Wednesday 29 September 2010

Very Smart Cards

The future just isn't exciting any more. We live in a world of wi-fi, widescreen, HD technology, carrying mobile phones in our pocket with more computing power than Apollo 11, wandering into air-conditioned offices to work on laptops and desktops. We listen to thousands of songs in boxes the size of cigarette packets. We can solve our problems with a touch of a screen. It's all become so... ordinary. Remember the thrill you got the first time you used an automatic door, how it was like being on board the Enterprise? Now you use them so often you're forgetting how door handles work. The future is now, and we're not bothered.

Here's a tip: go to London. Every time I swoosh an Oyster card, I feel a little thrill of excitement at the genius technology of it. A wave of a piece of plastic, and the gates spring open for me; the correct fare is deducted, and the computer keeps track of how much I've spent to make sure I don't pay too much. If there's not enough money on the card, it contacts my bank and transfers some funds across. In split second, lightning fast time. It's so efficient, seamless and, well, futuristic, I've been desperate for it to be rolled out across the rest of the country.

It seems it's now on its way to Merseyside. Starting Monday, Merseytravel began rolling out contactless smart card use. At first, it's just for concessionary pass holders (i.e. pensioners) and it's only on a handful of bus routes. However, the technology is being implemented further and further over the coming months, with the aim of making it available right across the county by 2012.

Buses will be the first to benefit, but, according to the FAQs, the technology will start hitting the rail system next year. Marvellous. The paper tickets are increasingly archaic, and as for those big floppy Trios? Urgh. It's ridiculous that in 2010, you still have to wave a bit of paper that's bigger than your wallet, that gets creased and damaged and folded over. It's daft that you have to queue up every week so a new sticker can be applied to your card and get written in a book and stamped. It's like something from the Dark Ages. The sooner we have a microchipped smartcard we can renew online while we watch EastEnders the better.

I do have a couple of caveats about it, though. The Underground benefits from ticket gates at almost all its stations, so access to the platforms is restricted. I've whined before about how great I think these gates are: they make stations and trains more secure, and they cut down on the amount of ticketless travel dramatically. These are a natural fit for the Oyster-style smartcard, a place for scanners to be located and a way to make sure people use them.

Merseyrail doesn't have these gates, except in a handful of locations (the Loop stations, Hamilton Square, Conway Park and Southport, plus Arriva Trains Wales has them installed at Chester). Rolling them out across the whole network would be expensive. Not to mention the fact that not all stations are suitable for the works. Green Lane, for example, has a single booking hall with stairs leading to the platform: it'd be simple to block off the entrance with ticket gates.

But how about Bebington, which has its tiny ticket office below the Liverpool platform? The ticket office is to one side, and the way to the trains is up a narrow slope in the open air - not the best location for ticket gates. Even worse, there's a car park on the Hooton platform, with direct access, so you'd either need a second set of gates there, or make people walk all the way round and under the bridge to get to the ticket office. Sadly, the brand new Sandhills also comes under this category - the ticket office is up on the platforms. Lack of forward thinking there, I feel.

The solution will probably be the one used on the Docklands Light Railway, and at some Overground stations: no gates, but stand alone readers which must be touched in and touched out to register a trip. It's a bit more complicated, and doesn't have the security or ticket fraud advantages gating does, but it's a cheaper option and easier to implement. I'd personally like to see a mix of the two, with gating wherever possible (stations like Birkenhead Central and Port Sunlight leap to mind) and particularly in areas with high ticket fraud. Somewhere quiet like Capenhurst on the other hand just needs the odd reader.

(And on a related note, let's hope the IT guys are better at updating things than they are now - I tried using a Saveaway on the Moorfields ticket barriers about a month ago, and they're still not recognised).

The security issue leads me to a second downside of the smartcards: staffing. The Oyster card's been so successful in London, ticket sales at the stations have plummeted. This has lead to plans to reduce the staffing levels across the network too - in some cases, so much so that there will only be open ticket offices during the morning peak. The newest Underground station, at Wood Lane on the Hammersmith & City Line, was built without a ticket office: all sales there are through machines. Could Merseyrail go this way too?

Permanently staffed stations are one of the best features of Merseyside's rail network, and are no doubt a large part of the Secure Stations accolades. I really don't want to see them end up like the miserable stations on the Ellesmere Port branch, boarded up and desolate.

