Monday, 6 April 2015

Ambush Makeover

So.  You've got a fleet of trains that, if they were humans, would be balding and have little pot bellies and would be making "aaaaah" noises every time they sat down.  The polite thing to do would be to send them out to pasture, but you can't afford to replace them.  What to do?

Why, give them a make over!


First Merseyrail applied vinyl to the side of their trains, to make them look peppier.  Now the interiors are getting a new look as well.  I rode on one last week, and I'm happy to report they've been done well.  It's not as radical a change as the one a decade ago - it's purely cosmetic - but it's made the trains feel fresh and bright again.


The new moquette on the seats is very nice.  Yellow and grey, obviously.  Was there ever any doubt?  Big orange strips have been applied to the doors as well, just so you know where to get off.

The most radical improvement is tucked between the seats though.


A bin!  An actual bin!  About time too.  It probably won't make much of a difference - for some reason, Merseyrail's passengers treat their trains like the floor of a cinema; chuck anything down there, someone else will pick it up - but it's nice to see.  If it swallows up just a few of those errant Metros, it's more than paid back the investment.

(Yes, that's two posts about trains in a row.  Don't worry, I'm doing a bit of station collecting later in the week).

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Fast Electric Trains


This is a blog about railway stations.  I feel the need to put this up front in big black letters because I'm about to delve into the world of actual trains, and people do get very steamed up about it.  I can pretty much blag my way through a post about stations because I know a bit about architecture and I know a bit about history and I know a bit about geography.  Trains though?  You have to be absolutely right or a thousand people will descend on you and tear you to shreds, like a school of piranhas on Helga Brandt.  So please forgive any factual errors that may follow, and take heart in the knowledge that I don't really care.


I was at Liverpool Lime Street with Robert so we could ride an electric train.  The line between Manchester and Liverpool has finally been electrified, and as a result, Northern have started rolling out new trains in a new shade of purple.  They've been going for a few weeks now but this was the first chance Robert or I had to actually experience the joys of electric traction via Newton-le-Willows.


Of course, they're not actually new trains.  They're London's cast offs.  While the capital is getting a new fleet, these trains have been sent up north.  For twenty years they plied the Thameslink route i.e. the line from my home town of Luton to London.

It meant that while Robert was positively giddy at seeing these trains in the flesh, I was a bit underwhelmed.  I remembered these when they were actually, properly new.  I used to ride them all the time.  Obviously they weren't purple then, but they were still the same trains.


I think my lack of enthusiasm may have infuriated Robert.  He's a proper railfan.  Throughout our conversation he referred to the trains as "319s", and he was able to identify the train we were about to ride on as the one called "Northern Powerhouse" just by the number on the front (319362).  I admire that level of knowledge, but I can't equal it.  I'm only able to remember that these trains are Class 319 because I can hear Victoria Wood and Julie Walters repeatedly saying "319" in that sketch where Duncan Preston is a disgruntled hotel guest ("319 was down for a continental breakfast, a tart and a Daily Telegraph."  "Well, I can assure you I didn't have a woman in my room all night."  "Did you get your Daily Telegraph?").  If all the other classes of trains could somehow tie into skits by much loved comedy performers I'd be a lot better at remembering them.


Robert going for a position as the new hostess on Wheel of Fortune, there.

We got on board, and I was disappointed to see that Thameslink's silhouettes of the London skyline had been replaced by a blank wall.  Could they not spring for a Liver Building or a Beetham Tower?  Something a bit Northern and special.  Still, the moquette on the seats was pleasant - purple, obviously - and there were scrolling LED screens to tell us our next station.  Or, more specifically, our next "station stop", which is a horrific abuse of the language and a frustrating tautology.


It was all weirdly familiar, like a lenticular portrait where you can see two things at once.  As we got going, especially on the fast stretch over the Chat Moss, I was simultaneously in the North and on Thameslink; I was thirty eight and sixteen.  Memory and reality in collision.


