Saturday 3 April 2010

The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries

A couple of weeks ago, I waxed lyrical over a couple of old Merseyrail signs pointed at me by Jamie. Well, he's taken time out from his busy schedule of sipping champagne in the first class compartment of the Eurostar to send me a few more. How this Dom Perignon-fuelled lifestyle fits in with his ongoing rationing project, I couldn't say; perhaps he's pretending he's Princess Margaret for a few days.

The true thanks for these pics should probably go to Jamie's partner, Chris, who's the one who, ahem, acquired them over the years. They give a little insight, not only into the changing look of Merseyrail, but into the evolving standards of graphic design. We have good reason to thank Adobe Illustrator for all their efforts.

We'll start with a couple of signs that aren't even Merseyrail - at least not in the sense that we know it now. The Liverpool Overhead Railway was built in the late 19th Century, and shadowed the docks all the way from Dingle to Seaforth & Litherland in the North. The first elevated railway in the world, the LOR carried dock workers to work throughout its history, as well as a thousands of tourists who used it to sight see (it gave a great view of the docked ocean liners) but it couldn't last after the war. A combination of extensive bomb damage - never forget, Liverpool was second only to London in the amount of bombs that fell during the Blitz - and lack of maintenance led to the whole system being desperately in need of extensive repair. The company simply couldn't afford the works, and so in 1956 it was closed and demolished.

There's practically nothing left of the railway. A few metal posts on the dock walls where struts once stood; the areas of wide pavement behind the "Three Graces", which once hosted the Pier Head station; and a car storage area for a garage in Dingle which was once the underground terminus. The Museum of Liverpool will exhibit the last remaining car from the railway when it opens next year.

I'm kind of torn about the railway's loss. Any railway closure is of course a sad thing, and it would no doubt be a tourist attraction if it were open today - but would it be a practical, valid railway? I mean, look at the in-car diagram; the stations are barely a couple of hundred metres apart, and without all that dock traffic, who would be using it? Perhaps the residents of the developments around the southern docks would use it to get to the city centre, but beyond Prince's Dock, you're talking a load of undeveloped, barely used industrial land. In addition, the whole structure would tower over the Strand for its length, blocking those beautiful views of the riverside buildings with clumsy inelegant ironworks.

(Peel Holdings have suggested a sort-of restoration of the route as part of their Liverpool Waters scheme, except as a monorail running to the airport. To which I say, I will believe it when I see it).

Moving on to Merseyrail proper, and there's a map of the Mersey Railway, precursor to today's network. This map dates from 1904, and used to be on the wall at James Street. It features the railway not long after completion, and before the electrified lines were extended over the rest of the North Wirral coast. Perhaps one of the strangest parts of this sign is how much of it is still there. Leaving aside the West Kirkby-Hooton railway, now the Wirral Way (which used to be covered up with masking tape when the sign was still in-situ), almost every station on the Wirral is still there; only Ledsham on the now green lines has gone. Burton Point and Storeton on the Borderlands Line have gone (though we've gained Hawarden Bridge). The most notable disappearance is the Seacombe line, a branch that was never that popular in the first place; it was never electrified with the rest of the lines, and eventually got ripped up and turned into the approaches for the Kingsway tunnel.

Of course, then all the railways were nationalised, and the Mersey Railway and all its connections fell under British Rail. By the early seventies, there was a Public Transport Executive for the area, but Merseyside hadn't yet come into existence, so British Rail were still issuing the promotional material - resulting in this disastrous map.

Look at it. Horrible colours, barely legible typefaces, odd symbology (asterisks for car parks, making it look like there's some kind of addendum to 90% of the stations, and randomly placed BR symbols - St Helens Junction?). The worst crime is the erratic, clunky lines of the routes themselves. There's not a single consistent angle in there, making it look like a join the dots picture rather than a logical diagram. Look at the awkward polygon below Runcorn - why not a triangle? Or the strange horizontal break between Thatto Heath and St Helens Shaw Street interrupting a nice clean diagonal. Or that sharp angle between Hamilton Square and Rock Ferry. And look at the placing of the station names, running all over the route lines willy nilly, and in the case of New Brighton and Hamilton Square, actually crossing the Mersey. It's just horrible.

