Saturday, 26 April 2008

Whippin' (Everywhere Except) Piccadilly

So: a trip to Manchester for work. It was just a meeting with our software people, a complete waste of time really, but it got me out of the office so I shouldn't complain. I almost didn't make it due to a mental block which convinced myself my train was at ten past nine, rather than ten to: it meant that I ended up running across the concourse at Lime Street like an idiot.

(Incidentally, regular readers may have noticed that I keep passing though Lime Street without ever collecting at, and perhaps are wondering why I don't just pull my finger out and cross it off the list. My reasoning is thus: even though you have to pass through one set of ticket barriers at the lower level station and another at the main line station, I count them as one large station complex, and so as I do not leave station property, that does not count as a correct tart. I know that's not accurate, really, but it's my blog so I'll do what I want).

I got off the train at Manchester Oxford Road, which is the Manchester station as far as I'm concerned. Just as Moorfields is "my" Liverpool station, Oxford Road is "my" Manchester Station; it's the one I always use when I go to the city, it's a few steps away from the fabulous Cornerhouse complex, and it's a quite beautiful building. Built in the 60s, it has an epic sweep to it, sort of Scandinavian in feel (must be all that wood). Unfortunately the installation of ticket gates has sort of mucked up the interior, but it's worth seeing any day of the week.
Irritatingly, the large Oxford Road sign that can be seen from the street was covered with scaffolding, so I captured the station using a nearby sign. Suit!

My meeting was in the Town Hall, so I wandered off into the city. Full disclosure: I don't really like Manchester. I find it a bit of a confusing mess. It has grand, impressive buildings, and its regenerated districts are brilliantly done, but it just doesn't fit together in my head, and so somehow I end up lost. This is a rarity for me, as I usually have a very good internal compass - you can pretty much drop me anywhere in London and I'll be able to work out where I am and what direction to walk in to get somewhere. Manchester feels like Dark City, where the buildings shift around when no-one's looking.
Example: while walking into the city centre, I was suddenly gripped by an urge. I spotted G-Mex to my left, which has recently been rebranded as Manchester Central as an homage to its former life as Manchester Central station. The opportunity for historical tarting was too much to miss so I nipped down the side street and had a look. It's now a convention centre, and seems to have been beautifully done. The epic clock is still keeping time above the entrance, and a Metrolink stop maintains the transport link.

In an ironic twist, the mothballed station was now playing host to a convention of car parking suppliers, so the foyer welcomed me to Parkex (complete with grass covered parking meter - whose idea was that?). My suit had bought me entry to the building, but I didn't have a pass to go into the main convention space, and the security guard was looking at me suspiciously for not wholeheartedly embracing the parking experience, so I ducked out again.

I was now on a street which I knew, theoretically, was parallel to Oxford Road, so I figured I'd soon be by the Town Hall; but Manchester did one of its shifts while I was inside the G-Mex, and I soon realised I was heading in completely the wrong direction. Some handy pedestrian signs pointed me in the right direction, and soon I was going where I should be.

Thanks to the hopelessly inefficient woman at work who had booked my train tickets, I still had three quarters of an hour before my meeting. Why not capture another train station, just out of curiosity, while I was there? So I headed for Victoria.
Why Victoria, and not Piccadilly? Well, I'd never been there for a start. Plus I'd always felt a bit sorry for it - it seemed to be completely ignored in favour of its more famous brother.

Initial signs weren't good. The building looked more than a little bit shabby, certainly in comparism with the stunning Urbis building opposite. Inside though, it was a bit of a gem - a work in progress, yes, but going the right way.

By being the ignored, younger sibling in the Manchester railway station family, Victoria had managed to hang on to some of its original features. A wonderful, wood panelled row of ticket windows (with, sadly, only one open window); a domed refreshment room/bookstall complex.
It was undergoing building work, and the signs said that the "bookstall" would soon be the new passenger information desk. I hope it's done sympathetically and isn't a mess of plasma screens and raspberry settees. The platforms were dark and dingy, as the MEN Arena was built over the top of it in the 80s, but by then I didn't care; I'd spotted a tiled map in one of the entrance ways.