The trains are faster and quieter than the current diesel services, though they won't be at their full potential until all the slow old trains have been stripped out of the timetable - probably around December.  Then the travel time between Liverpool and Manchester will be cut severely, and about time too.  It's always taken a bafflingly long time to get between the two greatest cities in the North.  Making them an easily commutable distance apart will help break down some of the "them and us" between them.


We rode the train all the way to Manchester Airport, the slightly-common computer voice being sure to tell us this was a Northern Electrics train.  It was certainly a smoother ride than I was used to over this route, though I will say these trains don't have the same beautiful electric whine as Northern's other electric services, over the Burnage line.  You might remember that I liked the noise of those trains so much I recorded it.  Those were Class 323s, and they have a soft, slow rise to their engine noise; the 319s are a little more mechanical and clunky.  Still, you didn't have to shout over them, and when we were held at a junction in Manchester, the whole train fell silent.  No more listening to the chug of a thirty year old diesel engine ticking over.

On the train back, which was 319363 by the way, I used the toilet.  These were always a tiny moment of hell on the Thameslink route; you'd open the door and find yourself trapped in a shit smeared cubicle with a pan bunged up with all the paper.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was clean and fragrant (though the air freshener still had First Capital Connect written on it), and the graphic they've used over the window to give you a bit of privacy was surprisingly pretty.


So those are the new electric trains to Manchester.  As the year goes on, more and more of them will be rolled out, including taking over the Preston services, so what's special right now will quickly become ordinary.  Soon people will complain about these trains the way they complain about all trains, but I like them, and not just because they made me feel young again.

Robert was chuffed anyway.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Day Four: Special


It was barely eight thirty when I crossed the Infinity Bridge over the Tees.  Far too early to be up on a Sunday morning.  I'd actually been awake since six, desperately trying to pad out my time in the hotel.  It's difficult to amuse yourself in a Premier Inn when all you have is Freeview and an iPhone with slow internet access.  It's not exactly Rio in carnival season.  I'd gone and had breakfast in the Beefeater next door, even though it wasn't included in the room rate, just for something to do.  The only other people in the restaurant were a mother and son; the boy was wearing a wetsuit, ready for his day on the white water course.  I'd filled myself with a huge cooked breakfast - I'd even had some toast afterwards - and even then it was still too early.  I showered and packed - and even then it was still too early.

I was excited.  I was excited because I was going home.  I was excited because I had only four stations to collect that day.  But most of all, I was excited because I was going to finally visit Teesside Airport railway station.


Teesside Airport is Britain's least used station.  Last year it got eight visitors.  Not eight a day. Eight all year.  Eight people used this station, and let's face it, they were probably all as geeky as me.  It gets two trains a week, both on a Sunday, one in one direction and one going back, and that's it.  And finally, I was going to be able to cross it off the map.

After a quick pause in the Sainsbury's Local to get myself a Double-Decker for my lunch I reached Thornaby station.  It was still too early.  The ticket office was closed.  There were a lot of people on the platform, a surprisingly large amount in fact, but then a Manchester Airport train arrived and whisked them all away.

I sat in the waiting room and kicked my heels.  Listened to some more Amy Poehler.  Used the loo.  Stuff to kill time.  Finally my train arrived.  It wasn't the one I'd planned on getting, it was an hour earlier, but I had to get the hell out of there and on to Eaglescliffe.  I couldn't take it any more.


Eaglescliffe may be one of the oddest stations around.  It's just two platforms in the south of Teesside, yet it gets direct services to London thanks to Grand Central, the independent rail operator.  It has a ticket office, but the ticket office is run by an independent company who have been franchised for the purpose.


Up top, the publicity material looked... well... amateurish.  It's run by Chester-le-track, who, somewhat irritatingly, bought the nationalrail.com domain name a few years ago and so get thousands of hits from people mistyping the address.  They seem like very nice people, and I'm sure they love the railways, but it all looks a bit home made.  Take a look at their national network map, for example.