Thank God it wasn't all bad. The next pic is of an in-car diagram from 1971, and this doesn't look too different from the Northern Line we have today; everything north of Sandhills is still there, though the names may have changed a little (Town Green & Aughton, Walton Junction). Of course, it all goes into Liverpool Exchange, rather than through and out to Hunts Cross, but this would form the basis for the next twenty-odd years of Northern Line diagrams. One thing that did vanish was the smily train on the right; Jamie tells me before we got the swirly Merseytravel logo, this was used as the symbol for the network, and even appeared on the trains! To which I say, wow. There really were some powerful mind-altering drugs around in the late sixties, weren't there? I do applaud their early embrace of gay relationships though, with the man on the train giving his businessman boyfriend a bunch of flowers - very Brief Encounter (the film, not the bar. Well, the bar too).

The Wirral Line's always been a lot more complicated, of course, and it's gone through a lot more changes than its blue cousin. This 1977 diagram (now with the familiar plughole logo) shows the indecision about the various branches, and the portrayal of the Loop. Perhaps the most shocking part is that the loop is a FUCKING SQUARE - and damn, it was as ugly then as it is now. It's not even centred on the Mersey Rail Tunnel. I do like the way of showing the unidirectional trains though - arrows within the route line itself, a subtle but clear way of doing it (subsequently used by London Underground for the Heathrow Terminal 4 loop). Also in evidence is a sticker, hastily plastered on in 1978 when funding was cut on the Borderlands Line, and the service was pulled back to Bidston, and of course the clunky break at Rock Ferry where the electrified lines end.

Also from 1977 comes this map of the whole Merseyrail system, which replaces the square with a diamond. It kind of works, but once again features one of those bizarre little illogical moments which makes you wonder if the designers were just being deliberately obtuse. Why, why, why would you put Moorfields off centre, meaning that the Northern Line has to do an odd little kink in the centre of the map? It overcomplicates it for the sake of overcomplicating it. It's also strange to see the map without any water at all on it, no river, no Irish Sea, nothing. Underground diagrams of course, don't need to show overland details. There's no need to stick a park on there, or a tourist attraction - all the route maps are designed to do is show you what the next station is.

People aren't logical though. People subdivide places, draw imaginary lines on routes all the time. People take familiar routes to the shop, because that's the way they learned. People put other people into boxes according to what street they're on, what district they're in and, especially, what side of the river they're on. It's real human geography, a geography created by people in their minds.

The Mersey (or the Thames, or the Seine) is a barrier between villages and towns; they divide people into what they are and what they are not. There is a big psychological line in that river between the Wirral and Liverpool, and it gives a sense of place to anyone who sees it. Remove it from the map and it somehow becomes a blob. Amorphous, undignified and ill-defined. The little section of rail between James Street and Hamilton Square crosses hundreds of years of history, and it's important that it remains there. Thankfully it was restored in the 1978 map I talked about last time (albeit in a bizarre, wiggly form).

While we're here, I'd just like to register my approval for the purple used for Southport-Wigan. I just think it's a nice colour. So there.

Finally we've got one last in car diagram, used exclusively on the trains that ran through the Link. In the early days of Merseyrail, trains from Garston ran through to Kirkby; Southport and Ormskirk trains terminated at Central. It's interesting to note that these services got a line diagram of their own, rather than just the generic Northern Line map. This map was used until 1983, when the trains it was on (503s) were replaced with 508s. (I didn't know that, incidentally, I'm just quoting Jamie; please redirect any rolling stock queries to him). We're starting to get to the Merseyrail we know and love now - the font is British Rail standard, there's plenty of white space and clear colours. No sign of the Hunts Cross extension on there, though - presumably they didn't bother sticking it on as new trains would arrive to service that route.

So, unless Jamie and Chris have another bunch of diagrams stuck under their bed, that's the end of our little tour through the history of Merseymaps. It does make you realise that with the exception of The Square That Dare Not Speak Its Name, we've reached a pinnacle of map design for our area. Merseyrail's never had a genius like Harry Beck to revolutionise the way we see our local services; instead we've quietly transformed into the simple, clear diagram we have today. I mean, however much I complain - it's not that hideous British Rail effort, is it?


Robert said...

Lovely stuff; I get far more excited than anyone should when I see stuff like this.

