Thursday 27 August 2009

Blue on Blue

Someone at Merseyrail HQ's splashed out on the new version of QuarkXpress, and the website's been redesigned. Out goes the yellow and in comes a new calming blue colour, combined with heavy use of the new font that's been appearing on posters for the last couple of months. At first glance it's a good, professional job, and certainly more attractive than the previous one.

It's all very web 2.0. Links have been replaced with buttons; the journey planner is friendlier, and incorporates Google Maps with little M pins; and, as is legally required for any new website these days, there's a Twitterfeed. I subscribed almost immediately, and it's been interesting watching it develop over the last month or so. At first, all that happened was Twitter said "there's a problem - go to the website to find out more". That developed into "Cancellations - see website" and has now finally reached "16:58 West Kirby train cancelled", which is what you want beamed to your mobile if you subscribe to the feed. (They need to weed out some of the spam subscribers more often though).

In addition, you can put in your regular journeys into the system, and the website will specifically target you and let you know of anything special that might affect you. In addition, if you sign up before the end of September, you can win the chance to ride in the cab of a train! Wooh-wooh! I've got my fingers crossed for that one.

And there's a Rail Enthusiasts Corner too. That's where we can sit with our thermoses of weak lemon drink, presumably.

So it's all very swish and pretty. But - you knew there was a but, didn't you? - there's a few flaws that need ironing out. For one thing, the list of events on the front page doesn't actually list where they're being held, never mind which station is most convenient for them (there is a pdf which shows the features close to the Merseyrail stations, something I'm very pleased about). Some of the stations have incorrect pictures (Birkenhead North and Birkenhead Park both have the same one!). These are teething problems, and will presumably be corrected soon. My favourite part is hidden in the site map: the Calamity Overlay. Whip crack away!

Sunday 23 August 2009

New Frontiers

Here's a fact for you: I've been using the internet for about fifteen years now, and in that time I've chatted to many, many people on here. But at no point have I ever met someone off the net. A combination of my extreme shyness and a fear that the other person was an axe wielding psychopath has meant that my online relationships have remained online.

However, the many pleasant and knowledgeable comments I've received from you, constant readers, have made me think that perhaps not everyone on the net is a lunatic. That in fact, some of them could be normal. Even human. So when Robert, long-time reader and correspondent, suggested we should do a joint tart, I thought, "why not?"

We arranged to meet at Lime Street on a Saturday that was positively balmy. I got my usual train from Birkenhead Park, and sat down opposite a pensioner who was reading a book with the intensity of a woman whose glasses aren't strong enough. Her hair was bright red, an intensely shocking ginger, but when she leaned forward I saw she had a line of white roots either side of her parting. I was wearing a black t-shirt with Praha and a tank on it, and somewhere around Hamilton Square she suddenly said, "The 'Praha' on your t-shirt. Does it mean Prague?"

I said yes, at which point she leaned even closer and said, "Are you Czech?" I thought, oh dear, Daily Mail reader alert. She's going to berate me for coming over here and stealing all the jobs. I said no, it was a gift from someone I knew who went there, and her face seemed to drop slightly. She told me that she had studied in Prague before the war, and learnt Czech while she was there. "Then, of course, the Germans came," she said, and her eyes drifted a little more. She smiled, and turned to look out the train window. I don't know what she was seeing in the black of the tunnel.

I'd arranged to meet Robert by the dreaded Ken Dodd/Bessie Braddock statue, but as usual I was hopelessly early. It meant I got to see people interact with it, and it seems that it's a lot more popular with the public than with me. People seemed genuinely pleased to see Doddie, though few of them seemed to know who Bessie was, and I don't think anyone knew why the hell she was showing him an egg. The tourists posed with it, stood between them, pretended to take Ken's bag for dozens of photos: all across the world, people are going to be unveiling holiday snaps of their trip to Liverpool and asking, who's that geek in the t-shirt sitting behind?

Most disturbingly, a good few of the male passers-by seemed to want to stroke the head of the Diddyman in Ken's bag. You don't have to have a degree in Freudian psychology to get phallocentric ideas about that.

Robert arrived at one o'clock, bang on time, which was unfortunate as when we'd arranged to meet I hadn't realised that the train to Wigan left at 13:01. We now had a half-hour's wait until the next one. What can you do in such a situation? PUB!

We went to Coopers, above the concourse, where I paid more than six pounds for two pints of beer. I nearly passed out. Am I cheap, or should I just go to the pub more often? Anyway, we killed the time by drinking, which is handy for me as I was still nervous. This is no reflection on Robert at all; it's just me being shy and needing alcohol as a crutch to help me relax. I showed him how to operate my camera phone, so that he could be the day's photographer, and then we headed downstairs for the train.

One of the reasons why I was glad to have Robert around was that he actually knows about trains. He was able to tell me the exact type of train we were on; unfortunately, I forgot to write it down. so you'll have to take my word for it. We were surrounded by a mass of Japanese tourists, one of whom was wearing a masko to avoid catching anything unpleasant from his fellow passengers. I wondered why tourists were headed for Wigan - big fans of George Orwell, perhaps?

As you can see, I was filled with unbridled joy at finally reaching Prescot.

Robert, perhaps less so:

Pleasingly, there's a signal cabin at Prescot, along with an old-fashioned semaphore signal. I assumed it was there for heritage reasons, and that the actual signal would be something hi-tech involving LEDs, but Robert assured me that semaphore signals were still in use all over the country. We British really have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century don't we?