It's all irregular angles and looks a bit off.  I mean, Cornwall is positively obscene.  Similarly, there was a "London Rail Connections" map, supplied by TfL, but with hand written neon stars like a greengrocer's saying We sell Travelcards for London here!  It felt a bit like men playing at running a railway, rather than the real thing.


The businesses outside were surprising in other ways.  I didn't expect there to be a fully licensed vegetarian restaurant in among the shops, or a motorcycle store, or a pub whose advertised entertainment was Roxy Tart, an "internationally famous female impersonator".  This was very different to the spit and sawdust Middlesbrough I'd left behind.


I walked south behind a happy family out for their Sunday constitutional. The dad and the adorable blonde moppet were having all the fun.  They ran on ahead, hand in hand, the boy occasionally hiding in the gateways to "frighten" his parents.  The mum, meanwhile, followed on, a shopping bag in one hand, pushing a tricycle in the other, resignedly practical.  She was still laughing and joking with the rest of the family.  There wasn't the seething resentment I'd have brought to the table, yet another reason why I should never spawn.

A steady stream of joggers bounced past, some more serious than others.  There is a bathtub curve for my tolerance of joggers.  At one end are people who are just out for a giggle and hoping to get a bit healthier; they're fine.  At the other end are professional athletes and marathon runners; they're fine too.  In the middle, and the ones I cannot stand, are the people who are amateurs but who act like they're professionals.  They have all the kit, the serious expressions, and an absolute conviction that they are better than you.  One man who passed me had a water pouch strapped to his chest with a pipe poking into his mouth, like a reverse colostomy bag.  I can't stand that.  You don't see Mo Farrah dressed like that.  I was tempted to kick him into the road.


I have absolutely no idea what that means.  I like to imagine it's a notice for the birds themselves, and that there have been many awkward pauses on the table when a blue tit has brought up EU subsidies and a couple of starlings have had to politely point out they don't like that sort of talk round here.

I'd been walking through Eaglescliffe; now I'd moved into Egglescliffe.  The similar names are not a coincidence.  Egglescliffe was the original settlement, and the reason for a railway station being built.  However, somewhere along the line, the sign at the station was printed up as Eaglescliffe, and didn't get amended.  Personally I think there was an outrageously snobbish signwriter down south somewhere who decided Egglescliffe was common and thought he'd make it better.  The new station resulted in new developments around it, and the new homes took the name of Eaglescliffe, leading to a century of furious postmen.


This all makes Egglescliffe/Eaglescliffe sound more exciting than it is; in reality it's another suburb with a large Tesco and retirement flats.  There was the thwack of hockey sticks as grown men hurled themselves around an all-weather pitch across the road.  I wasn't allowed to play hockey at school, due to my excessive competitiveness; I mean, if you give me a stick and tell me to get a ball off another player, obviously I'm going to use it as a weapon.  That's the easiest way to get the thing.

Further up was a pub advertising its Mother's Day steak deal with a poster saying "Licence to Grill", making me groan inside.  It's a Bond phrase that is continually corrupted by advertisers; that, and A View To A Kill, which usually becomes A View To A THRILL in another lazy article about how Lea Seydoux is a strong Bond woman and not just a girl and is 007's equal.  There are a whole load of film titles you never use, journalists; why not see if you can make something out of Quantum of Solace?


Allens West sat between the homes and the industrial estates, the railway line acting as a handy demarcation point.  I set myself up for the sign picture as cars clattered over the level crossing.


The early start came back to bite me now.  I had an hour to kill on the platform, the local area not being blessed with coffee shops and it being too early for the pub.  I took up residence in the shelter, leaning on the hard metal seats that are designed to support your arse but not let you get too comfortable.

I ate my Double Decker.  I listened to my iPod.  I had a pee in the bushes.  I wiped my hands with antibacterial gel.  And all the time, I could feel the excitement building up inside me.  Not long now!


