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...


Mister Roy said...

Hi great post and blog. I agree with your points about the new map, specially the Burscough bus connection!

As a non-driver, I've been to a fair bit of the network but nowhere near as much as you - it's a great project. I live in Ormskirk so am looking forward to that science fiction station being built. Merseytravel has been useful getting me started on my walk to Brighton: - though soon I'll be beyond Chester, beyond the map, even beyond public transport itself once I get into Shropshire...

Anonymous said...

I definately agree, I think the map looks worse for all the tinkering they have done with it. The square is so clunky. Besides that, the network map looks tired and dated as well. I've gone and made my own revamp with a few tweaks on the real one. I could never understand why they only have two 'lines' in the system. If I was going to Aintree from Aigburth, I would need to change at Central - but that's not really clear on the map. It's not like there isn't space for it. It's not as easy as it looks once you get into the design of things. I think having 'interchanges' everywhere doesn't look particularly good, but then you have to be consistent! Anyway, post your thoughts, perhaps Merseyrail might even be persuaded to take it on!

Anonymous said...

doh! couldn't get the tags to work right, the address is:

Anonymous said...

Hey, did I see you at Lime Street station at 1.16pm today?

Scott Willison said...

The best "alternative" map I have seen is on the back of my Liverpool A-Z; they have angled it all at 45 degrees so the Mersey follows a more accurate route relative to the Wirral.

Sadly none of those links work, though I'd love to see your efforts - if I had any skills (or a good program) I'd have a stab at doing it myself. Splitting the Northern Line to show the necessary change as you suggest is one idea - and perhaps a split of the two Wirral branches as well?

And no, that wasn't me in Lime Street - sadly at 1:16 today I was stuck at my desk!

Anonymous said...

Doh! I'll try again:


I've split the Wirral ones into three, West Kirby, New Brighton and a Chester/Ellesmere Port (the last one is joint because then there would be too many interchanges!). My representation of the river isn't very accurate, I think the best way would be to keep the Liverpool shore vertical and twist the Wirral 45degrees.

Mister Roy said...

KJV, I like your map - just in terms of overall aesthetics, it gives the place the feel of a buzzing European city...

Anonymous said...

Glad you like it!

Scott Willison said...

That's an excellent map kvj - it has a real feel of the German U/S-Bahn systems. I particularly like the way you've shown Walton & Rice Lane as back to back stations. My only complaints would be the arrows for stations - I'm a tick man, myself. What software did you use to put it together?

Unknown said...

You are absolutely right, that map is a travesty, not designed by a designer but a printer more like.
Can't believe they've made the loop a square - what planet are they on?
By the way the link to my Merseyrail page has changed to: