Monday, 28 June 2010

Your Network Needs YOU!

I'm an arty-farty, liberal kind of chap, which is why I've been very pleased to see that one of the lasting legacies of the City of Culture is Merseytravel's ongoing commitment to public art. Last year, they had the Art on the Network competition, and the good news is: it's back for 2010!

Yup, you have the opportunity to design a piece of art to be placed somewhere on the Merseytravel network. To celebrate Merseytravel have launched an Art on the Network website, which not only gives details of the competition, but also shows some of the other pieces that have already been commissioned over the past few years. (Be warned, the website uses Silverlight, and caused my Mac to have a small hissy fit).

If there are any artists reading this, please, please come up with something and enter. The full details can be found here. It's open to anyone from Merseyside who's over 16, and it will be judged by Singh Twins, whose work I've admired for years. This kind of commission is just one of those details that enrich and enhance the lives of everyday people - they're not much, but they just put a smile on your face. If I had any artistic talent, I'd be doing it myself.

I'd especially like it if someone from the Wirral or St Helens entered, since those two boroughs shamefully couldn't scrape up any decent entries for last time. Come on! Pull out those pens and paper and get on with it!

Sunday, 27 June 2010

So Faro, So Good

My holiday was in Portugal, and yet I've only written about Spain's metro, which is a bit unfair: like going to Scotland and telling everyone how great Cornish pasties are. In fairness, I did also visit Faro's main train station.

Faro's the capital of the Algarve, and unlike sweaty fish and chip purveying, vomit strewn sinkholes like Albufeira and Villamoura, has retained much of its historic core. There are pretty churches, a set of town walls, and an elegant marina.

The railway station is away from all that, in a district the travel guides probably call "gritty" and which everyone else calls "dumpy". It's at the end of a road full of grim bars, back packing hostels and rough looking cafes whose main menu item seems to be salmonella. We hustled past the concrete bus station, surrounded by pedlars and beggars and finally turned up at the tiny building.

For such a major town, Faro railway station is surprisingly tiny. It's about the size of one of the larger Merseyrail stations, Ormskirk perhaps, with a newsagent, ticket office and waiting room. It's a lot nicer inside than out.

The platforms and waiting rooms were deserted - it was a Sunday, after all - but there was a train waiting in the island platform. Not being a trainspotter, I can confidently say that this train was "red", and also "quite large".

Really, it was more like a country station than a town's centrepiece. Our travel guide had already warned us that railway services in this part of the world were slow, and that you'd be better off travelling by a (spit) bus than a train. Which seems odd to me, but seeing the way the station is tucked away, almost shamefully, in the back end of town, I'm not surprised.

Still, here's the obligatory Tart shot, even though I didn't actually travel anywhere. Just for completion's sake.

Nice tile action. I'll give them that.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Y Viva Espana

I'm back! I've spent the past week sunning myself in Portugal, and as a result I've turned the colour of creme caramel. This is a victory for me because I'm normally a sickly white. Hopefully I'll stay a bit brown and glowing for a while.

It was a week of relaxing in the sun, sipping wine by the pool, and reading book after book after book. The perfect way to switch off.

The one thing I can't switch off, though, is my Tarting instincts. We had planned a trip across the border to Seville, and on the way there in the car, I suggested it might be fun to have a ride on the Metro, which only opened last year. The Bf harumphed his agreement, no doubt mentally calculating that a ride on an underground is worth at least one World Cup game back at the villa.

The Spanish are Metro crazy, and yet for some reason it hadn't yet reached Seville. There was an attempt to build one back in the Seventies, until the money dried up. The new Metro is an unusual hybrid: it runs underground in the city centre, but the trains are actually trams, identical to the ones that run through the city streets. It's an interesting concept, as it reduces the cost to build the routes and allows the Metro to reach further out into the suburbs than it would do with conventional rail. As it turned out, Line 1 is completely segregated from other vehicles, but at least they have the option.

It hasn't stopped the Metro from being Credit Crunched, though. The plan was for three lines, but the second, due to begin work this year, looks increasingly unlikely as Spain wrestles with its debts

We started out at Puerta Jerez, right in the very centre of the city. My first reaction is - what the hell is that font, Seville? Green is apparently the traditional colour for the city, so I'll let that slide, but that station name looks horrible. It has no class or dignity. What's worse, they've used that font everywhere - signs, maps, everything. A unified design is great when it works - when it doesn't you're just staring at nastiness everywhere you look.

Still, the station entrance itself is nice, open and sunny and, blessedly, air conditioned. We headed down into the ticket hall, which is very spacious. Ridiculously spacious in fact. This can be great in an underground station - think Canary Wharf or Bermondsey - but here it just feels like a waste of space. All that open air for no apparent reason.

The ticket office was closed, so we had to negotiate the machine. This should have been simple - there was an "English" option - but they really should have used something other than Google Translate to decipher it. The English was more confusing than the Spanish. "Tablets" instead of "Tickets"? "Go and Back" instead of "Return"? And what the hell are "Jumps" - we had the option of 0, 1, or 2?

In the end we got two "Go and Back" tickets, mainly through bashing the touchscreen like ham-fisted apes, and pushed our way through the electronic barriers to the platform below.

Down the escalators, onto the single island platform. There are Platform Edge Doors, to stop random suicides, which I always like: it gives the station a sort of Star Trek air, especially as the train comes gliding in behind them almost silently.

Troublingly, the train we boarded was packed. It was a roasting hot day, and I was worried about my levels of sweatiness. Fortunately, we boarded right behind the driver's cabin, and thanks to a smoked glass wall, we were able to stare inside, watching the driver operate the controls and getting slightly seasicky as the tunnel streamed towards us.

We had no distinct destination in mind - we were just there for the thrill of the journey (well, I was) - so we got off spontaneously at Gran Plaza. This is much more of a neighbourhood station than Puerta Jerez, and has one tunnel with two side platforms - in fact, this is the tunnel built in the Seventies. It's smaller and more compact, which is bizarre, because right above our heads was the Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizchuan, home to Sevilla FC. Can you imagine the streams of fans that must push their way through those tiny ticket gates on match day? It must be like pushing Colgate out of a Tube. Still, the street level presence is nice.

Incidentally, you see that hat? I had to buy it on the first day because my rapidly balding head was frying in the sun, so I nipped into a C & A! Yes, they still have them in Europe. I found that ridiculously thrilling.

After a wander round, to take a look at the very impressive stadium, we had nothing else to do except get back on the train and head into town again. I have to admit to being disappointed - it didn't have the wow factor that other new lines like London's Jubilee or Paris's Meteor do, and it didn't have the charm of Madrid or Barcelona's networks either. It felt a bit soulless. Perhaps it's because, with the tram-trains and the awful green lettering, it just wasn't quite working - it didn't convince as a big city network. This is not to reflect badly on Seville itself, because I adore that city - it's a wonderful place to visit, and I'd happily move there if I could. It was just a bit of a let-down.

What did inspire me, though, was the thought of how the same principle - trams on the outskirts, tunnels in the city centre - could be a cheap way of bringing Metro services to UK cities. It would be a lot more efficient, and less intrusive, if the Manchester Metrolink (for example) was sent underground as it crossed town. Or perhaps Liverpool could get some use out of the old railway tunnels under the city by sending trams down it too. So long as they copy Seville's ideas, and not its awful design standards. That would be too much.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

He's Lovin' It

I'm with this guy.

He's been to a McDonalds, and had to marshall a load of screaming, insane, E-number fuelled children. They threw food, they clambered over the furniture, they chucked coke down their fronts. They wiped their noses on the bun of that kid everyone hates and made him cry. At the centre of this is a teeny tiny brat who is demanding everyone gives him their fries because he's the birthday boy and while they're at it he wants the best of the Happy Meal toys and if you don't give it to him he's going to SCREAM.

This guy's had to deal with all that, and all he's got out of it is probably a couple of hours with his snotty, obnoxious grandchild and two balloons with a Happy Meal logo on them. He thought it'd be a nice time out but kids are evil. He wants to get home and get away. What could possibly help him?

A keg of Heineken. Yeah, that'll do. He's going to get home, collapse into an armchair, and pour out the first of many, many pints of lager. Then he's going to pop each of those balloons, and enjoy. Every. Moment.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

A Walk In The Woods

From Hooton, Robert and I walked onto the old railway line that forms the Wirral Way. There is still the odd remnant of the old line at Hooton - the platforms are there, and there's an old waiting room, grown over with ivy. The station really was a behemoth in its day, with goods facilities to add to the mix as well. Unlike Rock Ferry, which is a shadow of its former self, Hooton still manages a brave aura of importance, a sense of place.

The Wirral Way curves south from the station, then heads due west. I had no idea how far we were going to walk, only the vaguest notion that it was a nice warm day, I had good company, and there was nothing else to do of a Sunday afternoon. The path was well maintained - it forms part of the National Cycle Route, and is popular with horses too - but the foliage either side of us was a disappointment: weeds and stinging nettles. There's maintaining the natural landscape, and there's letting it go to pot.

As we walked, we chatted idly. Robert has recently come back from a holiday in Scotland, and he told me about his misadventures there. I'm afraid that after clambering up and down mountains and glens, the almost flat landscapes around the Wirral Way were a bit of a come down. He spent a lot of time moaning about the lack of bracing vistas and inspiring views.

Normally I'd have told him to shut up and pushed him into a bank of stingers. In this case, he had a point. The path follows the track of the old railway exactly, and so it tends to be at a lower level than the surrounding landscape: it's also surrounded by high trees and hedgerows. The net effect is that you feel like a bit of a Borrower, stumbling around at the bottom of the vegetation.

It also quickly became clear why the railway failed. We had absolutely no idea where we were once we left Hooton. According to the map, we were passing to the south of Willaston, a large Cheshire village; but there was no sign of it at all. The railway builders had followed the path of least resistance, with the cheapest land and the simplest routes, so as a result the line passes close to a fair few settlements - but not close enough.

The first sign of civilisation was when we emerged at the preserved station at Hadlow Road. I came here back in the early days of the blog; when the line closed, the council kept the station as it was as a tourist attraction. When I had visited before, though, the ticket office had been closed, and we took the opportunity to have a poke around inside.

It's easy to romanticise old railways. Easy to forget that the service on this line was infrequent, and in noisy, filthy steam trains. Looking around the ticket office, with its bare wooden floors and charming anachronisms, you can forget that it would have been freezing cold, and there were only bare wooden benches to sit on. There was an undeniable power to it though, a whole mix of whistles and Bernard Cribbins and the smell of ash. Nostalgia for something which was dead long before I was even born. Another of those strange ideas that goes through the male psyche like words in a stick of rock.

We pressed on down the path, our conversation having turned, as it usually does, distinctly x-rated. I won't go into it here, as this is a public website: all I'll say is that Robert has a dirty mind.

Once again I gave thanks that I'm a man as I nipped into the bushes for a pee, and then we were passing under the Chester road through a dark concrete tunnel that the local teenagers had "decorated". If you believe the graffiti there, everyone in Willaston is inbred, Liverpool FC will last for ever, and a boy called John sucks cocks. I don't know where Frank Muir used to find his witty graffiti for the books he used to produce every Christmas: all I ever see is crudely drawn penises and insults. What's worse is text speak has crept onto the walls as well - there was actually an LOL up there, which is depressing for a hundred reasons.

A sense of magic began to infuse the path then, as we descended into a cutting. We were suddenly walking between high rock walls, slick with moisture and moss. I loved it. It was like being underground, or in a secret cave. I've always loved caves, and alcoves, and niches: it comes from reading too much Enid Blyton as a child, when middle-class children couldn't nip to the shops for a pint of milk without encountering smugglers hidden in a labyrinth of potholes. My absolute favourite was The Valley of Adventure, where four well-scrubbed youths and a parrot are isolated in the middle of a Mittel-European country and have to hide out in a cave behind a waterfall. I loved that idea. Maybe not the parrot though.

I expect that's where my love of underground railways comes from, too - the world of secret trains, of exciting hidden places. Either that or it's something deeply psychologically disturbing it's probably best not to dwell on.

