For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Chorlton-cum-Hardy with time on my hands. I decided not to celebrate the 4th of July in the tempting-sounding Kansas Fried Chicken and instead I went in search of tram stations.
This may shock you, but I've never been on a Metrolink tram. Speaking as an urban transport geek, even I find this shocking. I'm not sure how it's happened. In fact, the only tram I've ever been on in the UK is the heritage one in Birkenhead. I've also been on the trams in Amsterdam, those rickety but charming death machines that regularly send cyclists to their doom. And the San Francisco tram was fun too, though that was mainly because I was imagining a fire truck driven by a bimbo could come swinging past dangerously like in A View to a Kill.
I like trams. In my hierarchy of favourite public transportation methods, they're probably right behind underground trains (and are certainly way above buses). They're clean and efficient and quick. They're reliable and attractive. And they encourage people onto public transport in a way that new buses never will.
The South Manchester extension should be open by now, but it's had to be delayed by a few days; as a result Chorlton station was fenced off. The only person in sight was an orange suited worker eating his lunch in the platform shelter. The extension is part of Metrolink's Big Bang, which was supposed to be paid for by a congestion charge; when the city's residents rejected that idea, the government gave in and gave Metrolink the money anyway, which made it all a complete waste of time.
Chorlton's on the initial three stop section to St Werburgh's Road; the line will be extended even further to East Didsbury by 2013. That the line was built in two sections just underlines how daft the funding delays were, though not quite as daft as building a route through Oldham that's going to then be taken out of action when the next phase is opened.
The platforms are clean and pretty and, as you may have noticed, yellow and grey. Manchester's abandoned the former turquoise colour scheme in favour of something that's rather more, erm, Liverpool-flavoured. I like to imagine that the Colour Tsars realised they'd painted everything they possibly could on Merseyside and came flooding over the border into Greater Manchester, beseiging the Town Hall until they gave into their demands. First Liverpool, then Manchester, next - West Yorkshire! Every PTE will be theirs in the end!
It works though. The turquoise was always a bit naff, and since Arriva Trains Wales turned up, completely devalued. And the M in a circle logo was horribly dated even when it opened. Grey dots in a sort of arrowhead - much nicer. I'm also taken with the font. Merseyrail's stuck with the boring old Rail Alphabet font for its signs, which is a classic of course, but is still a bit dull. Every other franchise in the UK spends a fortune changing the signs to something allied to their brand - I wonder why Merseyrail never bothered? Imagine Bromborough in something classy like Trebuchet.
I followed a footpath down the side of the tracks to St Werburgh's Road station, the line's temporary terminus. While Chorlton's station was in the middle of a busy shopping area, next to a Morrison's, St Werburgh's Road is on a quiet suburban street, showing another advantage of the Metrolink - the way it can really link different communities together.
The station is heralded by this yellow arch over the entrance, which I love and I think Merseyrail should steal for its own unmanned stations. They stole the colour scheme - we can take this in exchange:
Of course, the sadness was I couldn't ride on a tram. I had to turn round and walk back to Chorlton. I can't pretend I wasn't jealous, and a little bit sad. If all had gone to plan, Liverpool would have at least one, probably two, tram lines of its own by now. Instead the government got us all excited and then refused to put out.
Liverpool's got Merseyrail, which Manchester hasn't. An underground train line through the city centre is infinitely preferable - it's quicker, has higher capacity, and so on. Manchester would kill for Merseyrail. But I can't see why we can't live in a country where transport schemes stop being either/or. Saying, "Liverpool's got Merseyrail - it doesn't need trams" isn't good enough. Liverpool was built for trams - there are dozens of miles of wide roads with space for the tracks. We should have a city centre loop heading to the tourist attractions. We should have a tram connecting with the universities and the cathedrals. We should have a fast, efficient public transport system taking people from the suburbs into town. (And while we're at it, Manchester should have an underground of its own - it's an urban area of over a million people; it should have had one decades ago. Have you all the buses clogging up Oxford Road? Imagine a train line underneath all that).
It seems Merseytram is dead, though the council still valiantly tries its best to keep the planning permissions alive where it can. It's a shame. Seeing how Manchester is benefitting makes me wish we could spread its effects beyond TfGM's borders.
In the meantime, I'll have to head back sometime to actually ride one of the damn things.