I was in there so long the local fauna started to see me as part of the landscape.  A robin skipped into the shelter, not caring about the human inside, pecking away at the floor for scraps.  He flew off, but came back twenty minutes later for more.  I was still there.

I flexed my fingers.  I rolled my head.  I was tense and anxious now.  Come on, I thought. Come on.  And then I looked down and realised I was doing this:

video

I hadn't even noticed.  I was shuddering all over with the anxiety.  Frankly it was a relief when the train finally arrived: I'd have shaken my teeth right out of my face.  It was three minutes late, but it didn't matter.  I was finally on my way to Teesside Airport.

I sank into a seat with a window view and watched with nervous anticipation as the landscape rolled by.  There was an expanse of countryside, then I began to see the edges of the airport; security fences, mown grass, and then the lengthy runway.  I sat up, ready to jump off when the train stopped.

But... no.  I saw what looked like a station structure, a platform and a waiting shelter whizz by, but the train didn't stop.  I looked around me.  The guard was trying to sell a return to Sheffield to an old lady; he seemed unconcerned by our failure to stop.  I decided I must have seen a signal box or something.  That couldn't have been the station.  It must have been a different railway structure.

Yet, we were still going.  And the airport seemed to be receding.  There were houses appearing now.  I looked behind me, down the line, round the carriage.  No-one else cared.  Was I over-reacting?  Had I missed something?

The guard's voice broke over the tannoy.  "We're now approaching Dinsdale."

The horror of it hit me.  My stomach lurched.  To make up the late time, the driver had taken it upon himself to simply skip Teesside Airport.  It must have seemed like a safe bet - eight passengers a year, remember - and he probably would have got away with it if it wasn't for me.  Me, sat in the carriage, my head spinning.  I staggered onto the platform at Dinsdale and stood for a moment to get some air while the train took off.

I'd missed it.  I'd missed the one station I'd come here to collect.  Four days of travelling, all that expense, all those miles, and the one station I absolutely had to get had slipped out of my fingers.

At first I was angry, but, as often happens, it turned inwards and became gut-wrenching agony.  I felt so upset.  I felt tears at the back of my eyes.  I tried to make something out of the situation and went up and got the Dinsdale sign because, you know, while I was here.


Note the joyous expression.

I walked, slowly, back down to the platform.  There was another train to Darlington due in ten minutes; from there I could get a train to York, and from York to home.  I'd failed, I thought.  I'd failed the whole thing.



Then, like many angry, frustrated white men across the globe, I turned to Twitter as a way to vent my tension.  I tweeted Northern Rail.  I told them that the service skipped the Airport, and that it was the whole point of my trip.  They came back with "did you tell the guard you wanted to stop?"

"No," I replied.  "It's not a request stop so I didn't feel like I needed to."

The next train came in and with it came the ping of my phone.  Northern had replied with this:



Wait, what?

It seemed that Northern Rail were actually offering to stop the train for me.  I replied quickly, politely, trying not to betray my extreme enthusiasm, that I'd be very much up for that if it were at all possible.  There was a bit of a pause, then the person at Northern's Twitter asked what train I'd be on.  I said I was on my way to Darlington, so...

The reply came back:



Meanwhile, Robert had been sending me slightly concerned, slightly smug texts.  He'd managed to make it to Teesside Airport with very little bother the year before; he'd even made a new friend.  Suddenly his text was full of exclamations as Teesside Airport showed up on the next Darlington service: a stop inserted just for me.  I couldn't resist rubbing it in.  I'm a very bad winner.



Northern also tweeted:



The joy of the moment was quickly overcome by embarrassment.  I don't like being singled out; I don't like being "special".  The train was going to make an unscheduled stop, delaying all the passengers, and I was going to be the only person who got off.  It would be abundantly clear whose fault it all was.  I dashed into the Darlington station buffet in search of something to make me feel better.


