I crossed Essex by train without going to London – and awkward timetables left me stuck for hours

Neighbouring one of the wealthiest cities in the world, railway lines sprawl from London through the home counties like veins from the heart.

But in Essex, while trains can take you all the way to the capital in under an hour, they can’t take you to many communities next door to one-another within the same county.

There is no east-to-west rail in Essex. To get from one end of the county to the other using public transport, travellers usually have to go into London first, leaving the county just to return.

Read more: Latest news about Essex

The result of these poor transportation links is deprivation and pollution. In the absence of affordable and easy-to-use trains and buses, people are less mobile, have reduced access to jobs, education and healthcare, and are forced to pay for cars, along with petrol, insurance and service costs.

Officials in Essex and wider East Anglia are backing devolution as a solution to this problem. They believe a TfL-style system, where you can travel from anywhere to anywhere in the region using a card, similar to an Oyster Card, could remedy poorly-matched timetables, extortionate fares and a lack of level access which makes it harder for people with disabilities to use public transport.

The home counties are often overlooked in national discussions about devolution, because while they are not London, and much of their populations not on London salaries, they benefit just enough from the London economy to be lumped in with it. Railways are an example of this.

In January, I attempted to travel from one side of the county to the other without going to London. Avoiding the capital meant I had to travel for more than six hours, leaving Essex to zigzag cross-country via Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire.

According to Google Maps, driving from east-coastal Walton-on-the-Naze to Waltham Abbey, on the western border with Hertfordshire, takes one hour and 39 minutes.

On ticket website The Trainline, the cheapest single ticket would have cost me £37.60 on the day, the two hours and eleven minute-journey going through Stratford then back up to Waltham Cross Station.

If you book the same journey a week in advance, it’ll set you back only £17.90.

My journey however, which purposely avoided London, cost me £55 overall and consisted of five separate legs.

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Essex is mostly served by two rail operators, Greater Anglia, which uses the Great Eastern and West Anglian main lines, and C2C, which operates on the Essex Thameside.

Since they use different lines, the two rarely overlap outside of London, therefore the only train operator I encountered on my travels was Greater Anglia.

The Journey

Walton-on-the-Naze to Colchester

Colchester Station
Colchester Station
(Image: LDRS)

I left Walton-on-the-Naze at 10.31am and arrived in Colchester at 11.22am, on time, taking me 51 minutes in total for a ticket price of £8.40.

Walton station is unattended and has no ticket barriers, and the carriage was clean except for some sand carried in by seaside visitors.

There was, however, no level access for disable passengers and the wi-fi didn’t work properly.

I could have changed at Thorpe-Le-Soken, which is where I would have to change to get to London Liverpool Street, and got to Colchester 10 minutes quicker, but I decided to stay on the direct train.

Colchester to Ipswich

Ipswich Station
Ipswich Station
(Image: LDRS)

My next train left 42 minutes after I arrived in Colchester, almost the entire length of my previous journey.

There was not enough time to get to the platform for an earlier service to Ipswich, which I watched pull away as I started heading for the stairs.

Unlike Colchester Town, the main station is a while away from the town centre, making it inconvenient to go there whilst waiting for your next journey.

Instead, I went to the platform café to get a coffee, at which all three of the tables were already taken.

Eventually 12.04pm arrived and I left for Ipswich, leaving Essex behind.

The journey took me 19 minutes and cost me £8.70.

The carriage was extremely clean, but similarly to the last one there was no level access.

Ipswich to Cambridge

Cambridge Station
Cambridge Station
(Image: LDRS)

I arrived four minutes early, but still narrowly missed the 12.20pm train to Cambridge.

This meant there was another long wait, this time for 57 minutes, the longest changeover of the day.

However, this was enough time to walk into town, and there were also several more choices in the station for food and drink.

Checking my phone, I saw earlier half-hour delays had cleared, allowing me to leave on time at 1.20pm.

Leaving Suffolk and getting to Cambridge took 25 minutes, and my ticket cost £15.60.

Cambridge to Broxbourne

Broxbourne Station
Broxbourne Station
(Image: LDRS)

This next leg took me 43 minutes, the longest individual journey so far.

I arrived in Cambridge one minute early, and had a 24 minute wait until the next train, but by now I was used to waiting on platforms and used the time to spend £17.30 on a ticket to Broxbourne.