The MtoGo scheme could be rolled out, I suppose, to maintain the staffing levels and give them something to do, but that would be expensive and some places just aren't suitable for them. Back at Bebington, the ticket office is tiny (the queue regularly pokes out the door) - how would you fit in the range of MtoGo facilities? And could it compete with the parade of shops over the road?

But I'm seeing the half-empty glass as usual. Kudos to Merseytravel for really pushing this idea forward, and I look forward to brandishing my own Oyster card with pride in the very near future. It'll need a Merseyside specific name though. The M Card? Liver Card? I'll have a think and get back to you on that...

Friday 24 September 2010

Some Hope. Not much Glory.

Part two of a two part trip: for part one, click here.

Pedants will observe that Wrexham is not on the Merseyrail map. Well, not physically, anyway: it's mentioned in a box at the bottom. Furthermore, a quick scan down the page will reveal that this post is all about stations on the Borderlands Line which are also not on the Merseyrail map. These pedants will therefore be frothing at their mouths, demanding a justification for this heinous act.

My justification actually comes in four parts:

1) Doing only part of the Borderlands Line never felt right. Since it's such a simple, single route, with trains shuttling back and forth, it feels like a self-contained route, so stopping at Shotton and saying "well, that's that done" seemed like I was short changing it.

2) One day, someday, maybe, it will be part of the Merseyrail family as an extension to the Wirral Line. Possibly.

3) In the comments to this piece, an "Anonymous" commenter suggested I should do every place that's mentioned on the Merseyrail map - in other words, include the little arrows on the edge as well. I kind of like that idea, though of course, it's a tentative thing. It's easy for me to "do" North Wales. Glasgow, less so. I'm mulling it over.

4) It's my blog and if you don't like it, tough.

Sorry for the truly dreadful map. You should see the whole thing: it's an abomination.

With Wrexham under our belts, Roy, Robert and I headed out of town on the Arriva train to Gwersyllt, a station on its way out of the borough. We were - after much agonies - using a North Wales Rover ticket. To be honest, I didn't have any agony buying it at all, but poor Roy spent forty minutes at Waterloo station trying to convince the staff there that it existed, and that he could buy it from them. They finally concluded that they couldn't sell him any Rover tickets, and sent him away with a flea in his ear.

Roy next went to Lime Street Mainline, who'd also never heard of it. They at least called Chester to enquire about it, but they hadn't heard of it either, so in the end Roy just jumped on a train to Bidston to meet Robert and me. Surely the staff at Bidston could sell it to us? Erm, no. Apparently not.

What to do? The North Wales Rover covered two zones, Flintshire and Wrexham, giving us unlimited train journeys and even bus trips if we got tired. But no-one seemed to want to sell it to us. Robert came up with a plan: accost the conductor on the train and see if we could buy it off him.

"Can we have three North Wales Rover tickets please?"

"Yup." A couple of taps on his touchscreen, and three paper tickets slid out into our palms. Chalk one up to Arriva Trains Wales.

We got off at Gwersyllt which, like the rest of the line, is unstaffed and undistinguished. The station's over the road from a Lidl, and will never win any prizes for beauty or elegance. As we got off, a long-lost member of the Goldie Looking Chain decided to get off too, with his best swagger in his trackies.

Gwersyllt does at least have a big prominent sign. This would be an increasingly rare sight as the day went on.

From there it was a wander down a dual carriageway to get to our next stop. Summer was having one last gasp for air; it was officially the first day of autumn, but it was the closest thing to August we'd had in weeks. There were still berries on the trees and flowers in the gardens, and a gang of road workers were cutting the grass in the central reservation, filling the air with that just mown scent.

(Incidentally, a quick tip for Wrexham CBC: you could save a bomb on your road maintenance costs if you sent out just a couple of men to mow the verge, instead of the seven we saw. And if you gave them decent lawnmowers, instead of strimmers).

The road narrowed to a bridge and we crossed over into Flintshire or, as it is in Welsh, Sir y Fflint. We were headed for Cefn-y-bedd, which lead to a discussion amongst us three Englishmen as to (a) how you pronounced it and (b) what it means. Since our debate was getting us nowhere, I gave in and called the Bf, who grew up in North Wales and so knew this kind of thing. According to his linguistic prowess, Cefn-y-bedd translates as "Rear The Grave". And he pretends he's a Scouser.

Rear The Grave turned out to be a pretty little village, with a large pub about five minutes walk from the station. Roy - whose drinking habits make me look like a teetotal nun - advocated we go there for another pint, but as there was only fifteen minutes till the next train, we settled into the shelter on the platform instead.

