaculate upkeep, and if I come back next year it might even have four new wheels. As head gardener he also maintains the station's hanging baskets, in season, and pointed out the three "second place" certificates displayed proudly on the station wall. Woodford's the local station to beat, apparently. Maybe next year.
At this point in the conversation there was another customer to deal with, wanting to know which platform to use to get to London (answer: either of them). This gave me the chance to take a final look around before heading off down the street into surrounding suburbia. But Mr Station Bloke stopped me before I left with an interesting proposition. He said he had something in his office that someone like me might like, and would I wait while he went inside to fetch it. So I waited, and what do you know, he was absolutely right. It's easy to bash TfL and point out small niggly faults that make our everyday tube journeys less than perfect. But at a very human level, in this remote under-visited outpost, the organisation's true quality shone through.