That BR map is shocking but there a couple of interesting things about it: it shows the original PTE area which (almost) extended to Ormskirk but did not include Southport, keeping the legions of snobs who live there happy at not being associated with Liverpool. It has the (now freight-only) line from Bootle to Edge Hill which had a diesel-operated passenger service on it until 1977 to allow passengers from Southport to make easy connections to London trains. It also mentions the long gone Motorail terminal at Newton-le-Willows.

I love the happy train picture -- it's so unmistakeably 70s, and for a short time it appeared everywhere: posters, timetables, carrier bags. The preserved 502 has a smiley train showing through where the paint is flaking off the bodywork.

The Kirkby-Garston service was often worked by class 503s drafted in from the Wirral rather than the 502s which worked the rest of the Northern Line, which may explain why the line map has the whole Wirral Line and the Kirkby-Garston bit.

The Museum of Liverpool will exhibit the last remaining car from the railway when it opens next year.

Not quite the last. There's also a vehicle with the Suburban Electric Railway Association at Coventry, although it's in a fairly abject condition.

gottago said...

My mouth actually fell open looking at that yellow one! Why on earth could Wallasey Village and Bidston be swapped around at least?!

I quite like the way the last map is nice and uncluttered.

Seeing stuff like this though, I've got to wonder why exactly they only marketed Merseyrail as only being two lines? Look at the Wirral Line: the Chester branch and the West Kirby branch only share 5 stations. Why didn't they market West Kirby/New Brighton and Chester/Ellesmere Port as being two separate lines (or four if you want to go crazy?!).

Same goes for the Northern Line. I only found out the other week that the Kirkby/Ormskirk branch terminates at Liverpool Central, I'd always assumed by looking at the map that they continued all the way to Hunts Cross. That means that they only share three stations with the Southport branch so why are they classed as the same line?

We could have far more exciting maps (and probably simpler for tourists) with superbly garish colours if the branches were all classed as different lines! I think it would make it look more like the extensive metro systems of the world if we moved away from just two lines (and the City Line of course).

But that's just me!

Scott Willison said...

That happy train carrier bag has made my week. I hope you use that in Sainsbury's.

As for marketing... I reckon, if the Wirral Line were created today, it would be two different entities. There would be a straight split between North Wirral and South Wirral lines. The problem is the creeping electrification which meant the Wirral Line just quietly got bigger; it went from Rock Ferry, to Hooton, to Chester, to Ellesmere Port. I'd hope that if and when the Borderlands line comes into the equation, there'll be a rethink; I wouldn't want to lose the Bidston-Wrexham identity, I have to be honest. I'd like to see it shadow the Wirral Line instead. The Northern Line is different since all its lines head through the centre, but I reckon a difference between the through lines and the terminals would be a good idea.

Scott Willison said...

Also gottago: come out of that Eurovision closet. Be loud and proud! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Just wow looking at the old merseyrail stuff, it show how railways in merseyside have changed

gottago said...

I refuse Scott, I refuse!

Gary Langley said...

Fantastic post, as someone who has studied the local rail network for over 30 years as a hobby i found the detail and content really interesting. Having worked on the railway for the last 20 years too its been interesting to see some of the ideas for future projects come and go too such as electifying Bidston-Wrexham, the Town Meadow station that has been suggested every 3 years for the last 20, Kirkby-Wigan Electification and so on. This was a great article, im not a train buff believe it or not but enjoyed the read. Cheers

Barbara Cortina said...

Actually, the plughole logo as you call it was officially called the Catherine Wheel and was first devised in 1969 when the PTE was formed. The corners of the logo sort of spell '69' out and, as for the line in the middle, that's to reflect the PTE's pro-rail policy. If you're going to talk at length about the Merseyside rail network, at least get the name of the logo right. 'The plughole logo'...I've never heard anything so daft in all my life!

Barbara Cortina said...

Not only do you incorrectly describe our beloved MPTE Catherine Wheel logo as the 'plughole logo' (Yes, I'm from Merseyside...Liverpool to be exact) but you attack the way the Merseyside Rail Network map is laid out! 'Barely legible typeface'? what a load of NONSENSE! If I can read it then so can you. If you haven't got anything NICE to say about British Rail maps of the 1970s, then I suggest you shut the **** up! I know someone who worked for the railways for twenty years, working her way up from guard to Area Revenue Protection Manager and, like me, she'd probably defend British Rail to the death.