Friday 21 September 2012

The Worst Railway Station in Britain

Most of the Northern Rail map is nice and simple.  Plenty of long, straight lines, crossing over one another cleanly, and occasionally ending up in a nice simple hub somewhere like Hull or Leeds.  It's perfect for my style of "one on, one off" railway station collecting.

And there's the bit of the map round Wakefield, where it all goes mad.

Suddenly we've got curves and links all over the place.  Glasshoughton on its own tiny little branch.  Normanton accessible from three different directions.  The dead end at Castleford.  It's a loop, but not a loop (you can't get a train direct from Featherstone to Normanton).  It's a knot, basically.

I decided the only way to free up this Gordian knot was to simply slice through it.  If I collected all these stations in one go, it would remove them all from the map and leave me with some easy, straight lines.

A morning train out of Lime Street, and soon I was at Leeds, waiting for my connection.  I love Leeds station.  It's an epic slice of railway goodness, massive, busy, and dazzling.  It looks even better since they refurbished it a couple of years ago (love the blue neon under the escalators).  I could have stood in front of the blinking Destination board all morning, watching the numbers change.  Like being at centre of a tornado and watching the cows and trailer homes swirl around you.

Instead I headed for platform 15c for my train to Wakefield Westgate.  My companion in the carriage was an old lady with a tight bun stretching her skin to paper thin levels.  She pulled out two fish paste sandwiches, making the inside of the train smell like the Little Mermaid's gusset, and wolfed them down.  I felt like telling her she'd miss those when lunchtime came.

Luckily there were only two stops to Wakefield, so I didn't have to put up with the smell for too long.  The station was the subject of regeneration back in the 1960s and now it looks a little bit tired.  Sadly British Rail  (and their successors) seemed to look at maintenance like a child looks at tidying its room; instead of keeping it in a reasonable state on a day to day basis, they just let it collapse into a mess, telling you that they just cleaned it when you object.

Yes, there are modern ticket machines and LED screens, but the rubber floor and strip lighting are straight out of the Wilson era.  Outside it's no better, with pollution-stained white tiles and ugly metal roofing.

It was a messy little forecourt too, seemingly designed for taxis and people arriving by car, and forcing pedestrians off to one side.  I had difficulty finding a spot on the tarmac to take a pic in front of the definitely-not-Rail-Alphabet station sign without being mown down:

There was a little map outside the station, as you'd expect, so I had a look to get my bearings.  There was a dotted line threading through the city centre, which I assumed was the route to Wakefield's other station at Kirkgate so you could change lines.  It wasn't.  Instead, it gave the route to The Hepworth, the city's brand new art gallery.

I didn't approve of that.  Maybe I'm overreacting, but that seemed to do the city a disservice.  The implication of that route was "you've just got off the train to visit our art gallery.  Here's how to get there quickly without seeing Wakefield."  I imagined London critics rushing through the streets, shielding their eyes in case they caught a glimpse of Greggs, their balloon pants thwacking against their shins as they rushed by.

Wakefield will never be confused with Florence or Paris.  The road leading away from the station is a strip of binge bars, covered with garish posters advertising their drinks offers ("Fishbowls for a fiver!").  They reeked of hedonism and abandon, and come Friday night this street would probably be awash with vomit and blood.  At eleven on a Thursday morning, they were just empty black spaces, with the occasional grim cleaner in a tabard pushing a hoover around inside.  It wasn't pretty.

Push on a little further and it became more scenic.  The area around the cathedral's well laid out, with plenty of trees and open space.  The cathedral itself is pretty and a real landmark from the surrounding streets.  

It was a good, second division city.  There seemed to be a few closed shops, but beside were local businesses, many of them squeezing "Yorkshire" into their name somewhere.  This is the first time I have ever heard of a "Yorkshire pillowcase" - is it made out of whippet?  

Towering over the city centre are the lemon and mandarin tower blocks.  Their colours should be cheery, but  combined with their ugly architecture and the dark clouds, they seem to be somehow laughing at their residents; they're a clown suit at a funeral.  The colours manage to rip any dignity away from them and leave them as piss-yellow stains in the sky.

I wasn't on the official, Council-sanctioned route across the city.  I was heading round the back, nipping down side streets - always the most interesting part of a strange town.  You get much more of a feel for the place.  I walked past a health centre with two nurses hiding in a nook, sneaking a cheeky fag, and past a terrace of old workman's cottages with a laughing woman chatting to her friend on the doorstep.  There was a drop in centre for Wakefield's youth in an old chapel, and then I was out on the ring road.

