Saturday 29 March 2008

Action Adventure

There are some people who quite literally recoil in horror when I explain that I use public transport. They cannot believe that any civilised person would actually subject themselves to a journey with complete strangers. I may as well admit that I like sex with chihuahas; it carries the same abomination factor.

I like trains, and I like train journeys. I arrive at work relaxed and calm, having enjoyed (a) a seat where someone else is doing the driving (b) a constant stream of good music, uninterrupted by imbecilic breakfast DJs, thanks to my iPod and (c) a couple of dozen pages of a good novel (this week: The Long Firm). Isn't that better than being jammed in a Fiesta on the M53?

There are times when I see their point, though, and Thursday night was one of them. I was sat on the train, reading away while I listened to my iPod (cliche alert! - Dusty Springfield), and I was so caught up with it that I completely missed the altercation going on behind me. The raised voices were a sort of backdrop to I Only Wanna Be With You that I just wasn't processing. It was only when my neighbours leapt up and stared behind me that I realised there was a full blown ruckus in progress.

Self-preservation instincts kicked in, and I moved too. Two shaven headed men in their early twenties were, basically, smacking seven bells out of each other, though one was doing less well than the other. He was sprawled over the seat, while the other man repeatedly punched him in the face.

The train pulled into Green Lane, and a couple of people got off; but mostly people just stared. No-one moved to intervene. I found myself watching their faces. Some were nauseated, some were scared, but most people seemed to be enjoying it. A fair few were smiling. It was as though Merseyrail had put on some theatre for their entertainment.

The train left the station, and they were still at it; a fat teenage girl who was with them was shouting at them to stop, but not with any great passion or ferocity. It was that bored exclamation you let out when the dog sniffs something it shouldn't.

Cavalry! Four Merseyrail guards came through the carriage, and I wondered (a) who had told them and (b) are there always four guards on a train? It seems a bit excessive. The fighters spotted them before they arrived, and stopped immediately - they didn't quite adjust their clothes and whistle, but as near as dammit.

My role in the little show was at an end though, because it was Birkenhead Central, so I missed the men's defence. From what I saw, it appeared to be of the "ah, we're just having a laugh" variety.

The guilt washed over me as I left the station. Should I have intervened? The ferocity of their fight would have no doubt spilled onto any good samaritan, and I'm a coward at the best of times. Should I have contacted the guards? Actually I don't even know how you'd do that - is there such a thing as a communication cord on today's trains? It felt wrong, being on that train as two men engaged in violent, angry fisticuffs before our eyes - but there was nowhere to go.

It did make me rethink my pro-public transport stance, at least for a second. Though not as much as the man sat opposite me on Friday who spent the entire journey from Bache talking loudly into a handsfree mobile. He was well-dressed, obviously wealthy, but a thousand times more irritating to his fellow passengers than the battling baldies. But please go back to my original point: I love trains and I love train journeys. Besides, a little bit of bloody violence adds a frisson to your day!

Tuesday 11 March 2008

The Cheshire Set

Another Sunday, and I say! We're orf into Cheshire, that well known county of monied types. How simply marvellous it is to go perambulating in a locomotive through the delightful rural scenery. What ho!

Except, of course, the reality is rather less glamorous. Just as Merseyrail's Merseyside stations sometimes reveal places of astonishing, surprising beauty instead of the expected urban mess(see West Kirby or Hightown), so these stations are unexpectedly grimy and filthy and dirty. The Wirral Line reaches down into the county and only touches the industrial world of Cheshire, and there's not a gymkhana in sight.

After fruitless attempts to renew my railpass at Green Lane (the computerised till wouldn't let me renew it on the 2nd, as it didn't run out until the 3rd - sigh) I took the first train south. Unfortunately it was a Chester train, so I had to get out at Hooton and loiter with MerseyTart intent.

Hooton's famous. Well, I say famous; it's appeared in print, in Bill Bryson's legendary Notes from a Small Island:

"Hooton offered the world not only a mildly ridiculous name, but the dumpiest British Rail station I ever hope to sneeze in."