The original plan had been to go into Prescot town centre itself, and from there to the next station. The landscape around the station was so disheartening, however - waste ground, building sites, and a bog standard retail park - that we decided to skip its charms and take a shorter route to Eccleston Park. I'm glad we did, because we came across this sign en route; not only does it defy The Colour Tsars by having an incorrectly coloured "M" for Merseytravel but, even better, Robert pointed out that it wasn't even the right font. In fact, it was actually the logo for the West Yorkshire Metro, only in yellow. We shared what may possibly go down in history as the nerdiest chuckle ever over that.

The route to the next station was through Prescot's suburban streets, soundtracked by the hum of lawnmower engines and smelling of charcoal briquettes warming on barbecues. The sun was warm, the skies were blue, the company was good; it was turning into a great afternoon.

There was a dark cloud on the horizon however, as we had a minor scuffle over the correct spelling of Eccleston Park. I maintained that it should have an "e" on the end, like Christopher Ecclestone; Robert said he didn't think the Ninth Doctor had an "e" on the end of his name, and then went on Google on his mobile to demonstrate that he was right. I still maintain that I spell it the correct way, and that Christopher Eccleston, Eccleston Park, and anyone else who spells it without an "e" is completely wrong.

Fortunately, before we could come to blows, we were distracted by a car sticker that knocked the breath from our bodies. Car bumper stickers are, without a doubt, exclusively used by imbeciles and dick heads; who takes a £10,000 car and thinks "that would look better if it had a square of laminate with a bad joke whacked on the back". This one said, and I quote, "I'd Rather Be At A Rick Astley Concert".

(I've blurred the registration number to protect identities). Now, I'm no music snob. Never Gonna Give You Up is an undisputed classic, and I have a great deal of fondness for his other SAW hit, Whenever You Need Somebody. But I'm struggling to think of a situation in 2009 that would be so bad, you would rather be at a Rick Astley concert. Up before a firing squad? Toilet cleaner at Glastonbury? A Coldplay concert?

This sight may have scrambled my internal compass, as we took a wrong turn shortly afterwards. That wasn't so bad, as it meant we got to see the amusingly named Two Butt Lane, but it did mean that we missed the train at Eccleston Park and had to wait a quarter of an hour for the next one. That wasn't so bad though, as the station was nicely situated in a cutting, surrounded by cooling trees, and we got a sit down. The station buildings were on the Liverpool platform, painted grey and yellow, of course, and came from the school of wooden architecture.

On the train, I explained to Robert that we were going to have to work fast at the next station, Thatto Heath. There was a four minute window between the Wigan train arriving, and the Liverpool train departing, and in that time we'd have to get from one platform to the other and snap a photo of the sign in the meantime.

We dashed off the train, up to the street, and I positioned myself in front of the sign. Robert, bless him, was the professional, and tried to get a decent shot that wasn't washed out by the sun, even standing in the road. I was more worried that we'd miss the train. We did have to run down the ramp, but that meant we got to do a melodramatic leap into the carriage. I love it when there's a bit of excitement.

We headed back into town for a pint or two (it was six pounds there, as well. I really don't get out enough) and then Robert had to get going. It had been a fun day, and we'd both enjoyed ourselves. We promised to do it again soon and, as a parting gift, I took a final pic of him in Moorfields. It's a bit blurry, unfortunately. Did I mention we'd been in the pub?

EDIT: Robert has been in touch and kindly provided the details of the trains we boarded, the details I asked him about while we rode around but forgot to write down because I am an ignorant sod. Huzzah!:

The train we actually got to Prescot was a Class 150/1 Sprinter, then the one we hopped on from Eccleston(e) Park to Thatto Heath was a Class 150/2. These are two subclasses of the Sprinter family which are mechanically identical but have a different seating layout; the 150/2s have corridor connections at each end of the train, not just within the unit as the 150/1s do.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Conspiracy Theory

Merseyrail flip flops. Sorry, I had to start with that, because, ladies and gentlemen, I'm now the top result for that particular Google search, and I want to keep it that way. Haha! In your face, Liverpool Echo!

It's also vaguely relevant as that was the post where I talked about the Merseyrail key ring I'd received as a kind gift of their publicity department. That key ring was a tiny rubber version of Merseyrail unit 508 110, and I mentioned that I now had a sub-mission to find that particular train and get a picture of myself in front of it. Possibly grinning and sticking my thumbs up.

However, I received a message from a person who wishes to remain anonymous. I've chosen to call him Deep Throat (as an homage to the Watergate informer, not Linda Lovelace). He instructed me to meet him in a secluded corner of an underground car park, where water dripped from the ceiling and rats scurried in the shadows. I attended of course, because I've never knowingly turned down an assignation with a random stranger, and there he passed over a brown Manilla envelope. I didn't see his face - the shadows were too dramatic and moody - but I got the hint of a distinguished profile, and caught a smattering of expensive aftershave.

Deep Throat's envelope contained a photograph. He hissed, in a voice that was so husky it made Christian Bale sound like Joe Pasquale, "508 110 is actually the one that has been used for all of the publicity material for years and years, being on the cover of timetables and anything else produced. It was even the first of the completed refurbished vehicles and had to go back as it had several experimental features that were not used, so had to be removed from this one, to make identical to the rest."

I couldn't resist. I didn't want to antagonise him, but I had to know. "What kind of experimental features?"

Deep Throat took a long deep drag on his cigarette. I glanced nervously over my shoulder, as we were in an enclosed space and therefore smoking is illegal. I was risking a fine, and possibly catching lung cancer through passive smoking. Like Roy Castle, but without the trumpet. He didn't seem keen to step out of the shadows as he whispered, "Have you got the book by T B Maund ... Merseyrail, The Inside Story?"

"Of course," I said. "Not to hand, obviously. We're in a car park. My copy's at home somewhere... Unfortunately I'm not sure where. We're rearranging the books in the study at the moment. It's very exciting actually; fiction will be arranged alphabetically by surname, while I'm hoping to use a modified version of the Dewey decimal system for non-fiction -"

"Enough!" he rasped. He took a long, slow lungfull of cigarette; I heard the paper crackle. "The front of the train was much more yellow than became the norm..."

A squeal of brakes, and a Ford Focus was behind me. For a second Deep Throat was illuminated, but he threw a hand up over his face to protect his anonymity, then vanished into a fire exit. He was gone, and I was left with a picture and no further clues.

Here it is then; the famous train, pictured at Birkenhead North. I'll continue to hunt for it, but at least I now have sight of my quarry. It will be mine.

Monday 17 August 2009

The Edge Of Something Special

I haven't been avoiding Edge Hill, I promise. I know it seems that way, since I've done all the stations around it.
It's just that Edge Hill station is more than just another tick on the map. Edge Hill is history, real, active living history. This is where Stevenson's Rocket started from; this is where he built his first factory to construct trains. It's a vast, sprawling oasis of railway legend in the city centre, and I felt it was important that I gave it proper respect.
I took the train out from Lime Street, and I was the only person to get off. This is the second station at Edge Hill, dating from 1836, and as such it's probably the oldest railway station still in use in the world. It feels empty and desolate; because of its decades of use as a freight hub and engineering works, there are acres of vacant space all around you. Even the four platforms are too long, and have been fenced off at either end, leaving moss covered concrete stretching into the distance.
It's a station that is too big for its purpose, surrounded by streets that have been emptied of residents ready for a road scheme that still hasn't come. Standing there, under gunmetal clouds that threatened to collapse on me, I felt very alone.
I was disappointed to see that there was building work going on. I hate it when a station can't show me its best face, and is in a state of flux. I assumed they were works to try and make it a bit more 21st Century - difficult, as the buildings are listed, but conceivable. In actual fact, it was something far more exciting.
Edge Hill is being changed into a platform for art, literally. The plan is to restore the disused buildings and to make them into arts spaces: an exhibition space in one, and a community workshop and studio in the other. It'll be changed into a destination again. Edge Hill will be changed into a place which inspires and creates, and a place for reactions. The project is intrinsically tied with the local community too, and will hopefully help to give it some focus even as the bulldozers are moving in around it.
I was very impressed, both by the idea and by the commitment of Metal (the overseers) to the project and the area. Their website can be found here, Metal; go and look at what they've already done, and their aspirations. The aim is for the reconstruction work to be done by early September, with an opening in October; I will definitely have to return here once it's completed, so that I can take it all in properly. Then I'll give Edge Hill the true fanfare it deserves.
From Edge Hill, I walked into town. When I first moved to the north, GoldenEye was coming out at the cinemas, and somehow - and I don't know how this happened - but somehow I'd completely missed that there were cinemas in the city centre itself. I was under the impression that the only way I could see the 16th Bond film was to walk out to the Virgin cinema on Edge Lane, a couple of miles from the city centre. Which I did, weekly. I must have looked a pathetic figure, battling through grim and rainy weather to request my single ticket for the afternoon showing. I did it about a dozen times. (It was six years since a new Bond film had been released! I would have crawled across the corpse of my dead mother to get to it).
As such, I knew the Edge Lane route back into the city pretty well, so I took one of the lesser roads I'd never been down before. There were signs of the area's notoriety all around. Cul-de-sacs, though less than thirty years old, had an abandoned air to them, with grass growing wildly in the gardens. Grim faced industrial units and warehouses loomed. I walked past the most incredibly secure primary school I have seen in my life; it was like Colditz. The question is though, were they keeping us out, or the children in? I imagined feral, sharp-toothed infants clawing at the reinforced glass and clambering over the barbed wire fences, trying to ensnare passers by.
And then of course, there were the pubs - or what was left of them. Mr D, one of the readers of this blog, had told me a couple of years ago about the slow erosion of the pubs in the area, and their disappearance from the streets. The days of a pub on every corner are well gone. Speaking as a professional alcoholic, I have to say this saddens me greatly; the pub is a keystone of society, and what's replaced it? Either family pubs - oxymoron alert - or terrible dives that exist to extract as much money as possible while filling you with vast quantities of the cheapest, most lurid coloured booze. The only place this pub could succeed now is on Coronation Street.
I was dying for a wee by this point. I wouldn't normally chuck my bladder into the conversation, but it was becoming quite urgent, so I nipped into the Liverpool Student's Union, assuming my youngest looking expression to try and pass as a student. I have very fond memories of this place from when I was looking at Universities as a Sixth Former. I had my heart set on Keele Uni (and thank God I failed my A-levels and couldn't go, as "the University with the highest suicide rate in the country" would definitely have caused me problems). Anyway, I came up to scope out Liverpool University with Ines, a girl in my English class who was applying to the music section. My abiding memory is of the two of us wandering round the Students Union, completely lost, and going into room after room of bars, poster sales and dancefloors, before stumbling out into the street through a fire exit. I have to admit I'd fallen for Liverpool a bit, there and then.
I had a sit down in Abercrombie Square after I'd cleared the decks, so to speak, and then I went off to meet my friend Mike for lunch. In a moment of gratuitous cross promotion, I'll point out that Mike has started a blog of his own on the weird and wonderful sights of Liverpool. There's a link right there on the sidebar, or, if you that's too complicated for you, you can click here.
All those dying pubs made me sad for the state of our nation's licensees, and I swore I would do my best to support them in their hour of need. Which is why I headed to the Lisbon for a pint. The Lisbon is, and always shall be, my favourite Liverpool pub, as it's gay but not too gay, gaudy but still classy, and relaxed but still exciting. If you're around Stanley Street, nip in for a pint; it's a bar that is friendly to homosexuals and heterosexuals, and has no prejudices either way. The ceiling is a listed feature, as well, and since the smoking ban you can appreciate it in all its gaudy pink and gold glory.
Also, it's the place where I met (a) the first boy I ever kissed, fourteen years ago and (b) the last boy I ever kissed, the artist now better known as the Bf, twelve years ago. There were an awful lot of boys in between those two, but we'll just gloss over that shall we?

Saturday 15 August 2009

Limes and Lemons

Way back in December, I promised to keep you updated with regular missives on the redevelopment of Lime Street station. It sort of didn't happen, for two reasons:

(a) I couldn't be arsed; and
(b) see (a).

I did take a few photos as the works continued, but they never came out right, or I never got round to writing about them, or I accidentally deleted them from my phone before I got a chance to do anything with them. So now the workmen have largely finished, I took a trip under the river to check it all out.

The new constructions occupy the old Cab Road for the station, and the area has been nicely tiled with limestone-esque flooring. Platforms 7 and 8 have also been blocked off with glass fencing; this leaves Platform 9 as the only one at Lime Street which is still accessible without some sort of potential ticket check (though there was no-one from Virgin checking the morning I was there).

In between 7 and 8 we've got a Virgin customer service centre, a first class lounge and a waiting room (well, they call it a "standard class lounge", but we all know what it is really). Sneaky Network Rail has also shifted the cash machines to right at the end of platform 7, so if you need some money, you're going to have to walk back past the three or four brand new retail units to get there.

All the units are ready for letting; there doesn't seem to be any sign of occupiers yet, and I haven't heard on the grapevine any rumours about potential occupiers, but it's early days. Lime Street has the problem, as a terminus station, that there aren't a lot of people hanging around with nothing to do between trains, so the market for retail is reduced. Manchester Piccadilly's like an Arndale Centre now. It took me twenty minutes to find a platform last time I was there, and even then I'm not entirely sure it wasn't a railway-themed retail experience. Those purple Northern Rail trains look like they could be selling pick 'n' mix on the sly.

I'm hoping for a Starbucks, because I like pretentious coffee, and maybe a Pret a Manger, because I like pretentious sandwiches. Basically I like anywhere that has at least one black and white close up photograph of a mug on the wall and rocket in the paninis. However the last time a new retailer opened in the station it was a Ladbrokes, so I'm not holding my breath.

It's a nice development, well done - nothing too exciting, but it fits the location and doesn't jar with its surroundings (cf Chester, for example). My only complaint is that platform 8 gets the back view of all the shops and their metallic gubbins. There are a few doorways there, but these looked like staff entrances. Poor platform 8 people. I snapped a few photos of the empty shops, no doubt triggering a couple of alarms in the CCTV rooms.

I was at the station with the Bf, as he had to go to London for work and therefore actually got to use the facilities (I'm not jealous). He insisted on taking a pic of me in the station, which I'm putting on the blog even though I'm awkwardly posed so you can see my New York Subway J Line t-shirt. Yup, I even wear metro-related clothing (I'd left my Merseyrail badge and flip flops at home). It's actually the logo for the J line which, as the t-shirt says, is "Queens to Manhattan", a camp little pun which amused me when I bought it in the MTA store at Grand Central Station a couple of years ago. (For a train station buff like myself, Grand Central Station is beyond hallowed ground; I had to be refrained from dropping to my knees and kissing the marble floor, like the Pope).

At the end of the Cab Road development, replacing the old Virgin Customer Service cabin, is the piece de resistance, the crowning glory, the climax. A new sculpture was commissioned to act as a greeting for new arrivals from That London. Entitled Chance Meeting, and sculpted by Tom Murphy, it depicts an encounter between legendary Liverpudlian comic Ken Dodd and firebrand MP Bessie Braddock. Let's have a look at it, shall we?

Oh dear.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, arse. I stood in front of it, slack-jawed, unable to conceive the circumstances under which this piece of "art" was approved, paid for and made. Ken Dodd is an unusual looking person at the best of times, and even Michaelangelo would have struggled to make him look, well, human. The best you can hope for is that children don't cower behind their mothers. But this statue makes Ken look like an over-enthusiastic janitor, proudly displaying the loo brush he just used to dislodge a particularly stubborn blockage in the third floor gents. And Beryl Reid Bessie Braddock is trying to stop him going into details about what was causing the blockage by showing him that party trick where you try breaking an egg by pushing on the top and bottom. It's a bizarre meeting of characters - I'd love to have heard left-winger Bessie's opinions on Ken's tax indiscretions - in thoroughly odd poses. I mean, the egg.

