Saturday 20 August 2011

Closing the Circle

With the ferry crossing over with I could head back onto the Subway.  Govan station was partly responsible for the three year closure back in 1977; cracks in the roof caused it to be closed quickly, and hastened the need for money to be pumped into the system.

It's a surprisingly big building, considering it serves only one line.  It is however right in the centre of Govan, and has a bus station next to it, so it's a lot busier than normal.  For such a large station you'd think they'd have a bigger sign - I know "Govan" isn't exactly Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch - but you could squeeze a nice bit of orange writing over the entrance.

It was good to head back underground after all that fresh air and sun; I think I must be part mole.  (Just call me Monty).  The line diagram on the train gave me a chance to catch up on where I still had to go:

It's not the greatest map in the world, is it?  Still, it gets the job done, and it's nice to see it's sort of symmetrical.  Anyway, with Govan under my belt, that meant I had seven down and eight to go: more or less halfway.

Ibrox station is of course one of the most famous ones in the city, because of its proximity to the Rangers ground, and also because it sounds like a fabric conditioner.  This was my first indication that the south side of the Clyde is less prosperous than the north.  Instead of tall apartment buildings I stepped out of the station and was confronted with a low, boarded up shopping arcade, with a William Hill on the end covered in protective fencing to stop its windows being smashed.  A man and woman stood in the doorway, chatting while they smoked a fag, and giving me a distinctly odd look as I tried to get my photo.

Beyond the station were more of the classic Glasgow tenements, but whereas in the West End there had been a handful of doorbells at the front, now there were loads: the difference between apartments and bedsits.  Coming out of a corner shop with a bottle of water, I almost immediately stumbled into a loud, violent conversation outside a house.  Their Scottish accents were so thick I'd have needed a chainsaw to slice my way in and find out what they were saying, but they didn't seem too happy.  Finally the man wandered off, and the woman let herself in a steel-covered door.

Of course, there are very few football stadiums built in desirable neighbourhoods; have you been to Anfield lately?  Nobody wants fifty thousand people streaming past their front door once or twice a week for most of the year.  On the main road, I could see the Ibrox stadium itself, and I thought about having a wander down, mainly for the chance to sexually harass Ally McCoist.  I decided not to because:

a)  I couldn't give a monkeys about football;
b)  If I did care about football, I probably wouldn't give a monkeys about Scottish football;
c)  If I did care about Scottish football, I'd be a Celtic supporter, not Rangers.  This isn't for political or religious reasons - I just like green and white better than blue.

With that moment of deep sporting analysis behind me, I walked on towards Cessnock station.  The landscape around me was familiar; it reminded me of Liverpool.  Grand Victorian buildings that had seen better days were punctuated by low-rise Sixties mistakes.  It was the latter buildings that were showing their age the most however, with stained pebble dashing and broken windows.  A tower block was boarded up pending demolition.  Glasgow embraced high-rise living more than any other city in the country.  As with Liverpool, these modern homes in the sky were seen as wonderful new inventions, and certainly better than the slums they replaced.  Instead they became new slums, just vertical instead of horizontal.

Passing the usual mix of off licences, bookies and pizza joints you get in working class districts all over the world, I ended up at Cessnock station.  It was a wonderful surprise.  It's the only station whose outside hasn't been modernised; its location in the basement of a Victorian tenement block meant it remains relatively preserved.  It gives you a unique insight into what the Subway must have looked like for decades.  Until you get into the ticket hall, that is, which has been done in the standard orange Seventies style.

Kinning Park, the next station, presented me with another of those random irritations that make me the freak I am.  The frieze on the platform had the station name written in a completely different font.

Come on SPT - pull your fingers out.  Get rid of this unpleasant font violation post haste!

There's a famous tradition, much favoured by students and other alcoholics in Glasgow, called the "Subcrawl".  Hit a pub at each station on the subway in turn and then, when you get to the end, you'll have consumed fifteen pints and your liver will be the size of a handbag.  All good fun.

Except, as I came out at Kinning Park, I wondered: where the hell would you get a pint round here?

I was in the back end of an industrial estate, with a motorway roaring above my head.  You couldn't have bought a glass of water, never mind a pint of Tennants.  Perhaps you have to bring a can from home for this round and neck it on a street corner.

