Tuesday 24 August 2010

I'm Going Slightly Mad

I am so BORED.

This broken foot thing is no fun. At first it had a sort of charm to it: I never broke anything as a child, so I'd always felt I'd missed out on a rites of passage experience. And it was great sitting around on my backside while the Bf ran around making me cups of tea and my favourite dinners.

But now... now I'd just like to be able to leave the house. I'd like to go for a walk to the nearest pub. I'd like to get myself a cup of tea. I'd like to get some exercise, because I strongly suspect that I've put on about twelve stone just sitting here. Most of all, I want to go out and get some train stations.

What makes it worse is that, as I sit around here, my mind wanders to the practicalities of Tarting, and I get thinking about the hows and whys of the next trip. I have plenty of time to make fantasies of where to go, how to get about; I'm scanning timetables, running through Google Maps. I've even started wondering what I'll do once I've collected all the stations on the map (Stations in Wales? Northern England? The tramlines of Rotterdam? The New York subway?).

For now I'll content myself with a brief update of what's still to be done, care of the black splodged map:

The biggest area I've ignored so far is in Cheshire.

Eight stations there, on two lines, with irregular services (Acton Bridge is served only on feast days when there is a full moon and the Duke's wife is with child) or request-only stops (Delamere). They're also some distance apart, what with it being the countryside. Some thought required.

Another stretch of country line to be collected is in Lancashire:

The Wigan-Southport line's been partially collected, at Parbold and Burscough Bridge, but there's still the rest of it to go. Once again, we have stations in the middle of nowhere - New Lane is barely a station at all.

We've also got the Blackpool branch in Lancashire, which still fills me with dread as I promised never ever to go back to that Sodom-on-Sea. Argh.

Beyond that, there are odds and sods. The Bromborough Rake-Bromborough-Eastham Rake complex on the Wirral Line. Birkdale and Southport on the Northern Line. Both of those will signal the end of their respective routes, so I'll leave them for a while longer. Two rogue stations that have been missed out by accident - Bryn and Widnes. And Leyland and Euxton Balshaw Lane on the West Coast Main Line.

Then, right at the end, a final sweep of the Loop. That'll give me James Street, Moorfields, Lime Street and Central, all of which I've got in one way or another but which don't properly count (e.g. I've only done the Water Street entrance to James Street, or the main line of Lime Street). That's a final, victory sweep, one that I hope to accompany with beer at local train-themed pubs, and hopefully with some of the marvellous people I've met through this blog.

It's not much to do, is it? Twenty-nine stations, by my count. Soon it'll all be over and done with. Which makes me sad...

Friday 20 August 2010

And the Winner Is...

It is one of my life's ambitions to win an Oscar. And a proper Oscar, not Best Sound Editing or something. A real Academy Award, which will be presented to me by a tearful Halle Berry, and which I will accept wearing a chic tuxedo (Armani, naturally). I will thank Ms Berry profusely, then the Academy, then make a personal political statement ("Free Tibet" perhaps?), before saying that I couldn't have been named Best Actor In The World Ever without the support of everyone I ever met, but actually, I'm pretty amazing, and probably would have done it without them anyway. The Kodak Theatre will rise to its feet in applause, and my fellow nominees (Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Daniel Day Lewis and Russell Tovey) will graciously accept that I am in fact marvellous, and they deserved to lose to someone as fantastic as me.

This may not happen.

In reality, I've never won anything at work. I tell a lie: I seem to remember winning a Cadbury's Creme Egg while I worked at WH Smith in Birkenhead. I can't remember what for. I don't think it was for being the Best Actor In The World Ever, anyway.

I should have joined the rail industry as it turns out they have an annual beano: the RailStaff Awards. Due to be presented in Birmingham this October, the awards acknowledge the contribution of staff from across the rail network, and give a reward to those who go above and beyond the call of duty. And what prizes! 3d tvs, a New York break, a trip on the Orient Express... it's better than an Oscar in fact, as all you get there is a manky old lump of metal. Penelope Cruz didn't get an iPad for being Best Supporting Actress, did she?

