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.
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.