Caergwrle used to be called Caergwrle Castle & Wells, until sanity prevailed sometime in the mid Seventies. The pretty little shelter on the platform still had this name painted over a very deep blue that was certainly not Arriva Trains colours: I predict a truck with a couple of gallons of emulsion is on its way even as we speak.

The station also provided another mystery: what is "Chester on Tour"?

These stickers had been applied to a few of the stations along the way - I'm guessing it's something to do with the football team, but I'd be happy to be proved otherwise.

Sign snapped, we continued to Hope, along a route that was far more scenic than our previous one. The trees were thick and overhanging here, and the traffic was light. The houses were also a charming mix of nineteenth century and older cottages, threaded along green streets. The road took us over a pretty weir, and we all stopped to admire it.

It was lovely, but I wondered how long I'd be able to live here before I cracked and went insane with a pitchfork? I see the countryside as something to be viewed from a distance, on a day trip. Once you start getting immersed in it, and are living in it, you realise the reason that it's all so pretty is there's nothing there. I'd be driven mad if I had to get in a car every time I wanted to buy a magazine or something non-essential. And what do you do when your home is attacked by armed thugs, who break in and hold you hostage? You can't call for help, because no-one will hear you. (Of course, in the city, they'll hear your cries and ignore them because it's none of their business, but that's not the point). I don't want my last few moments to be spent trussed up on a folding chair while thieves ransack my home willy-nilly, free to romp as long as they like because there's not even a street light outside.

This discussion took us into Hope, which, besides having a lovely name, also does well as a village. Tiny chip shop, tiny dressmaker, tiny garage, a church and two pubs - compared to Cefn-y-Bedd, this was a throbbing metropolis. We had loads of time before our train so we picked the Red Lion at random and went in.

I'd now like to apologise to the landlady of the Red Lion. The three of us relentlessly leered, lusted after and perved at your barman son, who was incredibly fit and wearing shorts. We made a number of comments that would have made Samantha from Sex and the City blush, mostly involving him being stripped naked and spreadeagled over a bar stool. It was a thoroughly shameful display of objectification and we should have been more discreet and polite.

On the other hand, it cost £9.50 for a pint of John Smiths, two pints of Stella and a packet of Quavers, so I think we can safely say you've had adequate compensation.

Once we'd drunk our drinks, and adjusted our underwear, we headed for the station. Sort of. What's going on, Hope? Why don't you want to put up signs for your train station? Are you ashamed of it?

I lead the way, brandishing an Ordnance Survey map and mentally tying my compass to it. Roy and Robert were less convinced as we headed down into a cul-de-sac, with plain semi-detatched houses on either side. In fact, they began to openly pour scorn on my directions. I suspect they secretly hoped I was wrong, so we could miss our train and go back to the pub for another session of Fantasy Barman, but I knew I was right. I just knew it. There wasn't a doubt in my mind. Ok, maybe a little one.

That's why I look a bit smug in that photo.

To be fair, the station was really hidden away: if you didn't know it was there, you would never find it. And as I've said, Hope was a pretty large village - there are loads of potential passengers there.

Back on the train, and thankfully the ticket inspector wasn't the same one who'd sold us ours that morning. It was starting to get embarrassing, running into him over and over.

Off at the delightfully named and consonant heavy Pen-y-ffordd station. It looked a bit prettier than some of the other Borderlands stations, and we found out why: it's been adopted.

Kudos to you, Richard Spray, and your horticultural efforts.

The route from Pen-y-ffordd to our next stop, Buckley, was colossally dull. We were all starting to flag a bit by this point, with the beers and the walking taking their tolls on us. My foot, which is well on its way to being fully healed, was also starting to make its presence felt in my trainer, throbbing slightly. It wasn't in the mood to trudge alongside a bypass, on soft grass because there was no pavement, with nothing to look at. Not a thing. There was the occasional horse in a field, but that was it. Beyond that it was just one long slog. The weather was turning on us, too, and the skies were greying over.

We talked on the way about the Borderlands Line, and its future. Before we travelled on it, we'd all been quite gung-ho. Bring it into Merseyrail! Get it on the map! Having almost completed it, we found ourselves asking - why? Because what struck us was how different the Borderlands Line was to Merseyrail. Unstaffed, deserted stations in tiny villages. Barrow crossings. No kind of customer services. How different it was to the very urban stations we were used to.