I was now within striking distance of the Hepworth, so I went down to have a look.  It's been built overlooking a weir, and it's a lovely spot.  It's not an especially lovely building though.

Art galleries are, by necessity, a series of boxes; the star is what's inside.  The Hepworth took this a bit too literally for me.  It was a series of concrete slabs that didn't fit in to its surroundings - in fact, it seemed to ignore them.  There weren't many windows to enable you to admire that view.

Its position annoyed me, too.  It was a prime spot, but it was already taken.  Off to one side is the Chantry Chapel, a Medieval bridge chapel and an attraction in its own right.  

There were plenty of other sites in Wakefield that could have benefited from a new tourist building.  But they picked this one, outside the city centre, away from everything, unburdened by all that real life.  And now it overshadowed a historic building that had been there for centuries (there was no recommended walking route to the Chantry Chapel).  The Hepworth felt like an "other", outside the city (the railway viaduct acts as an effective divider).  It could have been anywhere.

If I'd had more time, I'd have visited the chapel and not the gallery, just to show some loyalty.  Unfortunately,  I had a train to catch - from the Worst Railway Station in Britain.  That's not my view: that's the view of former Transport Secretary and current baldy, the disappointingly monikered Lord Adonis (talk about a name writing a cheque the face can't cash).

I didn't know Wakefield Kirkgate had a reputation until I met up with Robert the day before my trip.  When I told him where I was going he fired up his iPhone and read from its Wikipedia page.  "Kirkgate has been neglected and is in a poor state of repair".  "A rape, a serious assault and several robberies took place there".  "In the same week that Lord Adonis visited, a man was brutally attacked at the station with a baseball bat."  There were even reports of a ghost.

I walked up to it with some trepidation.  The bricked up pub outside didn't add to the ambience.  Neither did the minicab that swept up as I turned the corner, like something out of The Sweeney, chucking its passenger out and then getting the hell away again. 

And yet.. it's not that bad.  It's neglected.  It's abandoned.  That's still better than somewhere like Luton station, which has despair actually built into every brick.

Of course, part of that is down to managed expectations.  After that write up on Wikipedia, I was fully expecting druggies shooting up on the front step and rapists on the platform.  Instead it looked like what it was: a once grand station that had seen better days.

The sad thing is that Wakefield turned away from it.  The ring road defined a "city centre", for better or worse, and Kirkgate is on the wrong side of the line.  Worse, the area between the station and the dual carriageway had been infilled with 1960s council housing - flats and semis, all great for the residents, but not the kind of high-density community of businesses and commerce and people that a large railway station needs.  It's out on the edge, and if Network Rail could find a way to send the tracks into Westgate instead, you can bet they'd have done it a long time ago.

The other reason I couldn't condemn Wakefield Kirkgate was: there's hope.  Being damned by the Transport Secretary is quite embarrassing for a rail company and a PTE, so there's now a scheme to get it into a slightly better state.  Builders were on the platform constructing a canopy (there used to be an over-arching roof, but that was demolished in the seventies).

The workers have also constructed a new waiting area on the island platform (one of those prefab ones that are all over Merseyrail), and the subway looks clean and fresh, with CCTV cameras.  I wouldn't fancy being down there after dark, but you know, everything's relative.

The plans also include one thing that'll make a big difference: people.  At present, Kirkgate is completely unstaffed - the former ticket hall is blocked up.  The new Kirkgate will have the ability to talk to a person to buy a ticket, and that'll make a hell of a difference.  I've said it before but having even just one person on a station changes everything; it makes it friendlier, safer, a better place to be.

The scheme's only just started, so there's still loads of work to do - this wall on platforms 2 and 3, for example, where the former window spaces have been infilled with the cheapest corrugated plastic:

The point is though, something's happening.  Something's making this sad, neglected piece of Victoriana  worth seeing again.  I'm genuinely pleased, and I hope that next time I pass through Kirkgate I'll be happily surprised by the transformation.  The Worst Railway Station in Britain?  Not even close.


Anonymous said...

Mermaids have gussets?

The Shillito said...

Oh no! You missed the station sign (or found it too rusted and off-colour). Here's my antennae-shot.

While I'm commenting, apologies for the surge in traffic coming from me. I've been catching up on every blog post you've ever put up here, seeing how a pro does their station hunting (I've also started to hunt stations, but I go for speed rather than niceness and fancy blog posts).

Scott Willison said...

I seem to remember I did see the station sign but there was a dodgy type lingering around there. I got in and got out.

And read as many posts as you like! Come one, come all!

Anonymous said...

Gainsborough Central station has now been voted the worst