It's just not very good at all. In fact, it's so not very good, I'm actually embarrassed it's there. This is the first piece of art people are going to see when they step off the Pendolino. This is going to be their first impression of Liverpool: a city that celebrates its finest sons and daughters by making them look like idiots on train station concourses. I'm tempted to sneak in one day and chuck a sheet over it. Or perhaps I should pay for a permanent advert on that massive screen you can see from inside the station: "WE HAVE GOOD PUBLIC ART HERE TOO. JUST PRETEND IT'S NOT THERE".

Still, at least it's not the bloody Beatles again.

Thursday 13 August 2009

A Moment in the Sun

Gratuitous plug alert! I've had a little profile over at Liverpool Blogs, a sort of clearing house for Scouse bloggers. If you really want to find out why I like living on Merseyside, nip over there and check it out, and also some of the other Liverpudlian writers out there.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Treasure Map

There's a secret map, lurking on the streets of Merseyside. It appears fleetingly, hiding at selected bus stops, cowering on the back of a few shelters, quivering behind Travel Centres. It's hidden from view in amongst Saveaway ads and that really gross poster about DNA spit tests. It doesn't appear on the Merseytravel website unless you really know where to look.

And it's great.

That's the worst part. It's a great, useful, multi-modal diagram which shows the interactions between Merseyside's different public transport forms: bus, train, ferry. It covers the whole of Merseytravel's area of influence. It's simple and easy to understand. And for some, unfathomable reason, it's hidden away.

This particular example is featured on the top of page 6 of the "Welcome to Merseyside" leaflet provided in Travel Centres for tourists, though it's a little out of date: below is a more modern one from outside the Paradise Street Interchange, which also has an index. It's not featured on any other leaflet, that I can find (even though it would be as valuable for residents as visitors), and it only seems to be on certain bus stops. An unscientific poll of the dozen or so stops closest to my home didn't produce a single example (though I did find out that Kayleigh loves Stu, and doesn't care who knows it). I don't remember seeing it at any railway stations.

It's a great map for a few reasons. Highlighting the Merseyrail and City Lines gives the map a structure, and emphasises the importance of the rail links to the city. They're also the easiest way to get around. Note that the Wirral Line is presented as a loop in Liverpool, by the way. The purple line for the Airport Link is a key feature, and combines with the Loop to emphasise the city centre itself (the newer map goes even further and shows the new shuttle bus from Liverpool South Parkway).

Considering the amount of detail presented here, it's surprisingly clear and well thought out. What's important here is letting the tourist know that there is a bus for them. It also shows how well connected the Merseyrail network is to the bus network, though there is a bit of poetic licence - showing Liverpool Central and the Paradise Street Interchange as three interlinked circles when they're actually a good ten minutes away from one another is a bit naughty.

In some ways, this is more accurate, geographically, than the proper Merseyrail map. The Mersey is correctly shown running at a diagonal between the Wirral and Otterspool, and the Northern Line is one straight run all the way to Southport. And I like the nice triangle of the Mersey Ferry.

Complaints? Not showing the full extent of the rail services seems like a mistake; perhaps not the Borderlands Line or Kirkby to Wigan, but including Chester, Ellesmere Port and Ormskirk would show the full extent of the Merseyrail services (especially as Chester is a major destination in itself). I'd have perhaps included zone boundaries, if they could be accommodated tidily, as this map is aimed at people who are using Saveaways. And a separate colour (brown?) showing the Night Bus network would be a good addition.

But my biggest complaint is that this map is hidden away. It should be on display at every bus stop and every railway station, much like Tim Demuth's London Connections map is displayed alongside the London Underground diagram in Tube stations. Remember, famous, important Liverpool districts like Anfield, Knotty Ash and Woolton don't appear on the Merseyrail map at all. I'd like be able to stand outside, say, Moreton station, and be able to roughly work out a route to Gateacre (Wirral Line to Lime Street, City Line to Huyton, then a bus). It'd be a valuable service.

So: 9/10 for the map, Merseytravel. 2/10 for the implementation.

Thursday 6 August 2009

Things That Make You Go "Oooh!"

A few days ago, I was sarcastic about Merseytravel because they wouldn't send me any nice pictures but they were happy to plaster them all over the walls of Liverpool Central. Sarcasm really is the lowest form of wit, and I should have risen above it. Besides, the jokes weren't really that good.

Anyway, I'd like to make it clear that my beef was with Merseytravel, not Merseyrail. Merseyrail were lovely; their Customer Relations lady replied quickly, personally and was very very nice.

Also, they sent me stuff. Yay! I didn't expect it at all, and I certainly wouldn't have dreamt of asking for it, but those lovely people at Merseyrail sent me some little gifts which I'm presenting here for you, to try and make you jealous. I know that's a bit childish but screw it: I got Merseygifts and you didn't, so nur-nur-nur.

First up, we have a marvelous mouse mat and a couple of pens. This isn't the mouse mat that they use in the stations (one of which recently turned up on eBay; I'm not saying it was stolen or anything by an unscrupulous member of the station staff, just mentioning it in passing) but is instead a corporate mouse mat with the aims and aspirations of the company on it. There's a whole branch for customers, you'll be glad to hear; more excitingly, under "service" it lists "new rolling stock", "M to Go" and "Smart Card", all of which make me do a little happy dance. Something to look forward to. And you can never have enough pens.