Now heading back in a London direction, this was the most expensive ticket of the day.

It was now 3.05pm, and the carriage was full of students, presumably on their way to London for the weekend.

We travelled past Audley End and Harlow Town stations, notable for being difficult to get to by foot from their respective towns.

Audley End is actually a 17th century manor house roughly a 45 minute walk away from Saffron Walden.

Meanwhile, it will take you 25 minutes to walk from Harlow Town to Harlow town centre, crossing several main roads in the process.

The other thing that connects Harlow and Saffron Walden is that they are both in Essex, marking my return, but pulling into Broxbourne at 3.47pm my journey had now dipped into Hertfordshire.

Broxbourne to Waltham Abbey

Waltham Cross Station
Waltham Cross Station
(Image: LDRS)

Services through Broxbourne do sometimes go to Waltham Cross Station, but because mine was an express train to London I had to get out and wait an extra 38 minutes for the next service, departing at 4.25pm.

After this last 6 minute, £5 journey, I arrived at Waltham Cross at 4.31pm.

The station, however, is still in Hertfordshire. Waltham Abbey, Essex’s most westerly town, does not have its own station, so I had to walk an extra 15 minutes to the border before I finally completed my journey.

Arriving in Waltham Abbey
Arriving in Waltham Abbey
(Image: LDRS)

‘A lack of services is a part of deprivation’

During each leg, the trains were clean and reliable, all arriving on time or a couple of minutes early, although none of them had level access.

But of the over-five hour journey time, roughly two and a half hours were spent waiting on train platforms, having narrowly missed earlier services not because of unreliability, but because of timetables that didn’t match up.

This experience rings true with Kevin Bentley, chair of Transport East and the Conservative leader of Essex County Council.

Speaking to the LDRS, he acknowledged the whole of East Anglia had poor east-west links.

He said: “The bit that sometimes irritates me is the timetables aren’t connected.

Cllr Kevin Bentley, Chair of Transport East and Leader of Essex County Council
Cllr Kevin Bentley, Chair of Transport East and Leader of Essex County Council
(Image: PAUL STARR)

“If I can catch one bus and then have to wait 30 minutes for the train, or I catch the next bus and miss the train by four minutes.

“Now, it’s not a huge inconvenience, let’s be honest, but what about just marrying up the timetables a little better?”

However, any decision to build more railways linking the east and west of the county would be made by national government and, consequently, in London.

Communities with less need to be connected to the capital are therefore worse-served by public transport. and according to Cllr Bentley, this is a form of deprivation.

He continued: “For most people they have to start their journeys in cars, because they have no other choice.

“That is social deprivation too, by the way. As well as poverty being a part of deprivation, so is lack of services as well. If you’re an older person who doesn’t own a car and can’t afford to use a taxi and you’re in a village and you don’t have a bus, you’re deprived.”

‘That’s the only way we’re going to crack public transport’

A possible solution, advocated for by Cllr Bentley and Transport East, is to devolve power away from London.

“We need to improve that and in my honest opinion it will only ever happen when bodies like Transport East become transport authorities like TfL, where we control the routes and the fares.”

In this scenario, control over ticket prices, routes and timetables would be given to newly-created local transport authorities with the aim of better connecting regional communities.

Although private companies are still likely to operate the services, this could also allow for issues like the lack of level access to be streamlined.

Cllr Bentley has spoken of this option, similar to the Oyster Card system in London, in the past.

He said: “That’s the only way we’re going to crack public transport but more importantly, it will be a major contributor to getting to net zero.”

With the Government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 looming, getting people out of cars and into trains will not just be important in Essex but across the whole country.

In the medium term, the Government’s levelling up white paper has set out plans to boost local public transport, with its third “mission” promising connectivity “significantly closer to the standards of London,” for areas outside the capital.

However, the white paper places particular emphasis on boosting economies outside of the South East, because areas like Essex have benefited much more from links with London.

A section on geographical disparity reads: “While London and much of the South East have benefited economically, former industrial centres and many coastal communities have suffered.

“This has left deep and lasting scars in many of these places, damaging skills, jobs, innovation, pride in place, health and wellbeing.”

The extent to which Essex will benefit from the government’s levelling ip agenda or potential devolved transport authorities remains to be seen.

But for now, people will continue using cars, or at the very least be dependent on London services, when the need arises to travel east to west.

Essex Live – Colchester