It was a bit disconcerting walking through a deserted industrial estate on a Saturday.  I wondered how much use the Subway got round here; it seemed like a classic case of the neighbourhood shifting round it and rendering it useless.  You wouldn't take the subway to work when you could drive along the motorway (not unless you lived right on top of one of the other stations), and most of the units had their own parking spaces.

Further down there were hefty stone warehouses, optimistically promising "new residential developments" coming soon.  The signs looked in a worse state than the buildings.  Someday, maybe, Kinning Park will come back to life, when the economy swings back up again and those buildings become great apartments with a train to the city centre in ten minutes and the M8 within spitting distance.  I doubt it though.  I bet they'll end up sliced, dissected, cut into smaller and smaller units and rented out.

On the plus side, I did see this road sign, which made me dwell on the vaguely smutty and hilarious names Glasgow gave to some of its districts:

Pollockshields?  Gorbals?  Any more slightly rude names up your sleeve?

I had to duck under the motorway itself to get to my next stop, Shields Road.  This one's a bit of a star for two reasons.  Firstly, it has a multi-storey car park built next door, so it's a big park and ride base; always good to see.  Secondly, it has its own fishmonger, built into the station.  A fishmonger which was doing a roaring trade that Saturday, incidentally; the queue was out the door of the shop.  You can see a couple of the fish men behind me - they'd been loading up a delivery van.

I've no idea why it says "Shields Road Subway", when every other station has just had the name.  I've no idea why it's silver now, instead of orange, either.  Just go with it.

West Street station has silver writing as well.  It's also in an even less appealing spot than Kinning Park; not only are there hardly any buildings around, but someone's also built a brand new motorway right over its car park.

That's the M74 extension, the controversial but much needed connection between the road south and the road to Edinburgh.  It's so new that there are signs on the nearby streets warning motorists of its existence, and telling them they can't go down their tried and trusted routes any more.

The plus side of West Street being the most obscure station on the network (and least used: Bank Hall on Merseyrail's Northern Line gets more passengers) is it gets ignored.  Hence this wonderful 1970s map being left on the outside wall - note the "U" logo:

Continuing to Bridge Street station was a bit unnerving.  Even though I was surrounded by buildings, and cars whizzed past constantly, I felt very isolated; I was the only pedestrian in sight, and the rigid grid of streets meant I could see far into the distance.  There was no other sign of humanity on the horizon, just closed up buildings and anonymous vehicles.

It was a relief when I saw the dark bricks of the station coming up ahead.  It's funny - I was quite dismissive of their design when I first started on this trip, but now it made sense to me.  The consistent style meant I could spot a Subway station from a thousand paces.

One thing did nag at me though: why were there no lifts?  Fifteen stations and every single one featured a combination of steps or escalators to get from the platform to street.  It was strange to me that these relatively shallow stations, with brand new buildings, didn't have access for the disabled.  Merseyrail's underground stations were all built with lifts - even Hamilton Square had them retrofitted into its much older, listed building.  Glasgow demolished almost all the old station buildings and built new ones without giving any thought to people in wheelchairs or with pushchairs.  That seems a bit rude.

Anyway, with Bridge Street out the way, I was now going to head back under the river into the city centre.  I did get a unique thrill on the platform - for the first time in my trip, there were two trains in the station at once, letting me take a blurry snap before they left:

St Enoch is, in many ways, the flagship of the subway network.  It's bang in the centre of the city, with two platforms, two entrances, and a travel centre.  It's the station that feels the most like a transport hub. After the desolate West Street and Kinning Park, it was a bit of a surprise to get off at a station with other people.

Head upstairs and there's a subterranean ticket hall, filled with machines and friendly staff.  I'm not sure what that lad is sat on: it might be art, or it might be a broken roof support.

Alright, it is a bit like an underground Arndale Centre, but I was hooked.  St Enoch easily became my favourite station, because it was the one that felt most alive.  It felt cared for and busy, like SPT were proud of it.

They should be.  They should be proud of the whole Subway system.  It was attractive, and distinctive, and fun.  Yes, fun.  I'd had a gleeful smile on my face for the last four hours.  I couldn't help it.  The Subway just seemed like a wonderful way to travel.