Next, is a lovely Merseyrail train key ring, here displayed with the mass of metal I have to carry round with me. Trainspotters: it's number 508110, and I now have a sub-mission to find this train somewhere on the network, and possibly photograph it, or even better, me in front of it holding the key ring up and beaming. If that isn't crossing too far into anorak territory. Oh, who am I kidding? I crossed that line years ago.

Yes, that is a Lego Catwoman key ring beside it. It's Lego and it's Catwoman: two of the greatest things in humanity combined in one key ring. Awesome.

From here, we move on to the travel mug, which is absolutely lovely. Lovingly embossed with "Merseyrail" on one said, and "M to Go" on the other, this will be the perfect vessel for my lattes next time I'm out and about on the rails. Do Starbucks still do that thing where you get money off if you provide your own mug? Caramel macchiatos on the move sounds good to me.

The final item is the real doozy, I have to say. In fact, it's so good, it inspired me to break out the shorts and do my best Man at C&A modeling. Here's my attempt at Miss Tyra, America's Next Model posing: if I'd had more time I'd have broken out a fierce weave and a finger snap as well.

Look past my hairy shins and you'll see that I am, in fact, wearing Merseyrail flip-flops. How amazing is that? Not just that I have a pair of them, but that there was someone in Rail House who sat down and said, "you know what we need to do? What we haven't done so far? Combined the world of rail franchises with leisure footwear. That would be amazing."

Frankly this little parcel is the best gift I've received all year, and certainly better than any of the crap I got for my birthday and most appreciated. It's so nice when a corporate behemoth turns out to be human and, more importantly, so human it gives me stuff. It's really made me smile.

For future reference: I am very, very easily bought. Know this now. If there's anyone out there who fancies currying my favour, send me stuff. I have no shame. No scruples. I'll do anything. I am a corporate whore, and proud of it!

Wednesday 5 August 2009

The Merseytart vs. Friendship

After my Ormskirk opening, I found myself taking a bus to Parbold. I'd promised to go and see my friend Jennie, who lives there, and my original plan had been to take the train to Burscough Junction, walking to Burscough Bridge and getting the train from there. Another couple of stations off the list.

The scrum at Ormskirk made me want to get out of there as quick as I could, though, so I dashed to the Bus Station. The Council rather grandly calls this a Bus-Rail Interchange, because there's a path connecting the two, which I think is stretching it a bit. The path actually used to be a siding; until the rationalisation of the station, when it was cut down to a single track, the pathway was where the electric trains would end up. In the original 70s plans for the Link and Loop, planning permission was granted for a brand new station which would have actually connected directly with the buses and been right in the centre of town; like so much else to do with the grand plans, it went out the window when budgets were slashed.

Still, a bus! Woo-woo! Bit of variation there. I can't remember the last time I bought a bus ticket. When it turned up, it was one of those little minibuses, which was a let down. No shiny double-decker or bendy-bus for me. Worse still, it was run by a company with the unfortunately spelt name Cumfy Bus. It rolled through the lanes of West Lancashire at a frankly alarming pace. The driver didn't seem at all keen on stopping. There were people at stops on the way past, but he just whizzed by, as though they were street furniture.

I was miles away, enjoying the scenery, when there was a ding! from the bell and we started cruising to a halt. With a jolt, I realised that we were actually stopping outside Burscough Bridge station itself. Instinct took over: I sprang off the bus, right behind a pencil thin student with an air that could only be described as "waspish".

Again, this isn't just your bog standard railway station: heaven forbid. This is the Burscough Bridge INTERCHANGE, because stations are so 20th Century, man. Stick a bus stop outside and suddenly it's a multi-modal hub.

Funnily enough, if various people get their way, it might end up being a proper interchange again. The Ormskirk Branch Line crosses the Manchester to Southport Line in Burscough, but there's no interconnection between the two: the tracks were lifted decades ago. However, the path of the tracks has never been built on (as you can see on Google Maps), and so could be reinstated at some point in the future. Lancashire County Council and West Lancs District Council are both keen for them to be restored; same goes for Merseytravel, but to a lesser extent. Reinstating the curves would mean having to electrify beyond Ormskirk, to Burscough Bridge at the very least and possibly even on to Southport, and who's going to pay for that? Once you cross the county border, things start getting complicated - it's to Lancashire's advantage to rebuild the curves, but Merseyrail are going to be running the trains over it, and they've already got a line to Southport, ta. Maybe, one day, but don't hold your breath. (If it were up to me, I'd electrify to Preston instead of Southport, and build a brand new station at the point where the two rails cross with a car park for commuters, but that's just because I've played too much SimCity 4).

There are two station buildings here. The current station building is a modern, glass and brick affair, which has a delightful retail park Pizza Hut vibe. Inside there's room for a cafe, but it looked like it was closed for good. This isn't surprising, as right behind the station is a Tesco superstore with a cafe of its own. I'm guessing that planning permission for the superstore was conditional on them providing a new station building.

On the opposite platform is the original station building, converted to a house and now up for sale. A poster in the window with a floorplan showed that it was "spacious", but since your front window is regularly used as somewhere for people to rest their arses while they wait for their train, it's not perfect.

