Monday 29 June 2009

(Tracy Jacks) Got On The First Train To Walton

I'm currently experiencing an adrenaline rush thanks to Blur's TRULY EPIC Glastonbury set, so I shall take advantage of this burst of energy to make a public service announcement. It's now possible to use Twitter to be informed of any Merseyrail travel alerts: follow them here. This can tell you that the Northern Line is buggered right now, thanks to a spot of flooding in the St Michaels area. Shame. I hope they use it to spread good news too, like "Orrell Park has just won best kept station" or something.

While you're at it you could follow me too; it'd make a change from spambots.

I'm off to bed now. I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen. Etc.

Thursday 25 June 2009

From Our Correspondent

The BF is many wonderful things. Chief among his good points is that he's extremely well trained. Years of being quietly crushed under my jackboot have got him working well, and so when he went to work this morning and saw something interesting at Birkenhead Park station, he immediately took a photo and sent it to me.

Hmmm. I have to admit, from that angle I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking at, so I e-mailed him for a better description. He replied:

"The art is on the poles in that area that was cordoned off by the metal screens. It looks like cast iron images that have bee stuck to the top of the poles. At least I think it's art."

Yup, Brian Sewell is quaking in his boots. Turning away from Newsnight Review, I did a bit of net scouring and found that yes, it is indeed art. The work's been commissioned from artist Stephen Hitchin by Merseytravel, and I've found out some more details at the artist's website. His most familiar work to people in Liverpool is probably the relief panels at Queen Square, though his commissions are also in the Women's Hospital and the University. Below is the artist's impression of the completed piece, which will "look to view both the well and lesser known areas of the Wirral and Liverpool all of which are connected from Birkenhead Park railway station." Constructed from steel, the pieces are over five metres high.

(Picture is (c) Stephen Hitchin).

This looks great, and is a real bonus for Birkenhead Park station. The park itself has been renovated, and is really beautiful now, a definite asset for the town and the area, and I'm pleased that more is being made of the station to welcome visitors. It's received a minor makeover recently, with automatic doors and a new tiled floor, and the great looking artwork is certainly a bonus. Harking back to my previous post, the station would be ideal for an M to Go: the station's in a commercial area already, and the building is little more than a box as it is (the original was destroyed in the war). Unfortunately, tourists will still have to walk past Marleys, which sells "ornamental" bongs, Rizlas and air rifles, which you don't get outside the British Museum. Give it time though.

When the work's finished I'll have a wander down there myself to see it in the flesh (not that it has flesh, but you get my gist).

Hitchin's website also says that a second piece of work is to be installed at Bootle Oriel Road. This is an absolute bonus as a piece of quality artwork would make that station look around 2000% better. I realise that sounds like I'm damning with faint praise, but I mean it. And it's yet another pat on the back for Merseytravel and their continued commitment to public art across the area.

Wednesday 17 June 2009


Today is the 2nd anniversary of this blog.  Yay blog!  Frankly I didn’t think it’d still be here two years later.  I thought either I’d have lost interest and found something else to do with my time, or else I’d have collected the whole of the Merseyrail map and have started a new blog (I’m thinking Round the Maldives We Go – two years trying out the various beaches). 

Instead I’m still plodding along, and I’m pleased.  Pleased I had the staying power to blog all this time, and for that I have to thank you, Faithful Readers.  There’s a lot of pleasure in writing, but there’s just as much pleasure in being read, and I’m always happy when people comment, praise and correct my railway terminology (yes Robert, I mean you).  So thank you.

I’m also pleased that the project isn’t complete yet, because I’m really enjoying it, as both a physical and a metaphorical journey.  It’s been fun, and it’s been fascinating, and at times it’s just been bloody bizarre.  And there’s still more to come!

I’ll stop now, before this turns into a Halle Berry Oscar speech.  I was thinking I’d celebrate the biannual birthday with a bit of tarting but, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m actually off work sick at the moment, so I couldn’t get out there.  Instead I’m going to celebrate with a list of five Merseyrail related things I have enjoyed over the past two years.  These are mainly oddities that I’ve wanted to mention previously, and haven’t been able to slot into the blog. 

1)  Judgemental Religious Posters

I’m a committed atheist, and have been for years.  I have absolutely no problem with religious people, of whatever faith, so long as they don’t try and convert me or condemn me to the pits of damnation or anything.  Whatever floats your boat.

However this has left a little void within me.  The problem with being an atheist is you don’t get any theatre: no christenings, no weddings, no Nativity of the Theotokos.  As a result I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with certain bits of the religious world.  Nuns, for example; there is nothing which cannot be improved through the addition of a nun – no street scene, tv programme, or film.  Nuns are great.  I also love crucifixion statues, particularly very bad ones; and I like religious posters.  There’s a particularly magnificent one at Leicester Square tube station which I could stare at for hours.  Merseyrail can’t compare with that glorious insanity, but fortunately the Trinitarian Bible Society give us the next best thing.


Love it.  I like a bit of wrath of God on my commute; this was on the Wirral Line at Liverpool Central. 


This one – slightly blurred, thanks to Beezlebub jogging my arm as I took it – was at Lime Street underground, and cheered me every morning, though it’s a bit wishy washy.  I might write to them and request a REPENT SINNERS OR WE’LL DELAY THE ELLESMERE PORT TRAIN at Moorfields.  That would be ace.

2)  Neurotic next train indicators that blatantly lie

“Oh dear, I’ve said that the next train at Birkenhead Park will be in three minutes, and it’s late.  That will annoy everyone on the platform when I change to say five minutes.  What I’ll do is tick down to two minutes, and just leave it there.  I won’t count down any further.  Then, after it’s said ‘two minutes’ for ages, and the people are getting antsy, I’ll change it to ‘Here’ just as the train comes round the curve.  They’ll all be so pleased to see the train, they’ll completely forget my fib.”

