Monday, 23 January 2023

The Future Is Now

It's been a long time coming.  A very long time.  But finally there are new trains on Merseyrail.

Yes, the 777 trains finally went into service this morning - well, one of them - and I was there to witness this historic event.  I was there with Robert, who'd taken the morning off specially, and we headed into Central along with roughly eight thousand other rail enthusiasts to see the future in action.  I didn't get a press pass; I didn't want to overawe the journos from Granada Reports and the Echo with my astonishing bona fides.  Instead I boarded the train with the great unwashed and found a seat.

A hard seat.  It was fine for the time but I wouldn't fancy going from Hunts Cross to Southport on them.  The little leatherette headrests are scant consolation for the numb buttocks.  Still, we were off, and the train was pleasingly quiet.  Anyone who's ridden the soon to be decommissioned 507s and 508s knows that, for electric trains, they're surprisingly noisy.   Clicking, chugging, whirring, not to mention the clatter over the tracks themselves, and when they get into a tunnel it's virtually impossible to have a conversation.  The 777 (in this case, 777 049, for those of you of a trainspottery bent) glides out of the station with a whirr.  It's not got the sexy purr that Birmingham's electric trains had but it's pretty cheery.

The interiors are bright and clear.  It feels more spacious, which might be because of the lack of carriage doors; this is one long train you can move down easily.  The days of people moving from one carriage to the next and forgetting to close the door behind them, leaving it banging irritatingly all the way to Aughton Park, are gone.  There's WiFi - which I couldn't get to work, but that might've been me - and charging spots under every seat.  Bikes are catered for, and so are pushchairs, and there are luggage racks and grab bars everywhere.

The most exciting feature for me is the glowing LED display telling you where you are en route and what the facilities at each station are.  I love it so much.  I'm so easily impressed by a gadget.  It tracks along the line, flagging up each station and the arrival time (which proved a bit of a mistake on the return leg when the sheer weight of enthusiasts taking pictures and leaping on and off caused it to be delayed, making all the arrival times a nagging red).  Alongside it is a scrolling message space telling us these are OUR trains and plugging Saveaways and season tickets.  I'm guessing there's already an ad seller trying to flog it to Pantene and Cadburys.

There was an honour guard of staff at every station, yellow tabarded, some snapping pictures and all of them looking thrilled.  It's a big day for the Liverpool City Region.  These trains are owned by the local authority, and so basically my Council Tax paid for it.  I asked if they'd name one after me but so far I haven't heard back.  They're replacing trains that have been on the rail network for as long as I've been on Planet Earth and I think people are going to be delighted when they see them.

Somewhere outside Sandhills the set of four seats in front of us was cleared and Andy Gill from North West Tonight appeared with a camera man.  Right behind him was the man himself, Mayor Steve Rotherham.  They proceeded to sit in front of us, holding an interview, while I felt a blush rush up over my face.  Still, it means, for the first time in my entire life, I've been on telly: gurning and trying not to look at the camera.  

Robert never made it on air, which is payback for that time we went to see Pointless and he, Ian and the BF all appeared in an audience shot and they cut me off the edge.  No I'm not bitter.

Steve finished his interview and did a bit of glad handling, asking a potential voter nearby what he thought of the trains.  Unfortunately he'd not taken into account the, let's say, devoted personalities of us train folk.  His question of "what do you think of the new trains?" was met, not with a resounding fabulous!, but a "better than I thought they were going to be".  Steve quickly skulked away.  Similarly, a reporter from Radio Merseyside prowling the aisle realised not to canvass the opinions of any of the middle aged men about the train or she'd get a load of information about bogies she didn't know she needed.  Instead she pounced on the slightly bewildered looking civilians who hadn't realised the magnitude of their journey and just wanted to get to Fazakerley Hospital.

At Kirkby, the end of the line, we all disembarked to take a picture of the front.  It's interesting that the M logo is accompanied, not by Merseyrail or Merseytravel, but by Metro.  Is there a rebrand coming?  

A train man literally sighed with disgust when I took a selfie in front of this train, as well he might.

We all got back on board for the return trip, for some reason passing up the opportunity to sample the delights of Kirkby.  More photos were taken, more videos - I apologise to all those people who got my fat head in the back of their YouTube presentations.