The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway; what a beautiful map, and how evocative! I could have stood and stared at it all day. I wonder how many of those lines are still in existence? Staring at it summoned up images of steam driven journeys but bewhiskered Victorian gents, day trips to the coast resorts (prominently displayed for your convenience), the smell of coal, the rustle of crinoline. I focussed on the Liverpool section, and was ridiculously pleased to see some tarted destinations; Aintree, Maghull, Formby, Ormskirk and Freshfield, while New Brighton was still such a draw that it was indicated on the map even though there was no line there.

A school party of excitable eight year olds disturbed me, and reminded me that I had a job to do, so I snapped a shot outside the main entrance and continued on my way. It was too late for me to get Piccadilly as well, now; that would have to wait. That's the thing about collecting stations. Once you've started you can't stop yourself. Even on the train in, I had been studying the station buildings, considering my options if I ever (for what reason, I don't know) decided to become a Manchester Tart (by which I mean visiting its train stations, rather than transforming myself into a dessert).

One boring meeting later, and I was on the train home. But there was one last shock for me. The station was fast through most of Liverpool, but it did stop at Mossley Hill. Which is when I turned my head, looked out the window and gasped. Literally gasped.

There on the platform was an ALF. It hadn't been there when I visited in January. There it was taunting me.

Quickly I did some mental calculations. I could jump off the train to take a picture... but I needed to get home in a hurry, as I had things to do, so I couldn't risk the doors closing and leaving me there. To not capture it would annoy me, and to capture it without actually stepping on station property would annoy me even more. The doors seemed to have stayed open for an awfully long time. Did I have time? Did I?

I decided not to risk it. Instead I pressed myself up against the glass and took a pic through the window. It's not the same, I know, but I had to get that picture. It does raise an intriguing question though: is there anywhere else I've already visited, which has subsequently acquired an ALF? I'm appealling to you readers - if you're out and about and you spot a bunch of workmen installing a new sign, please, let me know. No ALF shall be uncollected!

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Revenge of the Map Rant

Why won't anyone listen to me? Over the last week or two a new Merseyrail map has appeared in stations. Regular readers may recall my tirade against the last version ( if you want to remind yourself of the full insanity). Well, fasten your seatbelts, because the new one is even worse.

Apologies for the quality of the following pics, as they were all taken by my camera in front of a sign.

Good news: they've got rid of that awkward angled shape to represent the loop.
Bad news: they've replaced it with a FUCKING SQUARE.

I mean, just LOOK at it. It's ridiculous. It's called the "loop" line, fellas. That implies, oh, I don't know, a "loop" shape. Not a FUCKING SQUARE. Even as they've come up with this design, they've had to compromise it; the corners are rounded, and instead of four direction arrows, they now have to use eight (in a further design inconsistency, some are inside the square, some are outside it). I really cannot understand this.

In his excellent, though slightly terse book Underground Maps after Beck, Maxwell J Roberts bemoans the tendency of the newer maps of the Tube to introduce more and more curves. The Northern Line, for example, has acquired a few more bends and curves to try and remove any implication that the West End branch is more important than the City branch. I can see his point - the simpler the line, the easier to use the map is, and the easier it looks like the journey will be.

By turning the loop into a FUCKING SQUARE, Merseyrail have managed to make the journey from James Street to Lime Street look longer than it was. They've contrived two more twists which stop it from looking like a relatively direct route. And leaving that aside, it's ugly. Right angles should have no place on a route line; the Underground map prefers far gentler curves, and only employs right angles at the corners of the Hainault loop and the Circle line. Those are much, much larger loops than the Liverpool City one, and can take the twist. It doesn't work here.

So what else is new on the map? Well, Sandhills is still in red, because its projected opening date has now slipped to July (which is presumably why this new map was comissioned). After my criticism of the decision to highlight this closed station in red - therefore making it look even more important - Merseyrail's graphic designers have taken effective action. They've made it even more prominent by giving it an interchange circle. And it's still closed!

