Sunday 27 January 2008

Where Do We Go From Here?

I'm resisting the urge to continue from the title into You Must Love Me, from Evita, and instead will move on with the post. I thought I'd do a sort of run-down of where I have to go, partly to gather my thoughts, and partly to give myself an idea of where there still is yet to go. If I'm totally honest, this is a sort-of compensation post. I was thinking about going out today, but one look at the Sunday service timetable, plus the massive engineering works and rail replacement buses on the Wirral Line, made me chicken out. So this is a kind of catch all update so I feel like I'm doing something.

Broken down, I've still got the following to do:

Wirral Line:

Main line - Bromborough Rake, Bromborough, Eastham Rake, Hooton
Chester branch - Capenhurst, Chester
Ellesmere Port branch - Little Sutton, Overpool, Ellesmere Port

Northern Line:

Southport branch - Bootle Oriel Road, Bootle New Strand, Seaforth & Litherland, Waterloo, Ainsdale, Hillside, Birkdale, Southport
Ormskirk branch - Town Green, Aughton Park, Ormskirk

City Line:

Main line - Edge Hill, Wavertree Technology Park, Broad Green, Roby, Huyton
Newton-le-Willows section - Whiston, Rainhill, Lea Green, St Helens Junction, Earlestown, Newton-le-Willows
St Helens section - Prescot, Eccleston Park, Thatto Heath, St Helens Central, Garswood

Stations which are in Merseyside, but which are part of other lines, but are on the map, and are therefore teasing me with their presence: Upton, Heswall, Meols Cop, Rainford

So that is 36 stations (possibly 40 - cough) still to do. Not bad - a few weeks work - though I think I'll drag it out a bit to make it interesting. Well, I say "interesting...."

Sunday 20 January 2008

Decay, and other cheery thoughts

Thirty-one: that's me. I finally tripped conclusively into my fourth decade on the 12th, and I can't pretend I wasn't a little miserable. My job sucks more than a Dyson on super, and frankly getting even older doesn't help. You can muck about in rubbish jobs when you're in your twenties, but once you hit thirty one, you need to have a - big word - "career". I am damn good at my job - too good if anything - but I don't want it anymore. It's sort of like being really good at football, but living in a rugby town; you can fill the slot, but it's not really what you want.

So I wasn't on my finest form at the weekend. Plus of course you have that whole January/end of Christmas/holy mother of God will this winter never END! part to this time of year, and melancholy was setting in. Frankly, there was only one thing to get me out of this funk. You guessed it: tarting!

I can't believe how a project that only a few months ago was just a figment of my imagination has become so important, so pleasurable to me. I get genuinely excited as I sit on my first train out, and I love to pore over my A-Z to plan my routes and stations. Seeing the new places, collecting them, running over the photos - it all adds up to a pleasurable little experience for me.

It was a Monday, a birthday treat day off, and so I used it to break into new territory. Hello City Line! There was a practical reason for this. As I touched on in a previous post, at weekends, the City Line trains become more sporadic: this way I would be able to take advantage of weekday frequencies to venture out. I pitched up at Lime Street with the intention of getting the first City Line train I saw.

If you look at the map, you'll see that "City Line" is actually a misnomer. Unlike the Wirral and Northern Lines, or indeed a London Underground line, the City Line is just a Merseytravel confection. It's used to group together the local services run by a number of train operators. The red lines on the map extend as far as Preston and Warrington -indeed, they bleed off the map to Manchester. The trains also share rails with long-distance services to London and Scotland and all points beyond.

For Merseytart purposes, the new rules are these: I'll be covering the Merseytravel areas only. These are the stations in the yellow area on the map - so Garswood's in, but Wigan's out. This is for both practical (my "all areas" ticket only goes that far) and also creative reasons. I think I need some kind of boundary here, otherwise I'll end up getting every station that goes from Liverpool to Norwich or something ridiculous. (NOTE TO SELF: Do not even think about doing that).
The first train from Lime Street was a service to Manchester Oxford Road, via the south of Liverpool, so I climbed on board. I had already decided that I would go to the very edge of the map, and then work my way back into the city. I had a very real fear in the back of my head that I would board a train at some unknown station, meaning to go to St Helens, only to find it was a non-stop Glasgow train. This way, I knew that any Liverpool bound train would be fair game.

There was immediately a difference in the rolling stock. I'm not a train spotter, by any means, but this train was certainly a step up from my usual Merseyrail commuter fodder - there were deep seats, and plush cushions, and even tables. It felt like a real train, not just a little hop on, hop off engine, and it made me feel like I was going on a real, proper journey this time.