Obviously, deep down, I was thrilled.  When I complained at Northern I was just venting tension.  I wasn't really expecting them to do anything; I was being that horrible person I always hate, fulminating against some poor lad behind a keyboard even though it wasn't his fault.  Part of me hoped that it would at least get reported.  That the driver wouldn't be allowed to get away with skipping timetabled stations.  But this...  I tweeted my thanks.



I did a bit of scanning back through the Northern timeline, and I believe the person on duty that day was Will.  Thank you Will.  You're quite clearly the best person working on Northern's Twitter feed.  Yes, even better than Tim (not least because Tim's gone over to the passenger information systems now).


When the time came, I made my way to the train.  The guard, thankfully, wasn't the one I'd had before; he was a chirpy, excessively cheery man who welcomed us aboard like the entertainment director on a cruise ship.  He shouted the destination and added, "plus, Teesside Airport, because someone needs to get off there."

"Erm... that's me," I said, then ran aboard and hid so my glowing red face didn't set off the station's sprinklers.

The guard was, let's just say, "quirky".  He gave out the safety messages in the form of rhyming couplets.  It was like having Pam Ayres making the announcements.  Normally, this would have irritated me beyond all belief, but he was going to let me off at my station (yes, it was my station now) so I forgave him.

As we left Dinsdale, I made my way to the back of the train to wait for the airport.  I wanted to remind him that I was getting off.  He grinned and opened the door for me.  "I hope you're not going to wait for a train back!"

And then they were gone and I was alone on the least used platform in Britain.


Teesdale Airport doesn't look especially lonely.  Compared with some of the others I've visited, it's positively urban.  I've been to stations built onto the side of lonely cliff faces, on the edge of river estuaries, in the middle of factories.  This didn't feel especially isolated.


The problem with the station is that it's in the wrong place.  It was opened in 1971 as an admirable attempt to tie different forms of transportation together.  Other airports across the country would kill for a busy railway line right next to their land, and Teesside Airport took advantage.


Unfortunately, as you can see if you squint, the terminal buildings are off in the far distance.  If there was a bus, perhaps, using that nice turning circle, then the station might be more attractive, but as it was, hardly anyone used it.  Slowly the service was cut back and back until we ended up with the two trains on a Sunday situation.

At the same time, Durham Tees Valley Airport (as it's now known) suffered a collapse in its passenger numbers.  An ambitious redevelopment plan saw a new terminal built, just as the Credit Crunch destroyed people's finances and ability to travel.  The number of people passing through the gates went from just under a million in 2006 to less than 150,000 last year.  There are no longer any charter flights from the airport, only a couple of scheduled services a day to Aberdeen and Amsterdam.

It is, in short, a dead station serving a zombie airport.  There is a suggestion that rebuilding the platforms closer to the new terminal might help but with the airport doing so badly, no-one has the time or the inclination.  The polite thing to do would be to kill it off.

I didn't care about all this of course.  I'd made it to the hallowed ground.


LOOK AT THE JOY.

(A word about the name: National Rail calls it Tees-side Airport, the Northern sign boards say it's Teesside Airport.  I flick between the two depending on what mood I'm in).


The lack of a pavement anywhere is another barrier to rail users trying to get to the airport.  Imagine wheeling a suitcase along that cracked tarmac.  I followed the road by high wire fences that offered me a glimpse of the runway, past a small flight training school and a series of tiny private planes.  There was no sound, an incredibly disconcerting feeling at an airport.  There wasn't a single aircraft actually running that day.

 
I carried on past hangars that looked distinctly World War II and saw the distant shape of the new, shiny terminal.  It was screened off from me by a heavy security fence with a keypad controlled gate.  Two women, dressed like cleaners, let themselves out through the gate and looked surprised to see a pedestrian wandering by.