At Neston, the line is broken by people, as the town has grown over the old railway line. There's still a Station Road, but now it's been subsumed by suburbia. Of course, as soon as we hit a population centre, it began to rain, and Robert and I must have looked a sight: wet, sweaty, slightly dirty from the mud.

We were at a metaphorical crossroads now. I'd done this section of the Wirral Way before, last year, so there wasn't really any need for me to do it again. On top of that, if we carried on, there'd be a while before we would find a way out again, and it was starting to rain. Neston had buses and trains that could take us somewhere dry.

Never underestimate cheapness. Yes, we could have left the track at that point, but we both had Saveaways, the Merseyside only ticket, and we were still in Cheshire. We'd have had to pay for a bus out of there, at least to the county line.

We walked on.

Fortunately the rain was only a shower, enough to get us mildly damp but not soak us. The path was a lot busier at this point as there were walkers out with their dogs, families out for a stroll, and bikers. Lots of bikers. Lots of nice families out cycling together. I never went cycling with my family when I was younger - me and my brother had BMXs, and we'd race around the estate on them or try and do wheelies, but my Dad never cycled, and it would have been a cold day in hell before you got my mum on one of them. I didn't think we were missing much. We used to go on walks as a family, where you can all talk to one another - it's hard to bond as a unit when you're whizzing along at fifteen miles an hour in a straight line.

Soon we were at Parkgate, home of the Famous Parkgate Ice Creams. I don't have a sweet tooth, at all: I mean, I like ice-cream, and I'll happily have the odd Magnum or Cornetto, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it. I'm far more a Cornish Pasty kind of guy. So Robert volunteered to find out why the ice cream was so famous, and bought himself a twin cone. For some reason, he then decided to perform oral sex on it:

Yes, folks, he is single and available. Just in case you want to find out what it's like to be a ball of toffee ice cream.

Once he'd eaten his ice cream, and sucked the sticky liquid off his fingers (steady...), we returned to the Wirral Way. We inadvertently ended up on the bridleway, which sounds fine, until you realise it's (a) soft and moist and (b) littered with horse muck. I mean, everywhere. Can't horse riders take a plastic bag out with them, like dog walkers? Though the quantities we saw would mean you'd probably have to cart a bin bag around with you.

Fortunately we were able to get back on the path in time to cross the border into Wirral, and with it, Merseyside. A plan was forming, as the afternoon was getting on and we were increasingly tired. We'd walk to Heswall, then go to the bus station in the town for a (Saveaway-funded) bus home. It wasn't that far, and in the meantime, we could admire the scenery: finally we were properly above ground, and we could see the Welsh mountains across the estuary.

I'm at a loss to explain what happened next. For some reason, we managed to walk past Heswall altogether, something which passed us by until we realised we were stood in the middle of nowhere with fields all around us. I can't explain how my normally fantastic sense of direction let me down. It must have been Robert's fault. Yeah, that's it.

We could have turned around, walked back, but that's an incredibly depressing prospect, so we decided we'd carry on to the next village, Thurstaston, and see if we could get a bus there. Robert was immensely disappointed that this would mean we wouldn't get to visit the not-funny-at-all Gayton, but there was no alternative. We was tempted to make a detour for this:

I mean, The Dungeon? What? We decided not to bother looking in the end, as the reality could never be as interesting as the Orc-manned torture chamber we had in our heads, and Thurstaston couldn't be too far away - could it?

It depends what you mean by Thurstaston, I suppose. We stumbled upon the old railway platform there, still preserved: the line was only single track, so this would have served up and down trains. More interestingly, behind the platform was a proper visitor centre, with a cafe, toilets, and exhibition space.

Inside were the usual rag-tag elements that the name "visitor centre" implies: a few stuffed animals in a diorama about the nature of the Wirral Way, a model ship, a few informative plaques. There was a brief history of the line's railway past, too. Once we'd spent a respectable amount of time cooing over the exhibits, and tried to work the hi-tech public transport kiosk (which could only tell us that yes, the Wirral had buses), we ventured into the village.

You know how I said the railway bosses had built the line some distance from the village they served? Well, take what I said about Willaston, and times it by a thousand for Thurstaston.