I think Bill is being overly harsh here, but only because a rail replacement service meant he missed Rock Ferry. Yes, it's lacking on that country charm. It's a big junction, really, as the point where the Chester and Ellesmere Port lines split, and it's in the middle of nowhere, and is now largely important for park and ride purposes. It does, however, have an ALF, and therefore I will forgive it the worst of its sins. Who doesn't love a giant pine cone? The Wirral Country Park, as I have mentioned on previous occasions, is the former West Kirby-Hooton line - further reinforcing the station's "junction and not much else" status.

Hooton also has this pretty little laurel over its entrance (bastardised by Merseyrail colour demons as usual, but there you go), and... Oh I admit it. Hooton doesn't seem quite so bad because, basically, I know what follows. The rest of my day out was a steady descent downhill.

I should have taken the hint at Hooton. Out on the platform is a hint at the thwarted ambitions of the branch I was about to take, in the form of an old destination board. The Chester line is present and correct, but... Helsby? Back when electrification snaked its way down the Wirral, the intention was to send it all the way to Helsby, and the junction with the Warrington/Chester line. As usual though, ambition gave way to budget cuts, and now the whole thing's been pretty much abandoned. Beyond Ellesmere Port there's now a barely-there shuttle service which mainly services the oil terminals along the Mersey coast. It doesn't even have a Sunday service, so there was no hope of me extending my trip any further.

Instead, Little Sutton was next, and was initially promising. A station building, a pretty overbridge... but get up close and the truth was revealed.

The station building was resolutely, absolutely closed, bricked up and sealed from every angle. There would be no Bernard Cribbins-type station master here - just a rather depressing building to offer a little shelter to people hovering in the rain. And it's a shame, because it could be a nice building, and would certainly improve security on the line.

Now I don't want to sound all Jacqui Smith Sieg Heil Control Freak, but I believe that staffed stations are a very important factor in getting people to use the railways and enjoy using the railways. You instinctively feel a lot safer at a staffed station, and a lot more secure hanging around for a train. And from a revenue perspective, it's a lot more difficult to fare dodge. I'm willing to be that I was one of the few people on the trains on this branch who actually held a valid ticket: the rest are meant to purchase one from the ticket inspector, who didn't show up (it was Sunday, after all). Little Sutton wouldn't take too much effort - open up a passageway, a single office with a ticket window, and you're away. I'm not even going to advocate fare gates even though I think they are a God send and should be on every single station; just get a ticket office in there, and watch it pay for itself.

With the obligatory snap of the station behind me, I tootled off towards the next station. The weather today was what could technically be described as "crisp", but quite pleasant actually; clear blue skies, and no gloves required. It was lunchtime, and somehow everywhere acquired a rosy glow of Sunday pleasures; I passed a football game on a recreation ground, and walked around strolling pensioners on a perambulation (yes, fine, you're enjoying the day -just enjoy it faster, you're blocking the pavement). I couldn't quite smell Yorkshire pudding and beef, but I was certainly picturing it.

There have been a number of times on these trips when I've wandered through less, erm, salubrious areas in search of a station. Most times I've been aware of their reputation before I arrived, or have had some kind of indication that maybe I shouldn't wave my iPod about with gay abandon. This was the starkest change in tone I'd ever experienced though. There I was, happily wandering from Little Sutton in full Richard Briers mode, when bang! I turned a corner and suddenly I was in Overpool, and an episode of Shameless. It was literally a matter of turning a corner to find a street of mangy shops, with kids doing wheelies outside on BMXs, and run down rows of council houses. I was taken aback at the starkness of the change.

Overpool station was built in the 80s, and since it's not a Merseyside station, it was done on the cheap. Worse than Little Sutton's closed ticket office, they didn't even bother building one here, and the station sign is behind a high pointy fence - almost as if they're trying to protect it from the outsiders. The moss growing on the name doesn't bode well. I apologise for it being called "Over", but from the other side (a) the sun was hitting the sign full on, so you couldn't read the name at all (b) the BR symbol was even more green and grey than this one and (c) I was pulling a stupid face, so you'll have to put up with this. The fence gives it a good bit of urban grit though: a theme than continued when I went down to the platform to find two teenage girls lounging over the actually quite nice shelters on the platform, looking like Vicki Pollard.