A little further on was a building marked the International Fire Training Centre: probably the reason the airport still functions at all.  It was currently flying Austrian, German and Israeli flags, and I imagined planes of air fire crews being deposited and taking off every week, spending their days spraying foam over fake plane crashes.

Beyond an impressive roundabout that was no doubt built anticipating an upswing in passenger numbers, I headed into the little village of Middleton St George.  I bet the residents here were delighted when the airport experienced a crash in popularity.  Farm buildings had been turned into homes, and new estates had been constructed to take advantage of that fast dual carriageway to Darlington.


I passed under the railway line, closer to the centre of the village, and found more new estates.  Blocks of executive flats and four bedroom detached homes were grouped in cul-de-sacs off the main road.  In many of their windows were neatly printed flyers: Middleton St George - No More Homes Here.  Given that their houses couldn't have been built before the turn of the millennium, I considered this grossly hypocritical.  I wondered what the residents in the older, traditional cottages thought when these three storey blocks sprung up on the edge of the village?  I wonder if they had flyers too?


Certainly the two metre high sign on the other side of the road shouting in red letters "Private Property - Keep Off - Strictly no dog walkers" hinted at a burbling class war.  The centre of the village added to the feeling.  It wasn't that it was rough, so much as it was a proper working village that you'd expect to find in this part of the world.  Small, undistinguished homes crammed next to one another, a Spar, a hairdressers, a chemist that had emergency contraception available here on a big red sticker in the window.


I was still early so I found a pub.  It was packed with locals on the bar side, so I went over to the lounge where a woman was celebrating her birthday with her husband and two little girls.  They had crisp packets sliced open on the table in front of them, and every now and then a man on his way to the loo from the bar would stop to hug her and wish her all the best.


I drank my Newky Brown and slowly came back down to earth.  The adrenaline of the day was popping in my ears, making me shake all over; the next day I was absolutely wrecked as my body tried to rebalance all the odd chemicals that had flooded me.  I'd done it though.  Teesside bloody Airport.  Finally crossed off the map.

With the beer inside me I headed to Dinsdale station for the second time that day.  I was a lot cheerier now.  And maybe a little bit pissed.


Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Day Three: It Just Won't Quit


The landscape was dystopian.  Not the real kind, the terrifying kind you get in Threads or Children of Men, the type that makes you want to hug your loved ones close.  It was the kind of post-apocalyptic you got in a lot of straight to video films in the 80s.  They were directed by people who'd seen the poster for Mad Max (not the actual film, mind) and they were produced by shady businessmen who thought the film industry was full of suckers he could leech off.


Look closely in among the scrub and the abandoned factories and the railway lines and you can spot Marc Singer hiding from a gang of crazed biker thugs, his laser pistol held dramatically against his face.  He's with a girl who's been rendered mute by the devastation, but who knows how to fight, and who's wearing an outfit that's three parts chamois leather to eight parts exposed flesh.  She's played by an actress called Tawny or Meredith or Amber, and later on she'll take her top off because then they can tease it in the trailers.  There will also be some rubber faced radioactive mutants in there somewhere, because there always is, and then it can be released to your local video shop-slash-off licence where it will hang around on the bottom shelf with Porky's III: Porky's Revenge and a crime film called something like Deadly Passion which exists only for people who don't have access to porn.


This was South Bank station, located somewhere between Middlesbrough, Redcar British Steel, and the dust flats of Tarsus V.  I was unsurprisingly the only person to get off the train.  I hustled to the exit, keen to get away from the desolation.


Beyond the station was a wrecking yard and the high brick walls of anonymous industrial plants.  This was a place for dirty work.  It was for the stuff that civilisation didn't want to see.


I followed the road down to a dual carriageway, which conveniently sliced the business area off from the residential part of the town.  There wasn't a crossing, because who would walk this way?  I dashed across, pausing only to lean on the crash barrier at the halfway point, and entered the area of South Bank proper.