Back to Central, and we stayed on for another round trip.  The dignitaries all got off, while a lot of the train fans did too so they could film it departing, leaving it much like an ordinary train trip to Kirkby.  It meant I got to look out at the scenery a bit - Everton's new stadium rising in two curved halves on the dockside, like an upturned crab; Kirkdale's broken lift "until further notice", a reminder that even what was once new and exciting falls to the ravages of time and lack of maintenance; the row after row of new trains at the depot, waiting to join their brother over the next year or so.

The new trains will make Merseyrail feel so different.  Modern, forward thinking, exciting.  I hope the rollout is fast enough to mean that they can ferry people to the Grand National or the Open or Eurovision, these big events that will act as a showcase for the City region.  I hope people are proud of them.  I hope the scallies don't tear them to pieces.

I got off the train at Moorfields so I could get the Wirral Line home, promising to have a drink with Robert at a later date (he was staying on until Central to maximise his new train time).  I filmed the train departing from the platform.  The first train of many.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

The Let Down

I was, briefly, in That London last week.  The ostensible reason was so I could cross off seeing the Abba holograms.  I was one of the few homosexuals in Britain who still hadn't seen it and they were threatening to make me a straight if I didn't hurry up.  The actual, secret, main reason I was going to London was so I could visit Crossrail the Elizabeth Line.

I have been following the Crossrail Project for literally decades.  I remember seeing reports of it on Newsroom SouthEast, back when it was being proposed by British Rail (I may not be young).  I've watched it slowly crawl through Government and TfL until a spade went in the ground.  I visited an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects all about the design of the station.  I watched, enviously, as bloggers and Twitter users and people I actually know in real life travelled down to London and experienced the new shiny world of Crossrail. 

I planned my route.  I was staying in a hotel near Stratford International station, at the back of Westfield.  A moment, by the way, to say that the area around there - the former Olympic village - is a completely desolate space.  It reminds me of when I visited Canary Wharf back in the early 90s.  It's a lot of tall buildings with very few people; impeccably manicured lawns and nobody to use them.  Anyway, I decided I would do the patented Merseytart exploration of the line: 








That way I'd cover the core tunnels, plus I'd visit the huge Canary Wharf station.  If I had time I'd jump back on the train and visit Woolwich, because I'd been there when it was just a big hole in the ground so it'd be good to compare and contrast, but the main part was visiting the central underground stations.  

I walked to Stratford station.  It's a much sadder station than I remembered.  In my head it's the gleaming steel and ambition of the Jubilee Line Extension, the crowning glory at the end of the route.  That massive ticket hall appeared on all the literature and in all the pieces promoting the new Tube line.  The addition of new routes, plus the millions more people who use the station, has left it tired and confused.  There are passageways and footbridges everywhere, but it all feels illogical, as you'd expect from a station that's been cobbled together over a century.  The DLR goes from here, unless you want to go to that destination, in which case it's in a completely separate part of the station.  The Central Line and the Jubilee Line are miles apart, and the platform numbering seems to have been pulled off a board randomly by Rachel Riley.  At some point they'll have to start all over again with it and try and make it make sense.

Still, at least there's those lovely purple line trains to travel on.  I marched through the ticket gate and directly to the platform, but the first train was going to Liverpool Street only; it wasn't even stopping at Whitechapel en route.  A bit annoying, but thanks to diamondgeezer I was aware that the linking up of the sides of Crossrail was a long and drawn out process, so presumably this was part of that.  

The train came and went and I looked up to the departure board and... that one was going to Liverpool Street only, too.  Was I perhaps on the wrong platform?  Was there an underground one for trains through the centre?  Then I heard the announcement. "mumble mumble industrial action mutter Elizabeth Line whisper stammer trains restart at six thirty Friday morning."


Now, this blog is very much pro-union and pro-industrial action.  If circumstances are such that the withdrawal of labour is your only resort then it is a desperate state of affairs and it is sometimes the only means of action a worker has against their boss.  Trade unions got many of the rights and privileges we currently enjoy as employees, often through strikes; do you think women would get six months maternity leave purely through the generosity of their bosses?  Of course not.  And strike action should be disruptive.  You need to demonstrate why your work is so valuable to both your employers and the public at large.

On the other hand, couldn't you have picked one of the other 364 days in the year folks?