There was an astonishing distance between the village and the railway station. With planning like this, it's no wonder that Doctor Beeching decided to give the axe to the route. It's a shame it went, but there's no way it would survive, not in today's economy: there are vast lengths of route without anyone nearby - fine in an intercity railway, not so good on a little local one. Robert suggested that it might have been nice as a preserved railway, a steam train running between West Kirby and Hooton. That might have worked, but sadly, the line's now been built over in places, so it's never going to happen. Instead it's being slowly reclaimed by the earth: the only wheels that'll pass over it now are bicycle wheels.

As for us, we'd walked nearly ten miles in an afternoon, which isn't bad for two slightly podgy men with little or no athletic aptitude. There's now only a little strip between Thurstaston and West Kirby that I haven't walked, so I'll have to do that for completion's sake. In the meantime, we decided to celebrate the end of the walk as men always do:


Friday, 11 June 2010

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

I woke up this morning to find a box on my doorstep. Nothing new there: I'm currently being stalked by Russell Tovey, and he frequently leaves me gifts - chocolates, jewellery, pictures of him naked save for a pair of opened toed sandals. I keep saying stop, The Bf will find out, but I just can't quell his ardour. It's a hard life.

However, this box was different. Eight inches square, it was wrapped in plain brown paper, and my name was spelt out using letters cut from the newspaper. I wracked my brains: did I know anyone who had recently been kidnapped? After all, I know some very important people. One of my friends has met Cherie Blair. He could be in a cellar somewhere, right now, chained to a radiator with only a transistor tuned to the World Service for company. Unlikely, because no-one uses transistor radios these days, but you never know.

I gingerly opened the package, and inside was a letter. It had been wrapped around a Sheila Hancock souvenir paperweight: she was wearing her wimple from Sister Act. I took this as a veiled threat, having seen her as a Madam Whiplash judge on Over The Rainbow.

Dear Merseytart

it said.

I read what you wrote about Hooton the other day and I thought I'd put you right on a few things. Don't ask who I am: just trust me when I tell you that I am amazing, and know more than you ever will.

There are no plans to cut back the Ellesmere Port service to a shuttle, as you discussed. Quite the contrary. Merseyrail are planning on increasing the Chester service to four trains from December, yes, but that will be at no cost to the Ellesmere Port service. Through effective management of the fleet, they'll be able to increase frequencies without causing any problems. That'll mean six trains an hour between Hooton and Hamilton Square, and a total of fourteen trains an hour between Hamilton Square and Liverpool. Not bad eh?

"That's pretty good," I said, then realised I was talking to a letter.

Chester's not just one of the busiest routes: it also has "suppressed demand". There will have to be a change to the maintenance routines, but they will manage. There'll be no need to bring in the trains from down south for the new schedules, either, though Merseyrail is still looking at the possibility of bringing them into the fold in the future. Passenger numbers are rising all the time.

"So why improve Hooton? What's the reason?" I gasped.

I'm not sure why I can hear that, but here's the answer to your question. Hooton is being improved because it's a busy junction with a large car park that has been a little neglected. That's it. There's no ulterior motive - just a desire to make the station that little bit better, that little bit nicer, that little bit more accessible.

You're a cynical chap, I know: but remember that sometimes people do things for good reasons.


P.S. This letter will now self-destruct.

With that, the missive burst into flames in my hand. As I ran my burnt fingertips under the cold tap, I couldn't help smiling. Two more trains an hour to Chester is fantastic news - that's doubling the service. It's a plan with no down sides. Increased frequencies between two major cities, metro-level service along the Wirral Line, and Ellesmere Port stays as an integral part of the network. Marvellous. Hurrah for anonymous tip offs!

Monday, 7 June 2010

Hooton and Howlin'

The last week has been an uninterrupted streak of glorious, hot weather, sunny and sticky. So what happens the one day I decide to leave the house? It goes cloudy and rains. Marvellous.

The plan was to hit Hooton to see the new MtoGo shop, and then to have a bit of wander down the Wirral Way - the old Hooton to West Kirby line. My partner in crime once again was Robert, who is increasingly becoming the Lois to my Clark. Sorry, the Lewis to my Clark. We venture forth into untarted territory, unbowed, fearless. With me in charge, obviously.