I was headed out to Hough Green, an anomalous station on the map. Even though it's actually outside Merseyside, for some reason, Merseytravel tickets are valid here without paying a premium. I was one of only three people to get off here, and I wasn't too impressed, I have to admit. It was a cold morning, admittedly, but the station seemed grey and unpleasant. I had a brief wander round the local area, but that was blandly suburban and unexciting, which was a shame; I had three quarters of an hour to wait until the next train out of here.

Instead I loitered on the platform. According to Wikipedia, the building at Hough Green is a Grade II listed building. I can only think that there is not much worth preserving elsewhere in the town. It was grim. The building might have been attractive, once, but it seemed dishevelled and disregarded. The ticket office was shielded by a badly cobbled together porch - in fact, I wasn't sure if it was open, it was in such disrepair. The door onto the platform was a massive steel affair which just brings to mind those covers they put over the doors of recently burnt out houses. I could certainly think of nicer stations to hang around for a while.

There was one unexpected delight at the station, but even that seemed symptomatic of the neglect at the station. Tucked away under the awning was the remnants of a charming station clock. True to form, though, it was not only not working, but it was actually missing its hands, and the face was filthy. The Merseytravel Corporate Identity Mandarins had also been at work, and painted the edge of it a completely inappropriate yellow. The clock made me unaccountably angry. This wasn't just a random architectural feature that had been neglected; it was a real, historic item that would be of great use to the passengers of Hough Green. Is a simple hint about when the next train might come too much to ask? Given the infrequency of trains to the station, a clock would be of a great help to the users. But it's been allowed to decay, and I suppose when they finally get round to revamping this station in around 2015 or something, this station will get a dot matrix next train indicator which will render this harmless feature even more obsolete. Never mind listing the station, and resting on your laurels; make preserving the building a reality and make it worth the paper that Grade II is written on.

I was happy when my Northern Rail train turned up to whisk me away to my next stop, Halewood. In a complete contrast to the 19th century Hough Green, Halewood's ticket office was 80s all the way, a red brick Brookside station similar to the glorified sheds I had already seen at Kirkby and Fazakerley, and was consequently completely uninteresting. But, Halewood did have one bonus: an ALF!

I seriously hadn't expected to find any Attractive Local Feature boards on this trip, as I'd assumed they were a Merseyrail thing; but I was extremely happy to see it. The Halewood Triangle, incidentally, is the name given to a country park created on the site of a former railway junction. There used to be a loop line, circling Liverpool's suburbs, which ran from Hunts Cross to Aintree; it managed to struggle on through Beeching before finally closing in 1979. The trackbed has been lifted now, and it forms part of the Trans-Pennine Trail cycle route. (A vague, idle thought has just occurred: are there any station remnants on this route? Hmmm...)

The next station on the line is Hunt's Cross, which, of course, I had already "done" as part of the Northern Line, so I wasn't keen to go there again. Besides, the next "all-stations" City Line train (instead of heading straight to Lime Street) wasn't going to be for another hour or so. I decided that instead I would walk right past Hunt's Cross and head out to Liverpool South Parkway, just to kill the time. I hate hanging around on station platforms, and I'd much rather be kept busy.

It was lunchtime, and I had to walk past a high school on my way from Halewood. The school gates were surrounded by gangs of kids eating chips, laughing, jockeying. I instinctively felt that slight contraction of the stomach in fear at the sight of a teenage gang. As I pushed past, I was just waiting to be happy slapped. But they parted quite politely, moved out of my way without a second glance, and it hit me: that's because you're a man, a grown adult, and therefore a figure of (limited) authority. In fact, you're old enough to be their Dad.

You hear all these pensioners on tv, celebrating their hundreth birthday and saying "I still feel like a teenager inside", and you think: yeah, right. Yet here I was feeling exactly the same. In my head, I'm young, but to these teenagers, I'm old, past it, a fogey or whatever they call it now. I may as well have waved a telegram from the Queen as I walked past. I'm an adult. That's a weird experience. It reminds me of the first time I was ever called a "man" by a complete stranger - coincidentally, as I sat down opposite a woman and her child on a Merseyrail train. The mother told her little girl to make some room so the "man" could sit down, and I felt like saying, "obviously, you don't mean me". I was about 24, but I still didn't feel grown up. Still don't.

With the noise of Stannah stairlifts in my ears and cholostomy bags dancing in front of my eyes, I pressed on through Hunt's Cross. I had resolved to be healthier in 2008, so you can imagine how pleased I was to find that practically my entire route to Liverpool South Parkway was lined with chippies. Or at least it seemed that way. Every time I turned a corner the smell of batter seemed to assault me, making my stomach growl sinisterly.