In fact, they've gone a bit wild for interchange circles in this edition. On the old map, there were only about twelve circles: three in the city centre, then further circles only at points where another line physically intersected another - at Chester, Southport, and Liverpool South Parkway, for example.

Now interchange circles are used when there's a choice of lines. So Huyton, Hooton, Birkenhead North and Hamilton Square all acquire circles. The idea seems to be, if you're on a St Helens train (for example), you would change at Huyton to get to Whiston, so it gets a circle. Fair enough. But there's no circle for Kirkdale, even though this is the station before the Ormskirk/Kirkby split (and it is the station you are advised to change at by the on board announcer). This is even sillier considering Sandhills is closed, so you can't swap lines there. The ridiculousness of putting the interchange circle on a closed station is obvious.

In addition, previous "end to end" interchanges become circles as well, so that's more circles at Ormskirk, Kirkby and Ellesmere Port. Then they've really run with that interchange idea, and given stations which are close together circles, with a little dotted line to connect them. In the case of the two Wigan stations (which had circles anyway) this makes perfect sense, as Wallgate and North Western are within spitting distance of one another.

At Burscough, though, it's just stupid. Burscough's a very small town which has two lines passing through it. But it's not that small, so the map suggests getting a bus between the two stations. I admire the effort to make this interchange clear to people, but if you're going to suggest people take a bus, why not show Upton/Hamilton Square as an interchange, since you can take a bus from one to the other? This is on top of the fact that the circles are the wrong size, and the angle between the two stations isn't at forty five degrees, and, most heinous of all, Burscough Bridge is shown using a circle and a tick. Deep breath.

The circle/tick surfaces in an even uglier form on the Wirral. Bidston's simultaneously an interchange, and not an interchange; it has a circle and a tick, but the two don't touch. The map makers seem to have this urge to show the curve of the Borderlands line, so that it runs parallel with the Wirral line for a bit; there's no need - just have it intersect with the Wirral line at a t-junction with a nice circle to denote the change. Don't give us this messy solution which creates a load of problems that weren't there before. Bidston is tricky, I know; some maps have shown it as a double circle, which makes it look even more important, and the double tick has never really been satisfactory. The t-junction is the only solution I can see that would work.

And by the way: note that Hamilton Square is no longer in capitals, but James Street is, even though the former is much more important to the network and a much more vital interchange point. (And also note that the bicycle at Bootle New Strand still goes into the River Mersey).

Anything else? Well, we've acquired two new lines. The map has been extended upwards to accomodate a branch to Blackpool from the City Line, for no apparent reason. I don't know why it's more important to show Blackpool North than, say, Manchester, especially since Blackpool South is shown as a branch but not coloured red, but there you go. It's also miles from the sea.

A second new line has been added at the bottom of the map, squeezed uncomfortably inbetween the Chester-Crewe and Helsby-Runcorn services. This one gives Hartford another interchange symbol, because apparently you can walk to Greenbank - though looking at Multimap, this looks like a longer walk than between the two Burscough stations. Plus Crewe's got a couple of extra branches.

All in all, it's a mess. Just the FUCKING SQUARE would be bad enough, but the rest makes it look horrific. I hope that this is an emergency map, produced because of Sandhills' delay, and they weren't really thinking about it. If this is the shape of things to come, I'm not happy. The map is Merseyrail; it's vitally important that it looks good and looks right, because people will judge the network on its success or failure. Please, Merseyrail, go back to your Apple Macs and think again...

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Up the Kirk

So I got very, very drunk last Saturday. Actually, that's not quite true. The plan was to get very drunk round Jennie's house. Sadly, after four pints and a half a bottle of wine, my 31 year old brain decided it had had enough, and I nodded off on the sofa. DECREPIT.

Still, it was nice to see the old girl, and we had a good laugh and some chips, so what more could you want? Jennie lives in Parbold, which is on the map, but on a grey line so it doesn't count. I keep telling myself that anyway, though the temptation is always there. Parbold is a very sweet little village, with a train station and a canal and a great little deli-cum-cafe - go if you get the chance.