Better still, on the surface is a reminder of the Subway's past.  St Enoch station used to accompany a mainline terminus of the same name.  That went in the 1960s, replaced by a car park and then a shopping centre.  When the Subway rebuild came in 1977 the new below-ground ticket hall rendered the old one useless, but rather than demolish it, it was preserved.

This brilliantly over the top architectural confection was both the entrance to St Enoch station and the headquarters of the Subway company.  For years it was SPT's travel centre, but they moved underground and now it's a Caffe Nero.  I felt I had to celebrate this marvellous piece of preservation, and besides it was lunchtime, so I went inside and had a Chai latte and a panini.

Now I had a push up the busy Buchanan Street to reach my final station of the day.  It was, oddly, the International Bagpipe Festival that weekend, so everywhere I turned there were men in kilts - a strangely enjoyable experience, like when I went to Yorkshire and the first man I saw was wearing a flat cap.  It's nice to feel like you're in a postcard.  I didn't hear anyone say "jings" but I did see a LOT of adverts for Irn-Bru and Tunnock's Tea Cakes.  Kudos for living up to the stereotype, Scottish people.  The bagpipes, though, I can do without.

Buchanan Street station has a big proud entrance next to Glasgow Queen Street, but the actual station is a street or two away.  It's one of the Subway's eternal problems.  It manages to miss almost all the mainline railway routes, meaning it's useless at providing any means of interchange.  I've already written how one station had to be moved to get closer to Partick mainline, and Glasgow Central doesn't appear on its map at all.  To provide an interchange with at least one station, they built a travelator from Buchanan Street to Queen Street.

Sorry, not a travelator: an AUTOWALK.

Despite the presence of an old Subway car in the ticket hall, I didn't warm to Buchanan Street.  Maybe it was because it as busy and crammed as St Enoch, but didn't have the same style.

Or perhaps it was because it was my last station.  I realised that now I'd done it; now I'd circumnavigated the whole Subway system.  I realised that this sadness, this feeling of completion and disappointment at it all being over, was a mini-version of what would happen when I finally finished the Merseyrail map.  I thought of that handful of stations I still had to collect across the North-West.  Not long to go now.

I had to do a complete loop, of course, so I took the train from Buchanan Street back to where I started - Cowcaddens.  See?

And that was it.

Except, of course, it wasn't; I couldn't let go that easily.  I'd done an anti-clockwise loop so, really, I had to do a clockwise loop as well.  I got on the next train to pass through on the Outer Circle and rode it right round the track.  A twenty four minute victory lap.

There are plans to expand the Subway - a vaguely talked about "eastern loop" that would share tracks in the centre and make it into a figure-eight network.  The tracks are more or less all there, with old tunnels and paths all over the city being called into service, but of course it would cost an absolute fortune and everything's gone quiet on that front.  Another plan for a Crossrail connecting Central with Queens Street would mean an interchange at West Street, giving it something resembling a purpose again.  Again, money problems mean it hasn't happened.

I hope it gets all the money it needs.  The Subway's a brilliant little network, and a real boon to Glasgow.  I know there are trains running all over the city but they can't compare with little carriages in their own tunnels burrowing under the streets.  That's proper city life.  It's such a shame that people realised it was the best way to travel a hundred odd years ago and built it but nowadays we can't bring ourselves to do the same.

I love the Subway.  It fulfils all my criteria for a great metro system.  It's fast, it's clean, it's regular.  It's unique and quirky.  It travels across all sections of the city, high to low.  It takes in tourist spots and quiet neighbourhoods and grimy industrial parks.  It passes under the river (twice).  It's fun.  Just so much fun.

I want to go back.


Anonymous said...

Look at the mess you made of that 70's Strathclyde Transport map after you have tried to take it home as a souvenir

tut tut : )

Robert said...

The Subway is amazing, except for one thing: on Sundays it only operates between 10am and 6pm, which is rubbish for a public transport system in a major city.

Anonymous said...

@Robert, the bus service in Canberra is the same first bus at 8am to 8pm and thats on sunday!!!

Anonymous said...

Pics of the subway will help me a lot with my college project
Many Thanks!!!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Christ it's a shock to see how the subway was just a few years back before all the modernisation, you should come back up to check out how everything has changed