I'm happy to report that Merseyrail has not one, but two nominees in the category of Station Staff of the Year. The first is Craig Munnerley, who by day works at the MtoGo in Hamilton Square. He's been nominated for his work with Liverpool Pride, and in particular, for getting Merseyrail to become such an integral part of the event. Craig helped to get them involved both financially and also in promoting the day across the network. It turns out that he was also the extremely enthusiastic guy on the microphone on the Merseyrail stand - the one who caused me to run a mile. A lifetime of cynicism has meant that I recoil whenever people are happy and keen - I'm far better at standing in the background, raising an eyebrow and pursing my lips.

Craig on the other hand is far more of a "doer", and his efforts at getting a rousing chorus of "Oops Upside Your Head" have now been rewarded with a nomination at the RailStaff awards. Well done him!

The other nominee is Gary Briscoe, who is the Duty Manager at Bromborough Rake station. The station backs onto a nature reserve, and Gary has been working with the wardens there to encourage wildlife - there are now nesting boxes on the trees. He's also been nominated for his community work, including helping a terminally ill man nearby and driving a drunk woman home after she collapsed outside the station. I like to hear stories like this, mainly because, as a professional drunk myself, I like to think that people will help me out when I'm sprawled in the gutter somewhere. I'll make sure that next time I'm comatose after too many JD and Cokes I'll jump off at Bromborough Rake.

Gary also proved his worth as a railway man, spotting a track defect and getting it fixed overnight, sparing the morning commuters all kinds of hell in the process. In recognition of his contributions, Gary's been nominated for the Outstanding Customer Service Award in addition to the Station Staff Award.

Both of them are worthy nominees but sadly, there's only one winner. You can vote for who you want to win the Station Staff of the Year Award here. Vote early, vote often, that's what I say. They're both clearly marvellous chaps and fully deserving of the accolades. It's also good to see Merseyrail itself getting some kudos for its customer service skills. I'll keep an eye out for the results of the awards when they're announced on October 23rd.

In the meantime, I'll be in front of the mirror, practising my speech.

Saturday 14 August 2010


Oh dear. Followers of my Twitterfeed will be aware that I've had an accident. Thursday morning, I went to take out the bins. I took one step out my front door and my foot went over on itself. I thought I'd just bruised it, but when the side of my foot started to swell and the pain didn't go away, I took a trip to casualty.

Turns out I have broken my fifth metatarsal (the same as David Beckham, celebrity injury fans). So I ended up looking like this:

The plaster's gone now, replaced by a big clunky boot shoe which holds the foot in place, but I'm still on crutches and wincing every time it moves. It's really quite annoying, and it's put a real crimp in my tarting activity. I've already had to cancel a trip to London next week. I was planning on working my way down the East London Line, the new, gleaming extension to the Overground, but it's going to have to wait now. I can't tell you how disappointed by this I am.

So basically what I'm saying is, bear with me. I'll be away for a while - unless I can think of any little posts I can do without leaving the comfort of my sofa - but I promise I'll be back. Don't go anywhere!

Tuesday 10 August 2010

In The Pink

So: it was Liverpool Pride at the weekend, an excuse for the city's homosexuals to get together and bond. I'm not really one for Pride festivals, normally. I went to Manchester Pride about twelve years ago and it was horrible. You paid to get in, which is odd considering it was being held on public streets, and then you were hemmed into narrow, crowded districts of bars and stands. There was an air of frenetic, unpleasant chaos about the place, not helped by the number of people nakedly staring at passers by, summing them up. I was there for about two hours before I'd had enough.

Liverpool Pride though - well, that's different. For starters it was free. Secondly, it was in Liverpool, a city I have very much taken to my heart since I moved here (gulp) fifteen years ago. I thought it was important to go along and take part, especially since there's been an unpleasant rise in homophobic attacks in the city over the past couple of years. Sometimes it's good to show that your community isn't afraid, and is actually proud of who they are.