I was incredibly disappointed.  Getting down to London is a rarity for me these days - in fact, as you may have noticed, doing anything is a rarity for me these days.  I've been trapped under a huge project at home and haven't been able to have the time off to gallivant on the trains.  This was a rare opportunity for me to see something new and exciting, a rare example of this country investing in transport and the future rather than banging on about the good old days.

I sadly boarded the train.  They're nice enough - not a very satisfying noise, I'll be honest - but they were clean and open.  Passengers were taking them for granted.  I was the only idiot looking at them.

When you have a plan you were really excited about, having it taken away leaves you a little hollow.  You can't really think of an alternative.  I was in London, one of the greatest cities on earth, and I couldn't think of what to do with myself.  I eventually decided to do a little bit of transport exploring.

The Battersea extension to the Tube opened in 2021 but again, that was after I'd last been in the capital.  I headed down the Northern Line to take a look.

My main impression?  Nice enough.  I mean, it does the job.  Perhaps it was my general feeling of let-down but I was a bit "is that it?"  The Jubilee Line Extension spoilt us all.  It made us think new underground lines should be palaces.  There should be huge open spaces and gleaming technology and art.  In reality, this is all you need for an underground station.  Two platforms, some escalators, a ticket hall.  Job done.

Outside was rain and a building site.  Again, the station building is nothing special; a glass box with a different coloured roof to provide a moment of interest.  You can see what it's for and it attracts the eye.  On a dark night it'll be a glowing and inviting beacon.  

It's just not... special.  I want the Tube - all new stations - to be special.  They're important focuses for people.  They're hubs for communities.  I guess I care about them more than other people.  

Of course I had a look inside the Power Station itself, and of course I was underwhelmed.  It's been beautifully restored.  They've clearly spent an absolute bomb on it.  But it is, at the end of the day, a shopping mall, and not even one for the likes of me, one for people with too much money.  Calvin Klein and L'Occitaine and Mulberry.  When Reiss and Marks and Spencer are the low-end retailers I back away slowly, that working class chip on my shoulder calling out to me.  

Outside meanwhile there are canyons of anonymous apartments at prices that make me gag (one bed studios still available starting at £450,000).  They're not even very nice; they're so closely packed that an awful lot of people are going to be staring at one another across the narrow pedestrianised alleyways.  And again, there was nobody about.  Admittedly it was raining but it didn't feel like a place.  It felt like a dormitory.

Still, Abba were good.  So there's that.

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Up The Airport

When I was a child, a thing we would do was go Up The Airport.  We'd get in the back of my dad's van then go across town to Luton Airport.  We'd park up at the viewing area by the runway, sit on a bench, and look at the aeroplanes taking off.  Sort of.  This was Luton Airport in the 1980s, so it wasn't exactly a relentless barrage of 747s.  Now and then a small charter plane would appear.  We'd badger my mum and dad for a burger or an ice cream from the viewing area cafĂ© and never get one.  This is what passed for entertainment in the days when all the telly could offer on a Sunday was religion, politics and Mahabharat.  

The highlight for me, every time, was when we could persuade our parents to let us poke around the airport terminal.  It was fairly new at that time, built out of red bricks and concrete and looking like the headquarters of a minor building society.  It's still there in fact, buried under successive terminal expansions: it's the location of that Burger King on Google Maps:

Even at the age of nine or ten the exciting part for me was a bit of transport infrastructure.  We only went on one holiday abroad when I was growing up, when my dad had to go to Malta for work and so we managed to tag along to the free accommodation, so airports were still places of unimagined glamour and excitement.  The Departures area was low lit and had a shiny marble floor, plus a single shop that sold everything you needed for a holiday - sun tan lotion, shades, magazines.  We would once again try to persuade our parents to buy us something from here, not being old enough to understand the phrase "outrageous mark up", and we'd once again be denied.  Then we'd go home.

There is a point to all this nostalgic noodling, and that is that I always planned Birmingham International station to be collected without any others because it was an airport station.  It was an exciting destination.  It was a place that could entertain me all on its own.  I figured that between the airport and the NEC next door I'd be able to find plenty to keep me amused.

Birmingham International station came into being during a rare purple patch for British local government.  The Metropolitan County of West Midlands had come into being, and taken over responsibility for Birmingham Airport.  The council wanted to expand the facilities there, plus there was the NEC under construction not far away, so they worked with British Rail to build a station on the main Birmingham-London line which passed through the centre of the site.