Getting Merseyrail to Wrexham - yes, absolutely, I can see that is a valid target. Especially as Wrexham General becomes more and more important. But when they electrified all the way to Chester, it meant they also got the urban sprawl of the Wirral in on the act too, places like Bromborough and Spital, dense urban environments. How many people would use a frequent service in Cefn-y-bedd? How many passengers would get on at Hope for the hour long journey to Liverpool?

The more we travelled on it, the more it seemed like the Borderlands Line would be a bad fit with Merseyrail. I can absolutely get on board with an extension to Woodchurch; possibly even as far as Neston or Shotton. But beyond there, it's a lot of rural halts that would just get in the way. It seems less like a business plan, and more like someone colouring in the lines on the map.

As for Buckley station - well, it's a liar. It's nowhere near Buckley, which is another minus point for electrification. It should be called Little Mountain, because that's where it is, and besides, that's a much better name.

The train was late at Buckley, by twenty minutes. Robert was able to bring up the National Rail update on his phone while we huddled in the shelter from the newly arrived rain. We were accompanied in the shelter by two teenagers, who were both listening to their iPods way too loudly, causing a competing mash-up of discordant sounds. I couldn't work out what they were listening to: from this distance it sounded like half a dozen keyboards being thrown into a grinder. I'm getting old. What's wrong with a bit of Blur, eh, kids?

They gave us some very odd looks as we took our photos too. They didn't say anything though. If they were in Merseyside they'd have been all over us, demanding to know what we were up to, but in rural Wales they've been brought up better.

Only one station remained to be tarted on the Borderlands Line, and that was Hawarden. We'd debated whether to walk from Hawarden to Shotton to finish with, but decided that it'd be better to stay there and get a pint and a pub meal. We'd been walking for hours, and the soulless trip to Buckley had taken out our last bit of enthusiasm.

This is not to denigrate Hawarden station in any way. It was lovely. Lots of planters, freshly painted, murals in the shelters - all very nice. It even had a footbridge over the tracks, instead of making you cross the line itself. Once again, we have someone to thank: Mr John Wannop.

Since it was the last station of the day, we went for a group shot, which unfortunately blocks out the English translation for us foreign types:

But here's me and the translation, just for completion's sake:

Incidentally, how do you pronounce Hawarden? All three of us pronounced it "Hard-on", leading to many base jokes and schoolboy sniggers. But the announcer at Wrexham pronounced the middle syllable - "Ha-warden" - and quite spoiling our fun. That doesn't sound even slightly smutty. Maybe it's part of a concerted effort by the locals to remove the innuendo, like when everyone started pronouncing "Uranus" differently.

You've probably heard of Hawarden; it's quite a notable town in North Wales, and it's worth visiting. It's famous for being the home of Michael Owen, who bought up an entire close for his family after he hit the big time. He himself lives in a manor outside the village. We considered nipping in for a hello, but there wasn't really time. Plus we thought we'd get shot.

Instead we hit the pub for that pint and meal. You'd have to be on a footballer's wages round here to afford the beer: £9.10 for a pint of John Smiths and two Stellas? The Red Lion was forty pence more, and that included a pack of Quavers. Plus, it turned out that they didn't serve food until 5:30, despite there being a sandwich board outside and menus on the table. And if that wasn't bad enough, there were no fit barmen, only two young girls in low-cut tops. Who wants to see that? (Oh you do, do you?). We got up and left. Hang your head in shame, Fox & Grapes.

There were other pubs, but to be honest, we were all exhausted, and running out of money (there are no cash machines in Hawarden! What do they do, barter?). Stuff it we thought: we'll go home.

We'd earned it, after all. Six hours of trekking through North Wales, following the Borderlands over the border and back. It was finally time to say goodbye to this strange little anachronistic line, this commuter route that isn't, this country train that goes to the city. I've crossed it off the map now, and I can feel a sense of completion.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Bricks and Pieces

I love Lego. I know, as a 33 year old, I should be putting that in the past tense - I "loved" Lego - but, no, present tense all the way: I love Lego. It's the finest toy ever invented. It snagged me and my imagination at a very early age. It also represented the earliest manifestation of my God complex, where I would build towns then rain terror on their PUNY LIVES (see also: SimCity).

If you think that's bad, you should have seen me at eight or nine. My bedroom was a tribute to the joys of multicoloured bricks. I had an entire town set up across the floor, something for my mum to regularly kick to pieces by accident as she tried to tidy up.