We marched from St George's Plateau to Dale Street, which had been closed for the festival, right through the centre of the city. I was incredibly pleased to see people by the side of the road, cheering, shouting, applauding: all sorts of Scousers just enjoying the spectacle. Ok, one boy did point at me and shout "poof!" (well spotted), and there was a contingent of Christian Fundamentalists in Derby Square telling us we were all going to hell, but beyond that it was an incredibly positive reception. There's something wonderful about men putting their kids on their shoulders so they can get a better view of a six foot drag queen with awesome legs.

After that there was a day of hedonism ahead. Well, as hedonistic as you can get in an industrial Northern city - it wasn't exactly a bacchanalian orgy. It was just a good time. The whole experience was completely different to the Manchester one - there was a glee in the air, a really friendly atmosphere that was great to be a part of.

And I was pleased to see that Merseytravel and Merseyrail were part of it all. Merseyrail had a stand, with pink t-shirt wearing staff on hand. I'm not sure what was going on at the stand, because when we walked past there was a man with a microphone trying to drum up volunteers: this is the kind of behaviour that causes me to have a small panic attack in case I'm dragged in and made to sing or something, so I backed away quietly. Otherwise I'd have checked it out for freebies (those pink t-shirts would do nicely, for starters). I'm such a cheap-ass, but then you knew that: remember how excited I got over my Merseyrail flip-flops?

Merseytravel were one of the sponsors, so I knew they'd be there, and I got very excited when I saw two women in Exchange Square with Merseytravel bags. Freebies! Freebies with a big M on them! I immediately dragged everyone to the stand to look for stuff to get. Sadly, when I got there, shyness took over. I couldn't quite bring myself to just say "Can I have a load of corporate guff please?". Instead I satisfied myself with some great Art on the Network postcards:

I particularly like the one on the left: it's got a great, fractured beauty to it. The woman on the stall saw me grabbing Art on the Network stuff and asked if I was an artist, before giving me the rundown on the competition.

I also got a postcard of Tony Fitzpatrick's work from Liverpool Central:

Job done, I rejoined my pals, who immediately called me out for being such a chicken and not getting a bag. Well, it's rude to ask, isn't it? So Jamie, bless him, took the matter into his own hands and went and got me one:

Hurray! Like I said, stick an "M" on it and I'm there.

The rest of the day was spent in various bars, knocking back pint after pint. I also bumped into Nat, who recognised me from the blog; humiliatingly, she spotted me in the crowd for Adam Rickitt - I wasn't there to see him, I was just on my way past! Honest! We had a bit of a chat, and I told her to get back on with blogging because she's become positively sporadic in her writing. I'm afraid I was home by eleven, what with being an old fart and everything, but it was a great day. I'm already looking forward to next year.

Friday 6 August 2010

But Who Will Be Chandler?

Ellesmere Port. It's the unloved terminus of the Wirral Line. West Kirby and New Brighton have that glamorous seaside ambience. Chester is a hub with a historic past. Ellesmere Port's got a barely open ticket office, an inconvenient interchange with a barely used line, and is a mile from the town centre. On top of which, it's in Cheshire, the county that seems to treat its Merseyrail stations as irritations rather than assets.

That could all soon change. Cheshire West & Chester council, in association with Merseyrail, have put out a call for Friends of Ellesmere Station. CWAC (pronounced "Quack" by its employees, even though they're not meant to) want residents to help brighten the station up with gardening, tidying and general maintenance to make it a more attractive, less unpleasant place to hang out.

This does seem like a good idea on the surface, but my problem with it is: why is this a job for volunteers? Why isn't Quack funding the improvements themselves? Merseyside's stations are fully staffed while trains are running. Merseyside's stations are clean, bright, well-maintained. Some already have gardens, window boxes, artwork, thanks to the involvement of the local councils. The stations in Cheshire, with the exception of Chester, are unmanned, abandoned and a bit grim. Little Sutton's station building is boarded up. Capenhurst's station signs are pockmarked with dents. Overpool could do with a good wash. Even Bache - closest station to Chester Zoo and the University of Chester - is hidden behind a supermarket.