It opened in 1976, and the station still has the solid, brick and concrete feel of the mid-seventies - turning away from Brutalism and towards something a bit friendlier, but still enormous slabs of construction.  It's been refurbished since of course, most notably by Virgin Trains.  They did their customary job of sticking an enormous bit of glass on the front to try and make it look like an airport terminal.  It also contains some bus stops, but in the main it feels like a giant void for no real reason at all.  Showing off for the sake of it.

After a poke around and a picture with the sign, I headed back upstairs to take another train.  International station was a fair distance from the main terminal, and so a decision was made to build a shuttle to ferry passengers back and forth.  The council worked with the technology section of British Rail to come up with a solution.  I swear it was their only choice, throw up your hands and raise your voice: monorail!  Monorail!  MONORAIL!!!

Opening in 1984, the Air-Rail Link had two trains that could glide as softly as a cloud.  At first it worked well, but time moved on, and building an experimental system that received such an intensive service proved problematic.  The parts became outdated and difficult to replace and finally the monorail was closed down in 1995.

Its replacement, opening in 2003, was far more down to earth.  It's a cable-driven system, a technology that's been used for hundreds of years, which tows each train back and forth the six hundred metres or so to the terminal.  It's not quite as glamorous as a genuine bona fide electrical six car monorail, but it actually works, so it's immediately an improvement.

The shuttle arrived in the dedicated waiting area and I boarded with three airport employees who bitched about one of their fellow workers for the ninety second trip.  Inside they've been built for numbers, rather than comfort, with plenty of space for luggage.  The interiors had been sponsored by Emirates and a video played as we travelled extolling the wonders of flying with them.  

That's a big patch of white hair in my beard, by the way.  I hadn't dribbled toothpaste down myself.  Yes I am old.

Almost as soon as it had begun we pulled into the terminal station.  I was officially Up The Airport now and I wandered through into the Departures area hoping for some top grade entertainment.  Perhaps a little people watching with a pint.  

I was out of luck.  There was a Burger King, and a closed Frankie and Benny's with a few benches outside, but that was it.  The majority of the Departure area was devoted to queueing space.  Get them in, get them through, seemed to be the principle here.  It was quite unsatisfying.

I returned to the Air-Link for my train back to the terminal.  It was pleasingly futuristic, but in a retro, Logan's Run type way; the kind of future that is still full of clunky buttons and flashing lights and computers have giant reels of tape on them.  I managed to board the other shuttle from the one I arrived on, which was decorated in a similar but slightly different sponsored manner.

With the airport proving to be remarkably dull, it looked like the NEC was going to have to keep me amused.  There's no shuttle from the station here, just a long corridor that sloped down to a bank of escalators.  I was surprised to be pushed through a metal detector on the way through.  Nothing was triggered, and they showed no interest in my backpack, and I wondered exactly how sensitive they were.  Perhaps if there was a show that needed added security they were turned up to max.

There were two events going on that day.  Somewhere in the bowels of the complex, Iceland was welcoming its managers for a conference.  Here though, it was UK Construction Week.  I fancied having a wander around, but it was one of those events where you had to register, and I wasn't in the mood to invent an entire building company so that I could get a glimpse of some stands peddling creosote.  If I'd been there a day later I'd have got Grand Designs Live, which presumably starts off well then goes horribly over budget and carries on eight months longer than it's meant to, and also the Horse of the Year Show, which I didn't realise was still a thing.  Apparently Sky Sports nabbed the rights off the BBC a few years ago, only to pass them on to a channel called "Horse and Country TV", which appears to be online only.  This is why you shouldn't always chase the cash.  The organisers must've got a short-term injection of money from Sky, but they've lost the opportunity for people to happen across it on a Thursday night and become fascinated by dancing horses.

Without an exhibition to visit, there is no actual reason to go to the NEC.  It's not architecturally interesting.  It's a lot of boxes arranged around a weedy looking garden that was mostly being used for fag breaks.  It's got a Starbucks and a Wetherspoons, but so have most high streets, and there was a Londis that had a sign outside saying WE SELL TOBACCO.  In short, I had basically seen all there was to see.