We went into Ormskirk on the Sunday morning for lunch. I have said before how this was where I studied, at (then) Edge Hill College, now a University, and so we had a poke around the campus before we wandered into town. It's amazing how much it has changed in ten years. The whole campus has doubled in size, with the sports pitches now built on. Buildings with Thunderbirds detailing and acronym names have sprouted out of the earth, while the bulldozers were busy demolishing the classroom where I had Writing Fiction seminars. The strangest part for me was when we wandered into the Venue, the college bar. The dance area smelt exactly the same, a sort of musky scent, no doubt the product of years of sweat and spilt lager, but so evocative. It flashed me back in an instant. The LRC (Learning Resource Centre, or Lurk) was still there too. When I lived on campus I used to spend my mornings waiting for the LRC to open, so that I could go in and play on the internet on the shared computers. That's how wild my student days were.

Ormskirk hasn't changed much, though it's been tarted up a bit. There's a big compass in the centre of the town, showing that Liverpool is to the south, Preston's to the north, Wigan's to the east and Southport's too the west, which has the unfortunate effect of reminding you of all the interesting places you could be instead of Ormskirk. It also has a Waterstone's now, which it never did in my day (thankfully; I had enough student debt as it was), but strangely none of the shops were open. Sunday trading doesn't seem to have caught on here.

I hadn't planned on collecting Ormskirk on this trip, because, as I said before, I wanted to make it a special journey. But I was there, and Jennie could be my photographer, removing the need for another nostril shot, so I did it anyway. She did say that I would have to come back, and I fully intend to; there are two more stations on this branch, so when I get them, I'll revisit Ormskirk for that full bathe in nostalgia.

It doesn't have a sign outside however. I think there may be a post up on the main road, but we got to the station through the "bus rail interchange" (i.e. an alleyway from the bus station down to the railway station) so there was nothing. I'll have a look on the return. In the meantime, here's me with a platform sign:

And for an added bonus, Ormskirk has an ALF. For the first time, we've gone orange, which is an interesting choice. By "interesting" I mean "unfortunate". Still, it's more than most stations could muster, so bless it for the effort.

The Northern Line was broken for track maintenance works, so I had a rail replacement bus from Kirkdale into town. The bus passed Sandhills on its way, so I craned my neck to see if there was any advance in the works; from what I could see, it still looks like a bomb site...

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Precast Hun (thanks George!)

So it was a Wednesday, and I didn't want to go to work. I mean, I really, really didn't want to go. I was just miserable at the idea. I'd already left an hour later than usual, taking a rare opportunity to actually use some of my flexitime, and I was down. My job is actually getting worse, unbelievably. I didn't want to go.

Which is why, at Capenhurst, I found myself jumping out of my seat and disembarking. I needed a quick tart to pick me up!

I'd always been unsure how and when I was going to do Capenhurst. It's miles from anywhere, so once I got off, I was going to be waiting for the next train; there was no chance I could walk to another station. And it's not exactly scenic. This is another of those bus stop stations, just a couple of shelters and that's it. Another Cheshire station you see; no money.

So off I hopped in search of the station sign... and there isn't one. So sadly I had to crouch in front of a car park sign. The things I do for this blog. Nine in the morning and I'm squatting on tarmac.

And that was it. Nothing else to do for half an hour.

I had a bit of a wander round, but to be honest, I didn't want to look too conspicuous. Right next door to the station - the reason for its continued existence no doubt - is a massive plant operated by British Nuclear Fuels (or whatever they're called now). It has something to do with uranium, and that's as much as I want to know, thanks very much (and as much as I'll put on this blog). Given the hyper sensitive reaction of some authority figures (see to people just photographing a train station, I didn't want to inadvertantly capture the plant in shot and find the blog shut down under the official secrets act. The ludicrousness of all this, and the violation of basic elementary freedoms, are I think self-evident and require no further comment from me...