So I'm glad that Ellesmere Port could soon be getting a new shiny gleam. Station adoption has resulted in some great improvements across the country, and community involvement and commitment is obviously something to cherish. I wish someone was putting their hand in their pocket to fund a bit more than just a few hanging baskets.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Industrial Strength

I'm sorry to say this but: Widnes stinks. I'm not passing judgement on the town here, just stating a fact. We'd barely stepped off the bridge when our nostrils were assaulted by a nasty, greasy chemical scent. Combine this with a pile of scrap in the distance and a Tesco recycling centre to our left and we weren't exactly getting the best impression of the town.

The district beside the bridge is known as West Bank, a little enclave that's separated from the rest of town by canals, railway lines and bridges. It used to be incredibly busy. Before the Silver Jubilee Bridge was built, there was a transporter bridge here, which lifted cars up and over the river on an elaborate elevator. The landing stage for it on the north side was here in West Bank, and you can still see the brick toll buildings. Traffic would back right up the street, as the transporter bridge could only carry about a dozen vehicles, and so the West Bank became a thriving commercial district.

Now it's just a slightly down at heel residential district, with 19th century two up-two downs and some more recent council housing. It was still only nine am, and everywhere was silent, a slightly eerie effect. It was all a bit 28 Days Later.

We were following the route of the Trans-Pennine Cycle Path, which crosses the country from Southport to Humberside. The route hugs the canal around the north of the Mersey, taking it all the way to Warrington. It was a bit of a trek, but the weather was being kind, warm but not over hot, overcast but not threatening, and to be frank we both needed the exercise.

Though you wouldn't know it now, Spike Island in Widnes was once a thriving centre for the chemical industry. The Bf is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, so Widnes is a bit of a Mecca for him: he explained to me about how the combination of the railway and the canals made it perfect for the burgeoning industries in the 19th Century, and the processes that were invented there. I think he was getting me back for going on about the Halton Curve. Spike Island used to be a mass of factories and plants, but they have long since gone, and the island has been reclaimed as parkland.

Spike Island was also where the Stone Roses held a famous outdoor concert in 1990. I considered putting them on my iPod as a tribute, until I remembered they're a load of baggy shit.

There were some boys already set up for angling in the canal, along with a drunk, reeling across the path clutching his Red Stripe. Now, I'm fond of a few drinks, but being hammered at nine in the morning is going a bit far even for me.

As we walked along, we encountered other anglers, rods set up, little stools, tupperware full of maggots. Can someone explain the appeal of fishing to me? I don't get it. The only exciting bit seems to be the casting off; after that it's just a lot of sitting around in pacamacs. Hours and hours of sitting around. The fishermen didn't even have books to keep them occupied - they were just staring off into the distance, waiting for something interesting to happen. And their poor wives. What goes through their heads when their husband gets up at 7am on a Saturday to go and squat by a canal? I can't help thinking it's a bit of a slap in the face.

As we left Widnes, though, we were the only people on the path. There are hardly any bridges to the cycle route, so once you start on it, you're pretty much committed. A mile or so on we did find a bridge at Tanhouse Lane, which also gave access to the railway line that follows the north side of the Sankey Canal. Widnes used to be riddled with railway lines, most of which have long gone, but the line still clings on here for freight purposes. Funny how this obscure line is double tracked and well maintained, while the Halton Curve (which people actually want restored) struggles on with one track and bad signalling.

Further on the path suddenly opened out into a gravelled area with a strange sculpture. This was the "Widnes Future Flower", apparently, one of those regeneration company funded curiosities that you sort of look at and go "hmmm". It wasn't awful, by any means, but it just seemed a bit abandoned. It's only been there a few months but it already looked forlorn.

Still, at least there were some benches to enable us to sit down.

We crossed the border into Warrington Borough and I'm sorry, but shame on you Warrington. Halton Council's portion of the trail was marked by well-gravelled, clear paths, benches and artwork. Warrington, however, clearly has other things to spend its Council Tax on, and the quality of the path deteriorated almost immediately. The reeds were twice the height they had been, and it all felt a little downmarket. It didn't help that the canal itself was stagnant here, filled with algae. It was divided from the Widnes section by a sewer, and the symbolism couldn't have been more apt.