I went outside.  In recent years developers have realised that this is an ideal spot for attracting punters - right by the motorway, in the Midlands, lots of transport options - and so a complex called "Resorts World" has sprung up next to the NEC.  It's so important, it's actually mentioned on the West Midlands Railway map:

The first phase of the development was the NEC Arena (not to be confused with the National Indoor Arena, where they held Eurovision), but it's since been joined by more shops and restaurants.  There's also something called "The Bear Grylls Adventure", which looked like a playground for stag dos.  I'm guessing it's more of the "Bear Grylls jumps out of aeroplanes" end of his TV shows rather than the "Bear Grylls sucks water out of some elephant dung" bit, though who knows these days.  I was taken with the giant face with googly eyes, until I realised it was the mocked up back of a combat helicopter for overgrown children to rope slide out of, and I immediately lost what little interest I had in it.

I skirted the lake to head for the main attraction, the Resorts World complex, which opened in 2015 with a casino and cinema and hotel all designed to suck as much cash out of you as possible.  Inside it was gleaming steel and coloured LEDs, a polished floor surrounding gently whirring escalators that cascaded up through the floors at interesting angles.

It was also completely and utterly dead. It was twelvish, so in fairness the restaurants were still setting up, but there wasn't anyone milling around.  A security guard chatted to the girl on the information desk.  A cleaner wandered by with a trolley.  

The outlet mall stretched down one side, a single curving corridor of shops.  When it originally opened there were a couple of floors of stores but lack of interest meant the upper area was converted into a bowling alley.  Now there's about a dozen shops with a single member of staff wandering around, picking at the clothes, occasionally folding something, hoping you'll wander in and see their bargains.  I went in one shop, The Works, where I bought a box of sticky labels for three quid and which I am frankly thrilled with.  Stationery makes me happy, what can I say?  But then I was at the end by the car park ticket machines and so I turned back the way I came.

The casino in the complex operates 24 hours a day so I thought it at least might be a throbbing hub of excitement.  No such luck.  It was impossible to see into the casino itself, but the two bars at the edge were deserted.  I didn't see a single man in an eyepatch cruelly sucking on a cigar, nor any glamorous women in tight dresses bending over to distract handsome players with their cleavage.  Like everything else in Resorts World it was all style and no content.

I went back outside to look at the lake, standing next to a gaggle of people enjoying a cigarette (if anyone should be sponsoring the attractions round here it should be Lambert & Butler).  I was, to be honest, miserable.  It took me more than two hours to get to Birmingham International and I felt like I'd seen it all in half that time.  

I decided to take a walk out of the NEC to see if I could see anything of the HS2 station site.  There will be a stop here that, at present, seems to be called "Interchange".  At one point is was Solihull Interchange, until presumably someone pointed out Solihull is miles away, and they don't seem to have come up with a better name yet.  It'll be built in the triangle formed by the M42, the A45, and the A452, and an automated people mover will then ship you across to the NEC and the Airport and, presumably, International station too.  No word on whether this will be a monorail too; I guess we have to wait and see if the mob has spoken.

I passed the Crowne Plaza hotel, wondering idly if Kevin McCloud was in there ahead of his Grand Designs exhibition, criticising the size of the rooms and the layout of the shower, and headed for the east car parks.  This is not a place designed for pedestrians.  The pavement soon vanished, and I found myself trudging over rough mud and hard concrete to try and reach the motorway bridge.  The main traffic was a series of horseboxes as the Horse of the Year show ramped up its preparation.  

Ahead of me the land had been stripped bare for construction, but I was actually at the wrong end; I needed to be further north to get a decent look.  As it was all I could see was a load of works and nothing really of interest.  I walked back the way I came, following my own footsteps in the dirt.

That was enough.  I decided I'd go home.  My trip Up The Airport had lasted barely an hour.  I returned through the security checks to the NEC, passing the convention attendees who had filled the Wetherspoons, and following the long corridor back to the station.  

I have one, final, complaint.  Birmingham International (which isn't actually the name of the airport anymore, it's just Birmingham Airport, but it'll probably all change when HS2 arrives) doesn't have a nice station sign.  So take your pick which one counts for collecting purposes.  It's either this one:

Outdoors, large, terrible font.  

Or it's this one:

Indoors, small, still in Virgin Trains colours even though they're long gone.

Decide amongst yourselves which you prefer.  I was too disappointed to care.