Can I be brutal here? Can I ask why teenage girls insist on wearing pink velour tracksuits? I mean, first of all, it's pink; no-one who isn't Barbie looks good in that colour. Second, it's velour. Who wants to dress up as a Fuzzy Felt? And third, it's always too tight, so you can see every embarrassing pocket of baby fat on the girl, usually when it rides up to show their belly button piercing. I just want to grab them and shout, "You look awful! You are a pretty, attractive girl, and you are wearing this dreadful outfit! Don't you realise it makes you look common? Go buy a good pair of trousers and a casual top and you'll look amazing. Stop shopping in baby gro shops!"

Of course, I don't dare say that; instead I hide away from them further down the platform in case they decide to pick on the station spotter. At one point, one of the girls took a pic of her mate with her camera phone: I'd like to think they were collecting Overpool for their own website, but sadly it appeared that these true MerseyTarts were in fact using the shelter as a jungle gym and were displaying their athletic skills. No doubt there is a Facebook pic somewhere with me gurning disapprovingly and a caption of "OMG!!!! Totly luk @ that geek @ th bkgrnd!!!1!!! LMAO!!1!".

Like Bebington/Port Sunlight, I could actually see Little Sutton station from the platform, and so I got a good view of the train as it approached. It was deserted, but toasty warm, and the trip to Ellesmere Port was quick. Quick and disappointing.

I had been to Ellesmere Port station a couple of times before. Once with work, when I was too busy panicking slightly at the upcoming meeting to pay much attention to my surroundings, and another time, when I was too busy bleeding profusely to care where I was. Perhaps I should clarify that.

A few years ago - in fact I can tell you exactly when it was: 1999, because (BOND GEEK ALERT) The World Is Not Enough came out a couple of days later - I had to have all four of my wisdom teeth removed because they had decided to burst through my gums at comedy angles and were therefore chewing the inside of my face. My dentist was in Ellesmere Port, and after injecting me thoroughly with painkillers in my entire lower face, he extracted the teeth, gave them to me in a plastic bag, and sent me on my way. The girl on reception offered to get me a taxi but, being the brave hardy soul I am (read: stupid), I refused, as the train station was only a ten minute walk.

Off I trotted, impressed with my nonchalance at having four large teeth removed with barely a whimper, and strutting like John Wayne. It was only when I paused at a traffic light to scratch my chin, and came away with fingertips smeared with blood, that I realised that my ripped open gums were gushing blood and that in my drugged up state I couldn't feel it running all down my face like Lestat on a bender. I walked the rest of the way - and endured the rest of the journey home - with my head tipped back forty five degrees so that the blood flowed backwards instead of down my face. I thought it was extremely amusing at the time - probably due to the drugs - but God help the poor person who sat opposite me and saw a red-jawed grinning imbicile. They're probably still in therapy.

So this was my first visit while in a rational state of mind, and oh dear. You will no doubt have detected my disappointment when they can't scrounge up an ALF at a station. Well, here's the thing about Ellesmere Port: it doesn't even have a station sign. I searched all around the building, and there wasn't a single one. There were a couple of disappointing BR signs on the overbridge, but neither of them said Ellesmere Port, so I had to settle for a platform sign. Rubbish.

And speaking of rubbish, we had another closed ticket office. Sorry: it does open, but only for weekday mornings. That's actually worse than not having a ticket office at all. Ellesmere Port is the end of the line, and it should have a bit of occasion about it, and instead, it's just... well... shit. That's all I can say. Ellesmere Port is a shit station. I mean, look at the "s" in tickets - is this an episode of Oh Doctor Beeching! symbolising the neglect of the railways or what? I half expected the letter to fall off when I took the pic, possibly onto Su Pollard's head.

This is what happens when you don't have a decent Passenger Transport Executive taking control. If Ellesmere Port were in Merseyside, it would be staffed, have a good, secure car park, and feature platform finger boards showing the next train. I'm not saying it would be St Pancras International, but it might aspire to be Kirkby. When I got on the train home, once again, I thanked goodness I didn't live in Cheshire. You can take your Cheshire Life; I'll stick with the Scousers.