First stop, though, was Hooton, the unattractively named junction at the base of the Wirral Line. I tarted it - Christ - two years ago, but it's subsequently had a load of cash thrown at it to be redeveloped, so I wanted to get a "before" under my belt.

We got off the Chester train and immediately spotted this curious sign in the waiting room. I can't quite work out what's gone on here. Is there some technical, redevelopment reason for there being glue on the seat, or has someone just spilt some Uhu? Are they setting up a YouTube joke for later, when someone "hilariously" gets stuck to it? All the other seats were fine. It was the first time I'd been in one of those glass Tardis waiting rooms that have sprung up all over the place - it was surprisingly nice. Back when I used to commute to Chester, we'd often have to get off at Hooton for various reasons (usually a breakdown of some kind), and I'd stood in the peeing rain on the platform rather than venture inside the shelter. It always seemed to be occupied by aggressively noisy thirty something women who would do anything to protect their over-elaborate hairdos, and God help you if you came splashing anywhere near them. They've since built another modern looking waiting room on the Liverpool platform, but annoyingly, it doesn't match the one on the Chester platform:

Clearly the silver and blue scheme offended the Colour Tsars, and they decreed the new one should be in the corporate livery. It's also bigger than the old one. Freudians, do your work.

The biggest redevelopment to come at Hooton will be a new footbridge, incorporating full lift and disabled access. Because this is a busy station, and the active platforms are only accessible via the existing bridge (the platforms nearest the ticket office are used to hold trains overnight), it wasn't possible to demolish the current bridge until a replacement was around. As such, they're going to build the new bridge behind it, then demolish the old one once it's in place, somewhere early in 2011. The workmen are already on site, and have got rid of the old disabled toilet that used to be on the platform. No word yet on whether they'll transfer the distinctive "eau de pissoir" to the new footbridge, but fingers crossed.

Another part of the redevelopment is they've finally opened the long-promised MtoGo shop in the booking hall. The previous newsagent that was in the station building closed years ago, so it was always surprising that they took so long to install it. It's a smaller version of the Liverpool Central or Moorfields buildings, and looks very neat - however, it was closed when we got there, so we couldn't go in and poke the confectionary. I never knew that MtoGo shops did close, actually: I thought they were open as long as the station was, but the presence of a ticket window indicates otherwise, I guess.

The question is, why is Hooton getting all this cash thrown in its direction? I thought it was just a reflection on the fact that it's been neglected for a long time. Even though it's a Merseyrail station, and is within area B with the rest of the Wirral, it's actually in Cheshire. It's been ignored in the same way that the other Cheshire stations have.

Robert, however, had a different explanation. Network Rail have advocated more trains on the Liverpool-Chester route, freeing up capacity and increasing reliability. It'd also mean that there'd be six trains an hour between Hooton and Liverpool. However, to do that, they'd need to add some more trains.

Initially, the idea was to add units from London, the only other place that runs trains like we have on Merseyside. They were replacing theirs, so the trains were going spare. For some reason though, Merseyrail haven't bitten their hand off. The trains are still sitting around unused. No-one knows why: perhaps Merseyrail can't afford to rent them, or perhaps they don't fancy upgrading the trains to our standards. God knows what the Colour Tsars would say to trains that weren't yellow and grey travelling around willy nilly.

Without any new trains, it's difficult to add new services. So they may fall back on a different proposal: implement the four trains an hour to Chester... and withdraw the direct service to Ellesmere Port. One train would be left to run there and back again, and everyone would be forced to change at Hooton. Hence the upgrades, to ensure the people waiting on the platform are well catered-for.

This is all a rumour, for the moment. It would of course be a massive step back for Ellesmere Port if its direct service to Liverpool was withdrawn: even if it's a relatively simple change, it's an inconvenience for passengers. It'd be bad for Liverpool too, as I'm sure many of the people who currently take the train to shop in the city, for example, would change to a bus to Chester to save time. Plus, you only have to look at the Helsby-Ellesmere Port service to see what can happen when a service becomes a shuttle: it gets wound down and down until it becomes nothing. I'll keep an ear out but it would be a shame if this investment came at the detriment of the train service: that's text book giving with one hand, and taking away with the other.