And also on the platform: after all this time, an Attractive Local Feature board! Well, a quasi-ALF, but it's been so long since I saw one I was quite happy to snap a shot. It could do with a bigger, more interesting bird though. I texted Jennie that I was at the station and would be in Parbold in about fifteen minutes.

The train arrived, and travelled through the flat plains of this part of Lancashire towards Manchester. There are two trains that run this route, the fast one and the slow one which stops at all the stations en route, and as we slowed down outside Hoscar I realised I was on the slow one. I had an agonising few moments. I'd promised my dearest closest friend, and her delightful child, my Godson, that I'd be at her house in fifteen minutes time. On the other hand, I could jump off the train here and collect the as yet untarted Hoscar station, then walk the mile or so through the country lanes to Parbold. I had my OS map with me so I could easily find my way. What to do? What to do?

You thought I'd get off the train didn't you? For shame. I'm disappointed in you. It was very, very close, and to be perfectly honest, if I hadn't had that anxiety attack in Ormskirk I probably would be showing you a picture of my beaming mug under the Hoscar station sign. But I was tired, and what I needed was a cup of tea and a sit down. So I stayed on the train and continued to Parbold.

For this violation of the rules, the Gods of Merseytarting threw down a punishment, and made me look like an arse in front of the station sign. The problem with the screen on a mobile is you can't quite see the details until you get home and download it. Next time I go, I'll try and get a proper one.

Parbold, incidentally, is a lovely little village. It's the point where the railway and the Leeds & Liverpool canal coincide, and this means that it's popular with walkers and cyclists, as well as commuters for Manchester and Southport. There's an interesting mix of old and new buildings, including a windmill (without any sails) and a couple of good pubs. Even though it's fairly large, it still has that villagey feel, and I always enjoy coming here. Go and visit on a Sunday, and take a stroll by the canal. Be sure to visit Yours Is The Earth, the cafe there; it's run by someone I was at college with and his girlfriend, and the food and coffee there is delicious.

The village is bisected by the railway, and so grinds to a halt whenever a train goes through the level crossing. There's a subway for pedestrians, and again, kudos to Lancashire County Council: this too has been refurbished in recent years, as has the station building.

There's also still an old fashioned signal cabin here, which only adds to the olde-worlde village atmosphere, particularly since nearby is a Women's Institute.

I trotted off to Jennie's, where I was fed with home-made chocolate cakes and tea and we shared scurrilous gossip. Her son Adam and I also built this amazing Lego construction, as you can see. It's a house, with a bridge over the road to allow cars to pass underneath. To be honest, the main reason I go round to visit is for the Lego. The rest is just a bonus.

Really, to get the proper value out of my Day Ranger, I should have gone home via Wigan or something. It was six o'clock though, and it was raining, and I'd had a long, exhausting day (I spent most of Saturday in bed recovering from my exertions). So Jennie dropped me off at Ormskirk station, and I Merseyrailed my way home, breathing in the pungent aftershave of the men headed for a night out in the city. I presume their plan is just to stun the females into submission, like mustard gas in the First World War.

A strange day; a day of memorials to the past and celebration of futures, of building new stations and building Lego houses, a day where I'd gone from an absolute low to a chocolate cake-fuelled high. Another two stations down though, and my first on the Manchester to Southport line - a good start.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Pomp and Circumstance

It's never a good sign when the woman on the counter looks at you with confusion after you ask for a ticket. "A what?", she asked.

"A Lancashire Day Ranger ticket," I repeated, turning another shade of crimson.

"Can we do those here?" she asked her colleague, who was busy sticking down a date stamp on a Trio ticket. Two thoughts ran through my head. The first was righteous indignation: yes you can, woman, you can buy them from any station, and if you turned your eye to that computerised screen and turned on a couple more brain cells I'm sure you'd be able to find it. The other thought, running parallel with the first and occasionally overwhelming it, was: Oh God, maybe you can't get it from here. Maybe I'll have to go to Lime Street. Can I just slip away without anyone in the queue noticing? Oh God.

Fortunately her colleague had in fact received training on the computerised ticketing screen, and was able to find the Lancashire Day Ranger ticket and sell it to me. I was able to finally advance into Liverpool Central.

I'm going to pause now, for a bit of background. Over the last week I've sent out a few e-mails to some local organisations, explaining about the blog and asking for info on various different projects. One e-mail went to Merseyrail asking what was going on at Central, and if there were any artists impressions or diagrams that I could have to put up here as a point of interest. I got a lovely e-mail back from a lady in Customer Relations, saying she was going to speak to Merseytravel and get back to me (I also got something else, but I'll cover that in another post sometime). A day later, on the Thursday, she forwarded me some information that Merseytravel had provided for her, a Word document clarifying the details of the Central project. Unfortunately, Merseytravel couldn't provide her with any illustrations for "commercial reasons". Fair enough, I thought.

So I was a bit surprised to walk into Liverpool Central the next day to find this poster:

...that is, a poster explaining about the building work at Liverpool Central and featuring artist's impressions of the MtoGo shop and an overhead plan. If you can't quite see it in that picture, here's a couple of snaps I took of the five foot high renditions on the fences round the building work:

I'm glad Merseytravel overcame their fears about sending these diagrams to an interested blogger somewhere on the internet, and seized the opportunity to instead show this commercially sensitive material to the several thousand people who go through Liverpool Central every week. Bravo!

Anyway. I boarded the train to Ormskirk, and got in there about eleven-thirty. There's always been a ticket inspector here, but today, presumably in honour of the esteemed visitors to come, they were out in force - half a dozen of them, in fact. I managed to get by and headed into the town centre itself.