There was a long road lined with old pubs, discount stores, takeaways.  It was the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday but it already felt tired.  The area felt like it didn't have the strength to keep going, only for the alarm to wake it up every morning and it forced itself to go on.


Pockets of regeneration popped up here and there.  Houses had been knocked down and replaced by new ones; patches of green hinted at busy streets turned into open spaces.  A community centre came with a set of elaborate gates and the unlikely name of Golden Boy Green.  The occasional bit of "improving" artwork graced a corner.


Most curious were a series of older houses with strangely curved roofs.  They looked Dutch or Belgian, somehow, definitely not English.  It was a weird moment of architectural fancy in an otherwise plain environment.


Another dual carriageway, and a retail park, and I was starting to worry.  I knew that my next station, James Cook University Hospital, was a fair way away, but I hadn't realised it would take this long to reach it.  The roads were long and straight and dull which added to my anxiety.  If I missed my train, there was a two hour wait for the next one, and I didn't much fancy that.  South Bank wasn't exactly painting the cheeriest picture of this part of Teesside.


I passed over the former Normanby branch, which operated trains between Middlesbrough and a brickworks and was now a footpath, and carried on past candy-coloured blocks of flats.  The path swung away from the road, taking me past a boarded up school and litter-strewn concrete.  A left by the Buccaneer pub, which featured some brilliantly 1950s Joe Maplin font work, and I disappeared into the streets of Ormesby.


I'd given up hope of reaching James Cook in time for my train.  Cross referencing the Next Train app and Google Maps on my phone (remember when we used to just hope for the best?) I'd concluded that the station was way too far for me to reach in time, so I slowed my brisk canter to a saunter.


The streets were empty in a uniquely "Saturday afternoon" way.  The residents, I felt, were busy being together and having fun.  I imagined families around the tv watching the football, piled into cars for day trips, on buses back from town. I pictured mums herding kids round the table for sandwiches.  Dads finally getting round to fixing that squeaky back gate.  Birthday parties for children.  I imagined normal, happy, family lives going on behind each front door.  As though to prove my point, one family had spilled out into the garden.  A dad and two children, neither more than six, were playing with their cars in the flowerbeds outside their house.  The father lifted the dirt with a dinky digger, while the little girl whizzed round and round with a sports car.


I realised that I wasn't enjoying this trip as much as I should have done.  Now that I'm getting to the end of the Northern Rail map - these stations took me past the 80% complete mark - trips are becoming a bit "tick box".  Instead of "where shall I go?" it's become "where haven't I been?".


It didn't help that the one station I'd been looking forward to, James Cook, seemed to be out of my grasp.  The station is one of the newest in Britain, only opening in July 2014.  It was one of the reasons I'd left off visiting this stretch in the first place - there's nothing quite so annoying as collecting a set of stations, only for Northern to add another to the map afterwards (I'm looking at you, Dalegarth).

But then I realised there might be hope.  My obsessive checking of the rail app revealed that the train to James Cook was late.  Well, sort of; the software still hasn't been updated with the station's name so it just says [Unknown] between Marton and Middlesbrough.  Point was, I had a valuable couple of extra minutes to make it to the station.  And now I could see it.


No, it won't win any prizes for architectural beauty, but it doesn't need to.  On one side is Ormesby Beck, and on the other is James Cook University Hospital, one of the largest in the country.  The hospital is familiar to me due to the BF's obsessive viewing of Helicopter Heroes; there's always a chopper being dispatched to the hospital from some horse riding accident somewhere on the North York Moors.  The station's main purpose is to give greater access to the hospital, so it's no wonder it ended up as a single platform squished in besides the railway.  Cheap but useful.

I crossed the footbridge, increasingly hopeful that I might catch the train.  There were still people on the platform: a good sign.  I didn't dare loiter too long for the sign pic, hence the rather disastrous photo you see below.


Look at that flailing gay hand.  Oh the shame.