Back then - I'm not sure if you still can - you could send off and join the Lego Club. Here's the ad:

Next to the stereotypical gleaming, blonde haired Danish boy, you can see the goodies you got. A membership card! Stickers! A patch to sew on your jeans! A badge! And magazines!

This was too much for me to bear and, for my birthday, I bought a year's membership. I sent my postal order off to the address on the form:

Glamorous, exciting Wrexham. Mysterious Wrexham. Capital of the UK Lego world: an address that appeared on all the catalogues and guides.

I was a kid, so I didn't know where Wrexham was. Apparently it was in Wales. So in my head, it was a pretty village, nestling amongst high purple mountains and glistening streams (it didn't help that the only book I'd read set in Wales was The Mountain of Adventure). Wrexham was clearly some kind of idyll, where happy, well turned out Welsh people lovingly crafted each piece of Lego. Possibly singing Men of Harlech as they did so.

Wrexham was Lego Central for me (even their postcode was LL for LEGOLAND!). I got older, and I grew out of Lego (sort of), but Wrexham retained that strange mystique, and a sheen of glitter. People spoke disparagingly about it, said it was a bit of a dump, a bit of a mess, but that didn't matter: it's where Lego came from.

I finally decided to go and visit the town itself, combining childhood curiosity with the glories of Tarting, and I brought a friend along for the ride.

Oh yeah, Robert and Roy came too. They weren't the important travellers however. There was someone far more important in my pocket:

This was always my favourite minifigure, back when I was a child. Whenever I built a Lego town, she'd live in the best house: if I built an even better one, she'd be moved into that instead. Sometimes she had a husband with her, sometimes she was a free and single gal, but she always got the best. She had a name too, but I have to admit, I've forgotten it (it's been twenty odd years!).

Roy and Robert were, to say the least, bemused by my companion. I don't think they realised they'd be taking this trip with a disturbed man-child. But stuff 'em: I was heading to Wrexham!

Wrexham Central station is a bit, well, perfunctory. It was never the jewel in the town's railway crown - that was General - but it had a couple of platforms, and a route through to Ellesmere. As time went on, though, services were cut back, diverted, or closed, until it ended up a stubby platform in the middle of deserted railway lands.

A few years ago, the lands were bought up for a retail park. At that time, only the Borderlands Line still called here, and since it also passed through Wrexham General en route, it was suggested they just get rid of it altogether. Thanks to the efforts of the local rail user group, they managed to get the station retained, albeit in a different spot, and it now lies at the heart of the shopping centre. They even managed to get it built with space for a second platform, if that became necessary at some point in time.

There's a very nice, gazebo like entrance to the station, but what's inside? Nothing. Not even a seat, never mind a ticket office. A single machine on the platform handles all the ticket sales. The building is therefore all pomp and no circumstance; a shame.

Still, both Lego Lady and I were happy to be there (that's her in my hand):

After that, we had a bit of a poke round the town. Disappointingly, the place was not constructed out of red and blue plastic bricks, and the locals didn't have bright yellow faces. Instead it looked like - well, it looked like any town, anywhere in the UK. The odd bit of Welsh on the road signs and the posters was the only clue as to your location. Beyond that it was the same dull mix of retail sheds, sixties pedestrianisation, and old people flats you got anywhere.

Lego pulled out of Wrexham in 1999, moving the production of the bricks to Eastern Europe. They also moved their HQ to Slough. How humiliating it must have been for the people of North Wales to find out that they were second choice to Slough.

In fact, it was all so ordinary, and dull, we decided we'd best go for a drink.

I declined Lego Lady's offer of Pimms, mainly because she was plastic and didn't have any money, and instead went with a pint of Ruddles. Lego Lady didn't seem to mind.

Robert, however, was still unconverted by her charms.

From the pub we tottered back to Wrexham General for the train out of town. It's actually a remarkably pretty station, with a slightly French air to it. Since the Wrexham and Shropshire Railway started running services to London from here it's had some money spent on it, with the brickwork cleaned and plenty of light flowing through it. In fact, it really puts Central to shame, which is ironic considering it's about a hundred years older.

So that was Wrexham. I can't pretend I wasn't a bit disappointed by it. Not even the slightest hint of the Lego nirvana I had imagined. Still, my internal eight year old boy was thrilled. It was finally a dream come true.