Ormskirk was experiencing that brief sigh of collective relief it gets for the period when the students are on holiday. I used to work with disabled children on the playscheme here in the summer, and so I knew Ormskirk out of term time is a completely different place. It's like the town is dusting itself down after a particularly rigorous boxing match, and is tending to its wounds, ready for the next round. I bet the pubs hate it.

I had a bit of a mawkish wander round, letting out a sigh of sadness at the empty Woolworths where I had bought GoldenEye on video, and trying to remember what used to be where there is now a Costa coffee. Mawkishness leads to melancholy, which leads to, in my current state of fragile mental health, a sudden precipitous drop into depression, insecurity and fear.

I was gripped with panic. What on earth was I thinking of, coming all this way to gate crash an official event? I'm criminally, painfully shy; I don't go to parties and talk to strange people, I stay at home and watch Coronation Street. I've been this way since I was a child, and most of the time I can just about get by, but here I was trying to introduce myself into a social situation all on my own with no-one to hide behind. I felt scared and alone, and the depression that I've been fighting the last few weeks swept over me until I was drowning in self-loathing.

I found a bench outside the registry office and phoned the Bf in work, to express my terror and to try and get some words of consolation. He was supportive, of course, and he said to me: "You don't have to go. You can turn round and come home and it won't matter."

Yes, I thought. I can do that. My legs were weak with the emotional barracking, but I managed to get up and stagger round the corner to see the station with, blessedly, a train waiting on the platform. It was 12:25, so I'd be able to slip onto the train and off before the distinguished guests arrived.

I was halfway down Station Approach, being pleasantly surprised by the new look of the station building when a whole load of photographers, dignitaries and a town crier came out for some official snaps. They were early! I froze outside, then gingerly crept forward. I could take a couple of photos from a distance, I thought, and I snapped one.

The official opening, by Sir William McAlpine, chairman of the Railway Heritage Trust, had already taken place, alongside other local notables - the Mayor of Ormskirk, and so on. Once the paparazzi shots were done, everyone went back inside to press the flesh. I carried on past the station, pretending to be terribly interested in the new cycle racks so no-one would spot me, and so that I could take a picture of the new glass porch over the entrance.

"Scott? I recognised you from your blog." It was Keith Lumley, Network Rail's Media Relations Manager, and the man who had told me about the event in the first place. I blustered a hello, and he explained that the opening had been brought forward as Sir William had to leave early. "Do you want to come inside and have a look round?"

I was still scared, I can't pretend otherwise. But Keith was friendly and open, and he took me inside the new look ticket office. I have to say I was gobsmacked by the transformation. Previously, the station had consisted of two halves. On the one side was the ticket office, and on the other was a news stand. The passenger area consisted of a corridor between the two, which lead to cramped conditions and at busy times (such as on a Saturday night), queues out the door and into the road.

The whole area has now been opened up, and feels light and beautifully spaced. Yes, the Colour Tsars have been in, and there's a distinct yellow and grey tone to the building, but it's not as in your face as at other stations. The station successfully manages to marry its 19th century roots with 21st century needs. I particularly like the large, glass fronted ticket office. There's even a toilet now, and space for a vending machine.

Keith showed me the plaque unveiled by Sir William, then pressganged the Town Crier into having his photo taken with me. Please remember, when you see this photo, that I was recovering from an anxiety attack, was extremely embarrassed, and was slightly scared to be stood next to a man with a moustache last seen in the Coleherne c.1978:

I said to Keith that I was surprised there wasn't a retail area in the station, given that there used to be a newsagent. He took me next door, to what used to be a waiting area. I'd never been in it before, as it had always been either locked up or occupied by bored teens, but now it had been stripped out and refurbished to form new commercial space. Keith explained that this space was to be rented out for what ever business wanted it: a cafe or a bar would be ideal, especially as you can be waiting for a couple of hours if you miss a Preston train. At that moment, however, it was being used for the catering, and the dignitaries were scrabbling for sandwiches and cups of tea. I felt even more out of place and gatecrasher-y, so I thanked Keith for all his help and made a getaway. (Sorry if I seemed brusque Keith - it was nothing personal, I promise you!).

The platform area has also been refurbished, and slightly ambitiously renumbered into Platforms 1 & 2: in actual fact it's one long platform with buffers in the middle separating the electrified from the non-electrified lines. The distinctive yellow and grey Merseyrail signs are fully in evidence here, and inside the station, there are "cactus" line diagrams showing the stations available - one for the Northern Line, and one for the Preston route and connecting services. Also inside the station is a distinctive piece of wooden rafting under the roof, which makes it feel almost Scandinavian.

I took one last photo outside of the new, vastly improved Ormskirk station: the glass portico's new as well. It's a worthy project, done well, and all the stakeholders in the project - Network Rail, Merseytravel, Merseyrail and Lancashire County Council - should be proud of their achievement. I suspect if this had been Ormskirk station when I lived here, I'd have started Merseytarting a lot sooner.

It was only as I walked away that I realised the man stood outside the station was Councillor Mark Dowd, Chair of Merseytravel: I briefly considered turning round and accosting him. But I couldn't think of any pertinent questions to ask him, and I didn't want to seem like a drippy fanboy, so I carried on. Besides, I had a bus to catch. Yes, you read that right. A BUS.