The picture also cleared up a question mark I'd always had.  When it was announced, and during construction, the station was referred to as James Cook University Hospital.  When it appeared on the map, however, it was just James Cook, with an odd-looking gap underneath that hinted at a last minute name change.  All the signs on the platform just said James Cook, so it looked like that was its name now.


Personally I prefer James Cook.  It's shorter, it's easier to say, and it's one of those stations that doesn't give away where it is in the slightest.  I always like those stations, the ones named after people or the wrong local attraction.  The Paris Metro is very good at this: it has stations named Victor Hugo and Louise Michel, while the Tube absolutely refuses to have stations named Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace just to annoy the tourists.  Well done them.


The train arrived just as I hit the platform, and I fell onto it, raspily breathing like a paedophile at a children's gymnastics display.  I'd not long recovered before I got off at Gypsy Lane.


I had an irrational grudge against Gypsy Lane.  The last time I'd come this way, back in 2013, I caught a train from Battersby to Middlesbrough that was full of drunken, boorish oafs.  They were noisy and loud and rude.  They swore at the top of their voices, danced in the aisles, laughed raucously.  They were so drunk, they missed their stop, which was apparently the conductor's fault, and they started demanding Northern Rail pay for their taxis from Marton to, yes, Gypsy Lane.  (Northern didn't, I hasten to add).

Hiding at the back of the train my heart sank.  Was this the kind of person I could expect when I visited Gypsy Lane?


Having actually been there, I can only report confusion.  The area around Gypsy Lane seemed like a perfectly ordinary suburb, very middle class, very buttoned up.  It didn't seem like the kind of district that would produce lager louts.


I skirted the edge of the estate on wide verges, laid out to direct through traffic away from the little cul-de-sacs.  Footpaths ran to bus shelters.  It reminded me of Sundon Park, the district of Luton where I grew up; it came from the same era, and had the same ethos of pedestrian routes connecting small closes.


I cut under the busy A174 and through a stretch of grassland, until I reached a narrow alleyway between houses.  It was incredibly begrudging.  Clearly the developers had been under instructions to maintain pedestrian access, and hated every minute of it, so they provided the smallest possible walkway.


I emerged into a quiet tree lined avenue and a different social whirl.  The houses here were large and uncompromising.  They had gates with video entry phones.  This was where the captains of Middlesbrough's industries lived, though the captains were different from the Industrial Revolution days; at least two homes incorporated the Sikh Khanda into their design.  (Full disclosure; I recognised the logo, but couldn't think where it was from; I thought it might be the logo of the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars).


To try and inject a bit of excitement into the staid, lifeless environment, I put some heavy rock on my iPod.  Back in 1993, I was being heavily influenced by a new friend, Davinia; she was into rock music and wore leather jackets and DMs and went drinking in a pub in town, so in a craven attempt to be more liked by her I bought Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell, even though I hadn't, and still haven't, heard Bat Out Of Hell.  I don't know if she was actually impressed by my purchase, but we carried on drinking together throughout Sixth Form, so I guess it worked?

Pictured: me, my oldest friend, Heather, and Davinia. So cool.
In retrospect, I'm glad I picked Meat Loaf instead of one of Davinia's weedy Bon Jovi albums, because he has a great voice and the songs on the album appeal to my fondness for the ludicrously over the top.  Put it this way; the single version of I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That) is five minutes long, while the album version is twelve minutes.  Even the song titles are ridiculous; in addition to IWDAFL(BIWDT), there's Objects In The Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are, Life Is A Lemon And I Want My Money Back and Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere).  Bless you, Jim Steinman, and your camp instincts.

My final station, at the end of the avenue, was Marton.  The road was heavily painted with double yellow lines here to stop commuters from polluting the posh bits with their lower-class cars, while the actual station - another single platform - was up on the viaduct.


That was another swathe of stations wiped off the map, but if I'm honest, it was all just foreplay.  The following morning would be the main event.  Finally I'd collect Teesside Airport.