Above us were the massive cooling towers of the Fiddler's Ferry Power Station, gargantuan concrete behemoths that dominated the view. They were strangely silent, for an enormous industrial complex, but I suppose that's modern technology: it's probably all run by two men in a control room somewhere.

Then things got even more oppressive: not just the power station on the left, but a massive cast iron pipe and fences on the right. We couldn't see anything of the Mersey any more, and instead we were being pushed along the ramrod straight path, no exit, no turning back. It was a bit disheartening: this nature hike was turning into a walk through an industrial estate.

Somehow I'm guessing there aren't secret underground tunnels here.

Just when we were beginning to lose the will to live, the canal opened out into a marina. I don't know why this surprised me: there's a river, there's a canal, of course there'll be boats as well. I suppose after all the grime it was odd to be in the world of yachts. Not that this was exactly Howard's Way; a lot of the boats looked like they were in permanent residence. I imagined there were a few of them that were basically used as a place for the owner to relax in the sun with a beer.

We were getting closer to Warrington itself now, and the path was starting to fill up with dog walkers and women with buggies. The car park at the yacht basin was probably a great place to stop and go for a walk. No anglers, though: there were signs warning us against getting our rods out, so to speak, not only because of low power cables overhead, but also because of the unstable canal wall. At least, I think that's what the signs meant:

A couple more miles of walking, and finally we were approaching civilisation: Sankey. I have to say, right now, that Sankey is another of those grimly unpleasant Northern names. It sounds like something Charlie Chan would say in a racist 1940s short ("Sankey, honourable gentleman! You are most kind!"). It's now a residential suburb of Warrington. With the decline of the industries that used to line the canal, it's now principally marked out by parkland, with big semis and an astonishing amount of buses: seriously, we were passed by dozens of the things.

It was twenty past twelve, and we'd missed our train. We had to find something to do to kill time, and nice though it was, Sankey didn't seem to be overburdened with galleries or museums to pass the hour. What to do?

Well, obviously.

The problem with sitting down after an eight or nine mile hike is you realise just how tired you are. With a pint of beer and a packet of crisps inside us, the Bf and I slipped into "lazy contentment" mode: our feet and legs were barking at us, and we were in no mood to argue. It seemed like a revision of the schedule was in order. The plan had been to get Sankey station, then off again at Widnes and walk to Hough Green before coming home.

Instead we agreed: Sankey station was enough. Widnes could wait for another day - it meant that I'd be able to visit the town as well as the station, which was a plus. So all that was left was a tart of Sankey station:

Sorry, Sankey for Penketh station. I'm not sure what's so important about Penketh, but Northern Rail seem to like it:

The building is the standard Cheshire Lines construction, identical to Hough Green and the like. It even has the same non-functioning clock. Northern Rail blue's a bit easier on the eye than Merseytravel yellow and grey, though.

We collapsed onto the train, a packed Pacer with bus seats (which the Bf thought was awful. It's not just me). It was hard maintaining consciousness. We'd been up for nine hours, striding through the countryside, experiencing vertigo, geeking out over train lines. It was strangely exhilarating, but incredibly tiring, and we were sweaty and sore.

We got home and ran a very deep, very hot, very soothing bath. It was a fair reward, I feel.

Monday 2 August 2010

A Bridge Too Far

Having conquered Runcorn station, the next stage for the Bf and I was to cross the river to get two stations on the north bank: Sankey and Widnes. Sounds simple, doesn't it? After all, the massive Silver Jubilee Bridge dominates the scene for miles away, and looms over the station itself.

It turns out that nothing is that easy. The bridge might be easy to spot, but it's surrounded by a whole bunch of flyovers, disseminating vehicles to the different points of the town. Big, wide, traffic choked dual carriageway flyovers, with nothing resembling a footpath. We were instead corralled into underpasses and over footbridges and diverted into the "Old Town" of Runcorn, a somewhat depressing looking row of grey buildings and For Sale signs.

We did get to see the pub from Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, the BBC3 shitcom that redefines "unfunny". It's bad enough that such a terrible show makes it to air, never mind that it's up to it's ninety eighth series or something, but what's worse is the wonderful, talented Sheridan Smith is trapped in it. It's like a never ending hostage situation she can't escape from: I feel like reporting them to Amnesty International.