3)  The new line diagrams

These have showed up on the walls at the underground stations, along with a load of attractive grey and yellow signs, and they’re something I’ve been dying for Merseyrail to have for years: a simple diagram showing the stations the train will call at.  Merseyrail have actually improved on the London Underground model though, by showing you how many minutes it’ll take to get to your destination.


When they first appeared, the Bf, deeply cynical soul that he is, doubted the timings on the poster.  I’m pleased to say that they were spot on, and our trip from James Street to Birkenhead Park did in fact take seven minutes.  I’m even more pleased because he was then forced to buy chips for doubting me (I can be very harsh).

4)  M to Go

I’m guessing these haven’t gone down as well as the bosses at Merseyrail would have liked: combined shops and ticket counters at Moorfields, Hamilton Square and Southport.  This is apparently common on Dutch railways, but the trial must have been a failure as NedRail’s idea to roll it out over “15 to 30” stations seems to be a thing of the past.  Maghull and Hooton are, as far as I’m aware, still without the shops. 

Still, it’s a good, innovative idea, the shops are clean and presentable, and it’s nice to buy a ticket, a Coronation Chicken sandwich and a Solero from a person without yelling through 20 inches of plexiglass.  It’s a bit of humanity.  I’d like to see a few more.  

5) Bart Schmeink

Bart is the managing director of Merseyrail, and I’m mentioning him here for two reasons.  Firstly, that’s a fabulous name.  It’s so Dutch it’s practically orange, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to crowbar it into the blog for ages.  Secondly, he’s doing a very good job.  I really like Merseyrail: it’s a great network, run by efficient, clean trains that you can pretty much always rely on.  The staff are usually smiley and polite in their blue and yellow uniforms (though there aren’t enough hot young gay men working for them.  A bit of eye candy is always appreciated).  The stations are (mostly) staffed from dawn till dusk, and have heritage features restored with modern adaptations.  Things have certainly improved since Serco/NedRail took over the franchise, and now we can just draw a quiet veil over the whole A***a period.  I whinge about them through this blog, but it’s always said with love, like when you complain about your mother (well, maybe not my mother).  Thank you Bart, thank you Merseyrail, and thank you readers for making the last two years pretty darn great.     

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Orpheus in the Underworld

The loop is closed again: the circle is complete. Network Rail have finished their maintenance work, and have thanked us for our patience with a poster of that fit bloke in the Henleys t-shirt from the Railpass ad. Which is the gift that keeps on giving, if you ask me. I can't say I've noticed an enormous amount of difference in my ride quality, but I'm writing this while off work sick, so it may be I just haven't been round the loop enough. Anyway, the gist is: we're back to normal.

What it does mean is that Platform 2 at James Street returns to its ghostly state. Up until the 1970s, this was the platform that trains from the Wirral called at. However, the construction of the loop line meant that a new running tunnel had to be constructed to send the trains Moorfields' way, and so Platform 2 was rendered redundant. It wasn't refurbished in the brown plastic style of Hamilton Square and the other underground stations, and was instead left to rot in its original 19th century state. It receives only the bare minimum of maintenance to keep it up to code for emergencies and closures.

The opportunity to finally use Platform 2 was the high point of the loop closure, as far as I was concerned. It's been attacked by the Colour Tsars, of course, and there are a few incongruous seats and help points, but it's mostly a Victorian underground station, and a little gem. The walls are tiled in that great way that went out of style, then came back in again when people realised how practical it was. It's very similar to the stuff that Yerkes did on the London Underground, and which is now being restored rather than covered up. Of course, the combination of decades of neglect with thirty years of disuse means that the tiles aren't exactly gleaming. The mould and decay is somehow picturesque; it adds to the impression that you're in some deep underground hole. It's all very Neverwhere.

Adding to the otherworld atmosphere is Dream Passage, a piece of artwork by Tim Chalk and Paul Grime on the platform wall. Fragmented images are suspended on the tiles, giving the impression of figures breaking through, or the remnants of another civilisation. It looks great from the opposite (Wirral-bound) platform, but when I got the chance to look up close, I really appreciated the details in it.

The work was commissioned in 1992 to celebrate the hundreth anniversary of the Mersey Railway (though in fact the tunnel was opened in 1886: 1892 was when the tunnel was extended to Liverpool Central). I found a great interview with the artists at the BBC's website; however, for some reason, it's only compatible with mobile phones, so stick that link into your mobile to download it. According to them, their brief was to do anything, so long as it had nothing to do with trains or the Beatles.

It's the city's subconscious, its below surface ideas and thoughts and wants. We've travelled under the ground and under the world to find faces, figures, dreams: winged creatures and babies, and, intermingled with them, elements of the real world. St George's Plateau is there, and so is the Albert Dock, concealed within hieroglyphics and surreal imagery. It's strange and fascinating. The three dimensional work begs to be touched, and over the weeks of the closure I often saw commuters doing that - running their fingers over the grooves and the faces as though trying to understand the weird mix of shapes.

It's another world down there. There's a stark contrast between the gloomy netherworld of the platform and its brightly it 70s cousin across the way, like a fracture runs through time along the tunnel.

Normally this is the point where I complain about the art being rendered inaccessible; a quick whinge about it being hidden away. But actually I prefer it this way. It becomes even more mysterious and curious. It'll remain this strange, unknowable entity across the tracks, something to admire from a distance and to speculate about.