Sunday 19 September 2010

The Double Deckers

Buses are rubbish, aren't they? You struggle on board, and buy your ticket from an apathetic Jabba the Hutt with a personal freshness problem. You scan for a seat, but they're filled by old women with harsh faces and beards who are using the bench next to them to store their shopping bag and would refuse to move it for the Virgin Mary.

So you struggle upstairs, which it turns out is occupied almost exclusively by fourteen year old criminals, smoking pot and throwing balls of wet paper at one another. You take a seat, and are hurled around while the bus driver swings in and out of traffic, apparently under the impression that he's in a remake of Live and Let Die. The trees hammer on the windows, occasionally breaking off and showering you with leaves and dew. The whole place stinks of wet anoraks and Lynx.

Your stop's coming up, and so you ring the bell, but you still have to struggle down an almost vertical staircase on a moving vehicle, so of course you stumble and break a toe. The bus driver slams on his brakes to let you off, because he resents having to stop at all as every pause means less time sat at the terminus reading his paper, and so you're chucked forward five feet to crash into the front windscreen. This causes all the old dears behind you to giggle into their pacamacs. Finally you can lurch off, tripping your way onto the pavement, and you get a face full of diesel as the bus charges away. Yes, buses are rubbish.

I accept however that there are plenty of people who like them. In fact, I have a couple of close friends who adore the things. I just can't get on board with them (hoho).

Buses were a big part of this weekend's Birkenhead Festival of Transport, held in Birkenhead Park. I'd never been to it previously - it was one of those things I'd meant to go to, and never did - but this year Robert texted me to say he was on his way there, and since it was taking place only half a mile from my home I decided to show up and take it all in.

The weather wasn't on the Festival's side: it peed it down relentlessly all weekend. Half the attendees were wearing those plastic condoms they hand out at EuroDisney when there's a downpour, and the other half just looked miserable. I have an aversion to umbrellas, so I simply braved the weather. Luckily we were there in time for the Parade of Steam, in which various steam traction engines went past. Slowly.

Can I be honest? Steam engines don't do it for me either. Yes, they're very pretty, but let's be honest, they're noisy and slow. We have electricity now. I don't get why people get so excited about steam engines (and by extension, steam trains) just because they belch out a bit of smoke.

The high point of the parade for me was a Llandudno tram, mounted on the back of a flat bed truck and bringing up the rear of the parade. Trams are good. In the hierarchy of means of transport, I'm very much Train>Tram>>>>Bus.

Beyond the parade, there were old motorcycles, old cars (including some very nice old MGs), and old fire engines and ambulances. The whole thing was staffed by very enthusiastic amateurs, people who clearly adored their vehicles, and spent hours buffing them furiously. It was a shame that the weather Gods hadn't given them glorious sunshine to display their efforts at their best.

There were also loads of olde-time fairground rides - you know, for kids - and a bizarre mix of stalls. The usual festival/County Fair favourites of the RSPB, Red Cross and Sea Cadets were out in force, along with the Territorial Army and the RNLI, but there was also a strange mystic element. A caravan was home to a Romany woman offering palmistry, while a further tent offered crystals, tarot reading and, for some reason, chorizo sausages and fudge. Presumably, once you've had your future laid bare, you need some cured Italian meats to cheer you up. This was the tent that was supported by Merseytravel, apparently.

It turned out that Robert had never actually been to Birkenhead Park before, so I took great pleasure in showing him round. It really has been improved since they threw all that lottery money at it. When I first moved to the Wirral, twelve years ago, the park was a bit shambolic and tatty. Now the paths are clean, the bridges are painted and pretty, and there's just a general pride in the place which wasn't there before. We paused on one of the bridges to watch a model submarine being pulled along by model tugs.

At that point the rain started to really come down, so we headed for the Visitor Centre for a latte (me) and a hot chocolate (Robert). Outside was a familiar-looking beak - Supenguin!

With hot drinks inside us, Robert finally persuaded me to join him on an old bus. He'd already taken one of the free "vintage" shuttles over from Liverpool, but had complained that it had only been retired in 2001 - I agree that a thirty year old bus hardly counts as vintage. Though it's depressing to think the vintage bus is younger than me.

There were a couple of other buses being used to provide free rides to the Wirral Transport Museum and Hamilton Square. These were properly old, with Ovaltine advertisements and wooden floors and everything. I referred to the bus above as a "Routemaster", based on the fact that it had a little open platform at the back, and Robert slapped me down for my foolishness: it was some other kind of Leyland bus, built in Wigan apparently. Suitably chastened, I climbed on board for our ride round town, taking the front seats because that's where the cool kids always sit.