Finally we spotted a solitary pedestrian sign with "Widnes" on it, and we were able to deduce our way to the bridge.

The Silver Jubilee Bridge was originally finished in 1961, but it almost immediately became over used, and so it was refurbished with more capacity. The new-look bridge opened in 1977, hence the name. It's still a major choke point for traffic wanting to cross the mighty Mersey river. Either side of the Runcorn Gap the river widens out considerably, meaning that the next crossings are the Mersey Tunnels at the top of the Wirral or a bridge in Warrington, both miles away from this point. (A plan has been formulated for a Second Mersey Crossing, but as with almost everything in Britain these days, it looks like it's about to get cut).

When the bridge was refurbished, the footpaths were turned into traffic lanes, so a new pedestrian bridge was constructed on the outside of the main structure. It also means that walkers and cyclists are carefully screened from the pounding traffic.

Did I mention I suffer from vertigo? As does the Bf? I probably should have thought this through more clearly.

It looked so simple on the map, just a little wander across. I hadn't taken into account the 24 metre drop either side of the footpath, or the fact that it was surprisingly narrow. I hadn't taken into account the bridge's ironwork looming over us, practically daring us to cower. I hadn't taken into account the fact that we are both cowards.

It was terrifying. We dropped into single file, because neither one of us wanted to walk that close to the edge. We could feel the wind whipping around us, and hear the rush of the river below.

"Do you want a photo of you on the bridge for the blog?" the Bf asked, and because I am committed to you, constant readers, I said yes. See below.

Fear. Pure, unadulterated fear. I was gripping that barrier so tight I could feel the flakes of paint being crushed to powder in my fist. And even then, I was thinking the barrier could break any moment and I could plummet into the swirling waters below.

Oh, there was a pretty view. Lovely. I was too scared to look at it for very long, of course.

We inched forward until, I kid you not, the whole bridge rattled as a truck thundered past. Both the Bf and I stopped and, though I'm not happy to admit this, we both squealed. The damn pedestrian bridge was wobbling! It was clearly about to break away from the main structure and send us crashing to our deaths!

I have to say, suicidal types went up in my estimation. Like all bridges, the Silver Jubilee gets its fair share of jumpers, and I have tremendous admiration for anyone who has the courage to walk halfway across and then climb the barriers. Even if I had a death wish, I couldn't do that. (I wouldn't jump off the Runcorn bridge anyway: the river's too shallow here. I'd be afraid of falling and not dying, just up splatting into a mud flat).

On the other side of the bridge is the magnificently titled Ethelfleda Railway Bridge, named after the 10th Century Queen of the Mercians. She reportedly founded a fort in Runcorn, underneath the piers of the now-railway bridge, and so she was commemorated in this way. At one point, you could walk across that bridge too, but it was eventually closed when the new road bridge came along. The walkway's still visible, but I'm sorry, it'd require an Act of Parliament to get me to walk across it.

I found I was walking with my hands outstretched, like a tightrope walker: at least a tightrope walker has a safety net. There was sweat pouring off me, and my heart appeared to pounding out the rhythm section for some kind of calypso in my chest.

The iron arch was sweeping down beside me now, and I could see Widnes getting closer and closer. I'd have run to safety if I trusted the bridge to hold my pounding. Then we were down on the land, and breathing became easier. I took one photo of Ethelfleda's castellated tower, because there was a Liver Bird on it, and then we practically collapsed by the side of the road like a couple of marathon runners.

Are we a couple of big nances? Absolutely, and I don't care who knows it. I'm glad I've crossed the bridge, I'm glad I can cross it off the list of things to do, but I'm just as equally glad I never have to do it again. The Mersey Tunnels are a far more civilised way to cross the river. I'll stick to my underground trains, thank you very much.

Sunday 1 August 2010


The Halton Curve is one of those little bits of railway that gets trainspotters very steamed up while the rest of the public carry on regardless.