If I had more time, I would have had a poke round Allerton Cemetary en route; there's nothing like a walk through a silent graveyard on a winter's day to refresh you and fill you with contemplative thoughts (and to remind you that you may be a decrepit loser, but it could be a lot worse). Instead I bypassed the station in search of what remained of Garston. Mr D had queried in the comments on an earlier post what was left of the station, and I couldn't think. It had been closed when Liverpool South Parkway was constructed as a connection between the City and Northern Lines.

Sadly, the road down to the station has been fenced off, so I poked my hand through the bars and took a snap. Even more sadly, I seem to have deleted this shot by accident somewhere along the line, so I have nothing to show for it! Basically, there's nothing left. From what I could see, squinting through the railings, the station building and platforms are long gone, and it looks like an electrical substation has been installed in their place. You'll have to take my word for it, I'm afraid.

Anyways, off to Liverpool South Parkway. I had read that the head of Virgin Trains called this station a "white elephant", and that was why Virgin would not stop there. At the time I had been annoyed by this. From a purely practical level, connecting two stations as close as Allerton and Garston with one building seemed logical. Walking round the deserted station on that Monday, though, I began to wonder if he was right. There was no-one there at all. On my previous visit, I had assumed it was because it was a Sunday, but there didn't seem to be any excuse now. The station still shone as new, but it didn't seem like anyone was breaking their neck to dirty it up with their presence.

Another train, and I was at West Allerton. The stairs from the platform to the surface were the rustiest ones I have ever seen. Every single step seemed to be completely encrusted in brown, and I was genuinely apprehensive about walking on them. If I was going to die, I wanted something better on my tombstone than "killed by falling through some stairs" (preferably something more like, "died while making love to his boyfriend, Russell Tovey, at their home in Antigua").

The surface station seemed to be another 80s replacement, and from the platform side it seemed uninspiring. There were a couple of interesting features though which made me think that perhaps someone, somewhere in British Rail in the 80s had a little bit of soul and heart.

I'd not seen any similar name signs on any other stations, and even in its decaying state, it looks interesting. The font looks suspiciously like Gill Sans, the typeface invented for the Underground, or perhaps something from the 1950s. More interesting, however, was the sign above the entrance, which I nearly missed:

A small station in the fag-end of Liverpool, but it looks like one architect still had the romance of the railways in mind. I wonder if this sign was cribbed from the original station building. Whatever its provenance, it was another of those little subtle glories this project occasionally throws up.

My day trip was nearly over, with just one more station to visit today. The road between West Allerton and Mossley Hill parallels the railway, and I could see the overhead lines down cul-de-sacs as I walked. The rain that had been threatening all day made a half-hearted effort to fall at this point, big heavy drops that seemed to be only a token effort on behalf of the giant grey clouds that had been following me around.

I had no idea what to expect at Mossley Hill. In fact, I didn't even know where I was, really. The Merseyrail map has become my map of the city, in the same way the Underground map is my default for London; I refer to the A-Z only to find a route between stations. If you gave me a car I expect I would have real problems finding it again. But there it was, and, pleasingly, the station master was in the middle of mopping the floor as I approached. I'm always pleased to see people caring for train stations, and Hough Green had illustrated what can happen when they are neglected.

The building was another 80s affair, but it was nicely done, and certainly better than the brick boxes seen elsewhere. Mint glass and concrete, with a skylight above the booking hall to let natural light in, and hanging baskets for colour. It was pretty, and clean. Kudos to you, Mr Mossley Hill Stationmaster; I was pleased to end my City Line splurge here, on a high note.

This first trip out reminded me why the City Lines are the red-headed step-child of the Merseytravel rail system. On the Northern and Wirral lines, you get the feeling that this is a local, integrated network, that people care about. The station buildings are smart and clean and have attention paid to them. These stations carried an air of neglect about them, though, from Hough Green's dead clock to West Allerton's rusty stairs. Even Mossley Hill had less than inspiring platform areas. They felt ignored, and I guess that's because no-ones interested in them. If you're Northern Rail, who manage the stations, you're not that interested because the revenue is not going to be as great as from other long-distance stations. If you're Merseytravel, you're less interested in a network which you don't have much influence over, unlike the Merseyrail services where you award the franchise. So the stations fall through the gaps, which is a shame. I hope that other City Line stations prove me wrong; I hope they're loved. Otherwise this blog could get a lot more depressing, really fast!