Look at his little face: he can barely contain his excitement.

The bus was genuinely well-preserved, right down to the signage showing that anti-social behaviour on public transport isn't a new phenomenon:

I like the way it encourages you to grass on people who gob in the aisle.

Off we went round Birkenhead's somewhat less scenic dock area. It's a shame that to get from the very pretty park area to the very pretty Hamilton Square you have to pass through an area of grim housing, vacant lots and ugly industrial units. Still, I did my best to provide Robert with a commentary on the area, since I've lived here for a third of my life now and I'm practically a local. "There's where the bagheads used to hang out when I worked in Smiths." "That's where the Woodside Hotel was before it burned down." "I was once flashed at there." I'm like a walking Lonely Planet, I tell you.

Did my journey on the antiquarian bus convert me to their delights? What do you think?

No. It was fine, relatively pleasant, but it was also noisy and a bit nerve-wracking (we squeezed through a gap at Hamilton Square that I'm sure was only meant for cyclists). The high point for me was passing through Birkenhead's genuinely lovely bus station. That's as far as my admiration for the buses will go: they sometimes have nice stations. Beyond that, I'll stick to trains, thankyou very much.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I'm getting there, I'm getting there. A month after my foot accident, I'm finally able to leave the house. I've managed to limp round Sainsbury's, I've had a potter round the garden, and now, finally, I've been able to return to the trains.

The occasion was another of those epoch-defining moments where I met up with another of my trusty readers. This time it was a case of Hello Sailor!, as the person I was meeting was Roy, a regular in the comment section who was currently on leave from his job in the Navy. We met up, along with Robert, and chucked back a few lagers. It was a good way to spend the afternoon, and once again reassured me that my readers are not insane losers. It's strange - when I started writing this blog, my terminal shyness would have stopped me from going anywhere near someone off the net. Now I seem to spend every month befriending another person I've only ever known through the odd e-mail. Who knew? You're nice people!

After that, I staggered back to Moorfields for the true highlight of the afternoon: riding the rails again! (I'd got a lift across to Liverpool). Disappointingly, Merseyrail has managed to carry on without me. There wasn't even a brass band in the ticket hall to welcome me back.

One thing had changed on the platform: the countdown clocks now had a little begging message, asking you to spread along the station. I've never seen this before, but it's about time.

I'm still not completely fixed, as the three-quarter of a mile walk home from the station reminded me: by the time I staggered through my front door I was in something approaching agony. I was also embarrassingly slow on the stair-ramp at Birkenhead Park. Normally I'm nimbly scaling the stairs like a mountain goat on a cliff face: yesterday I was overtaken by a pensioner with a tartan zip-up shopping trolley.

Still, it was nice to be back out there, and surely a return to tarting can't be far off. I'll leave you with a shot of my joy-filled face as I was carried home:


Thursday 2 September 2010

Bitter & Twisted

Last year, Network Rail closed the Loop so that they could renew the track. All the Wirral Line trains started and finished at James Street for about a month, with a shuttle bus taking people to Lime Street.

At the time, I was still working, and I was catching a London Midland train from Lime Street. So for a month, I was disgorged at James Street, and I dashed across town to catch the Crewe train (the bus was rarely waiting outside the station, and I got antsy at the thought of waiting for it and possibly missing my connection). It was an inconvenience, but hey: I'm British. I adopt my stiff upper lip and put up with this kind of thing.

This summer Network Rail decided to close the section of the Northern Line between Central and Hunts Cross, for similar reasons. A rail replacement bus was provided for the displaced passengers, though there are also buses that parallel the route. Fair enough.

But here's the thing: Northern Line passengers got FREEBIES.

Robert is a regular on that route, and a couple of weeks ago he tweeted that there were staff at the station handing out MtoGo vouchers for cheap coffee - an apology for the inconvenience. Hmmm.

Then yesterday, he was given this:

(Image shamelessly stolen from Robert's blog).

Yes, he got given a Merseyrail umbrella.

So my question is, where were my freebies? Where were my bits of branded tat? I'm outraged. We got nothing at Birkenhead Park, once the Loop reopened, NOTHING. Yes, I'm bitter.

Enjoy your umbrella, Robert. I hope it collapses on you during a rain storm and you end up getting pneumonia.