Explanation required. You see this bit of the Merseyrail map? The line from Chester to Runcorn East crosses the West Coast Main Line at Runcorn without connecting.

The Halton Curve is a bit of railway line which actually connects those two lines. I'll show you this via the medium of expensive CGI.

Cost me a BOMB, that did.

Anyway, the Halton Curve has existed as a little connecting bit of railway for decades, allowing trains from Chester to turn onto the main line, across the Mersey, and on to Liverpool. Over the years, it's become less and less important, until finally, during the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, Network Rail basically said "shall we just get rid of it?" It was an annoying little glitch around Runcorn and getting rid of it would simplify the signalling.

At which point, everyone got very annoyed. This was while Liverpool South Parkway was in the advanced stages of planning, and was being prepared as a major interchange and the gateway to Liverpool Airport. Removing the railway lines on the Halton Curve would mean that North Wales would never have access to the new interchange, and from there the city itself, because as we all know it's a lot easier to rip up a railway line than put one down. Halton Borough Council, responsible for Runcorn's transport, also kicked off, because the line passed the relatively new Beechwood district of the town, and the busways had been constructed in a way to facilitate a new station there.

Network Rail finally gave in and left it alone, but the curve still hangs on by the skin of its teeth. In fact, it only gets used infrequently. There was once a service to and from Llandudno and Lime Street, but this ended in the mid-Nineties. Now we're into the era of Parliamentary trains, those "contractual obligation" services which are run as a bare minimum to avoid the expense of getting the service removed.

Northern Rail runs the service from Chester to Runcorn over the curve, and they really put the effort in. It runs once a week. During the summer months. One way. On a Saturday. At five to eight in the morning.

We're not exactly talking Intercity, here.

The little anomaly of the Parliamentary Train was interesting to me, and since I had to cross Runcorn off the map anyway, I thought this would be a great way to collect it. I could have just got a London Midland train from Lime Street (two an hour), or even a Virgin (one an hour), but where's the fun in that?

It was a long held ambition that kept being thwarted by, well, laziness. Who wants to get up at that time on a Saturday morning, after all? I nearly did it last summer, but I ended up chatting to Robert on MSN until the wee small hours the night before and so I was too knackered to go next morning.

I finally decided to get going this week, after a drought of tarting, and much to my surprise, the Bf asked if he could come too. This was astonishing on several counts: firstly, that he was willing to get up at that time in the morning; secondly, that he was keen to do all that walking; and thirdly, see number one.

I'm always glad to have a second though, so we set off for Birkenhead Park early in the morning to head to Chester.

The woman in the ticket office was mildly befuddled by our request for two Cheshire Day Rangers. To be fair, she'd only been open about half an hour, so she probably hadn't even had a chance to have a cup of tea yet.

I thought Birkenhead Park would be deserted, but there was already a mohicanned youth waiting for a New Brighton train on the platform, and as we killed ten minutes for the Liverpool train it slowly got busier and busier. There was a strange mix of people: shop workers, headed into the city; pensioners, getting their money's worth out of their travel pass; and two drunken lads, still sipping Budweisers from the bottle and clearly unwilling to let go of their Friday night buzz.

The Bf and I sat in the shelter, and a man obliged us by coming and standing next to the entrance and puffing on a cigarette. Seriously, you have the WHOLE FUCKING PLATFORM to smoke on: why loiter where there are people waiting? Why be rude?

A ride to Hamilton Square, and a change of trains, put us on the Chester line. I experienced my customary anxiety because a woman across the way from us dozed off en route. I'm never sure of the protocol in these circumstances. Should I wake her up at the terminus? Is that a horrible invasion of privacy? Should I just leave her there? What if she didn't want to get off at Chester, but wanted some inbetween station, like Spital? Would she be annoyed that I left it that long to wake her?

These are the daily neuroses that I have to live with.

Luckily the tannoy woke her up as we approached Chester, so she got off of her own accord.

It's been a while since I've been to Chester, and it was undergoing yet more works. After the upgrade of the forecourt I wrote about ages ago, they've now moved their attention to the island platforms, and they were similarly surrounded by boards and scaffolding.

While the Bf had a pee, I poked around the relatively new facilities. There was something not right about the turquoise coverings around the new station buildings: the bands weren't right. They looked uneven, as though drawn with a crayon. I couldn't work out why - they used to be straight as a die.

When I got up close I realised why. They were thick with dust and muck. In some places, there was pigeon poo adding to the mix. It annoyed me: having nice new facilities is one thing. Taking care of them is another.

To console myself, and to kill time until the Runcorn train left, we had a coffee and a bacon sandwich in the Costa:

I know I've previously complained about Costa Coffee, and it's true that I still find it bitter, but it was a case of "any port in a storm". Besides the alternatives were the Carriages Cafe-Bar (closed) or Cafe Xpress (offering a truly horrific "breakfast in a bun", consisting of bacon, sausage, potato rosti and omelette - basically a bite sized heart attack).

We guzzled our coffees because I was paranoid about missing the train, and headed over to platform 5. There was a lovely surprise there - a garden, complete with train planters and a bird table (which no doubt explains the pigeon shit). There was no need for it, but I was grateful it was there. A little bit of nature amidst the steel.

The train was as busy as you'd expect. A grey haired man with a befuddled air, a bald guy who read a newspaper the whole journey, the Bf, and me: that was it. The two carriages were ridiculously optimistic.

At least it meant we got a window seat, and soon we were chugging out of Chester and through Hoole on our way to the countryside. I filled the Bf in with the history of the Halton Curve, and its importance to the local transport network: I stopped when he tried garrotting himself with the emergency cord. He is a lovely, loyal partner, but his interest in trains and train routes extends to somewhere between Thomas the Tank Engine and Murder on the Orient Express.

I'm being unfair. When we got to Helsby Junction, and paused momentarily, he was as fascinated as I had been to discover there was a signalman in there, pulling levers and controlling points. I pointed out the semaphore signals which still guide the trains around here, and then his eyes glazed over and he tried to slash his wrist with his Day Ranger ticket, so I stopped.

After Frodsham, the train slowed down and crossed onto the Halton Curve itself. I'd love to report that this was marked by a toot of the whistle and a dramatic change in scenery, but it was barely noticeable. One bit of English countryside was replaced by another; one set of garden fences turned into a different set. Suburban Britain is pretty much interchangeable wherever you go. The only thrill was the knowledge that we were on a rarely trodden path, particularly lazy explorers who waited for a train line to be built before we bothered turning up.

And then we were at Runcorn, and it was all over with. I admit I was disappointed that we just took up the usual northbound platform. I was hoping we'd be off to the side somewhere. Possibly with fireworks. But no: the banal reality of the Parliamentary Train is that its existence is begrudged, and so it is treated with disdain and irrelevance, like the guest at a dinner party who's only been invited to make up the numbers. Everyone's very polite, and they leave you a spot at the table, but you can't help noticing you've got the bad china.

The Bf made up for it a little by telling me he used to know Runcorn's station manager, an outrageous gay who got into a relationship with a bisexual who couldn't decide whether he was Martha or Arthur from one day to the next. This was before Virgin Trains gave the station a sleek makeover, all red and grey and multi storey car parks and wind turbines. I've always thought that Runcorn was a strange station, perched right on the edge of the Mersey, the last gasp of Cheshire air before you cross the border. It has an importance totally out of proportion to its two platforms and New Town location. Birkenhead Central is a much more impressive building than Runcorn, in a much larger town, but it's the latter which shows up on the national networks and gets Pendolinos visiting. Funny how things turn out.

There was only one thing left to do, after my Halton trip: collect the station. No, I don't have an iron leg: that was an inconveniently placed bollard. The Bf did take two pictures, but I managed to close my eyes in the other one, so this is the best you'll get. Plus there were two blokes smoking fags in the background.

So that was it: the Halton Curve. I hope it does get restored, and is doubled up with a new station and proper services to Liverpool. Anything that makes that fantastic city more accessible is fine with me. With the current rounds of budget cuts, however, I can't see it happening for at least ten years, so it looks like the withered limb of the Parliamentary service will be with us for a good long while yet.