Thursday 22 November 2012

Passing Through

Have you ever wanted to watch some blurry, slowed-down footage of building work shot through a train window?  NOW'S YOUR CHANCE.

That's James Street's platform 1, currently being transformed into a gleaming white paradise.  As you can see, all the brown plastic seating has gone, along with the yellow formica walls, and there are plenty of workmen milling about.  Meanwhile, if you look at platform 2, there are piles of new cladding waiting to be installed.

On a related note: poor James Street.  Central got a whole website devoted to its works, along with competitions and posters where the station talked to you.  James Street's just got an adjusted network map and that's about it.

Monday 19 November 2012

Tracking the Past

It takes five minutes to get from Hooton to Capenhurst on the Wirral Line, one of the longest sections without a stop.  The funny thing is, there used to be a station in between, and today I went out and had a look at what's left.

Don't get excited - there's not much.  It was in existence for nearly 120 years, there's hardly any evidence that Ledsham station even existed.  Even the Station Hotel, which used to be right next door, has been renamed the Cheshire Yeoman (and painted a horrendous orange colour).

The station building itself, a mock-Tudor construction of the type favoured by the railway company (see also: Spital) was constructed on the road bridge.  The spot where the building used to be is now blocked off with railings, though the bridge wall is original.

The artistic curl of the stone work on top is a Victorian rebuke to the 1990s bridge a few yards up, with its dull metal walls.

The principal virtue of the newer bridge (apart from carrying Welsh-bound traffic far more efficiently) is that it lets you see the other side of the older one.  That reveals white tiled bricks, the last remnant of the footbridge to take passengers to the platforms.

You can see them even more clearly from the pub side of the road; the ticket office would have been on the left and then the footbridge and steps extending the length of the bridge.

For us looking at this quiet line in the 21st century, it's hard to believe that main-line trains to London passed over these tracks.  You get a hint of the size of the railway here from the double arch of the bridge: the one on the right is now almost completely obscured by undergrowth.  There used to be four tracks here.  And that hump in the middle?  The remains of an island platform.

Obviously, when they built the new bridge, there was no longer any need for the second arch.

Ledsham was closed in 1959, done for by its distance from any sizeable settlement.  Ironically, in the years since, Ellesmere Port has stretched and expanded, and now a large housing estate known as Ledsham Park lies to the east of the station site.  It's not enough to cause Ledsham to be reopened (Little Sutton station is on the other side of the new houses) but it does make you wonder what could have been.  If it had managed to hang on another twenty years or so we might have a big park and ride facility here.

As it is, there's just a nice pub.  That'll do.

Saturday 17 November 2012


Thanks to an afternoon with Robert, I believe I now know what it's like to be a parent to a toddler.  "Are we there yet?"  "Do you know where we're going?"  "We've walked miles."  "Not more walking."  On and on, the bleating of a whining infant in my ear, as we headed out of Oldham town centre and towards Mills Hill station.  Ian, for his part, may have had just as many complaints, but he had the good grace to keep quiet about them.

To be fair to Robert, Middleton Road is really rather dull.  A minor rain shower piddled on us as we progressed down its long, utterly straight length, passing less-than-ideal housing and the occasional shop.  There wasn't much to surprise or intrigue as at first, but a gap in the buildings gave us our first architectural ruin: a silhouetted mill, long closed.

As we would soon find out, the ruins were the beauties on this road.  We'd passed into Chadderton, a mill town now swallowed up by Oldham, and its former wealth kept popping up in ever more parlous states.  The town hall clung on, reborn as a registry office, with dull municipal-font signs pointing the way for "ceremonies" and plenty of room for the Rolls to drop the bride off outside.

It was the start of a run of fine civic buildings, but sadly in a much more depressing state.  A beautiful ironwork sign proclaimed Chadderton Library, a Carnegie library at that, but the building was empty.  The actual books were now in the "Chadderton Wellness Centre", which is a place I'd quite like to burn to the ground just for that bloody awful name.

At least that building has a future, albeit as glorified offices.  The wonderful Art Deco swimming baths next door are marked for demolition, after repairs were declared too expensive.  People do still swim, don't they?  It's not something we've all forgotten how to do, is it?  It seems that it's regarded as a frivolity, a luxury in our days of ever decreasing Council budgets and ever larger cuts.  At a time when Wirral Council is proposing getting rid of lollipop ladies and refusing to cut the grass in parks, a swimming pool seems like an indulgence. No matter how useful, how healthy, how necessary it is.  It makes me incredibly depressed.

Never mind, there's a big Asda just over the road, so at least we can eat shit food on our way into hell.

We pressed on, a little down hearted.  Fortunately Robert was almost caught staring into someone's front room, so that cheered us up.  We'd all agreed that staring in people's windows as you passed was fair game - if they haven't put nets up, what do they expect? - and we'd seen some truly spectacular pieces of tat on windowsills en route.  Robert had taken it a bit too far, though, and actually stopped in his tracks to read a sign on a house - not noticing the burly man admiring the hustle and bustle of the passing scene from inside.  Our footsteps were just a little bit quicker then in case he decided to object to our nosing in person.

Still, it got us to Mills Hill that little bit quicker.  We shared the platform with a gang of rowdy men who were clearly preparing for a night out in Leeds.  They had carrier bags full of beer to sustain them on the long arduous journey, which would normally irritate me, but one of them was quite fit so I just had a bit of a perv and then we went to a different carriage.

At least it had a decent sign.  Our next station, Castleton, just had a bit of board on the bridge over the tracks.  Not very impressive at all.

When you get round to replacing this with a TfGM sign, Manchester, I expect something more impressive.

Castleton might be the most wonderful town on earth.  It might be filled with buildings made of ivory and gold and all the residents are supermodels.  I wouldn't know, because I spent the whole time staring at the pavement, avoiding the mountains of dog faeces that were freely distributed across the place.  There were piles of the stuff.  Are there no plastic bags in Castleton?

Soon we were approaching Rochdale itself, and the turd count plummeted.  Our relatively quiet main road turned into a storming dual carriageway, so we took a side road towards the station.  It was exactly what you'd imagine if someone said "Rochdale": shiny red terraced houses stretching away from the eye in straight lines.  A couple of kids passed us, their delicate Asian features seeming unlikely hosts for outrageously strong Northern accents.

I'm not entirely sure what Dunsterville was, but they seemed keen for us to find it; there was another sign on the next street corner.  They hadn't cleaned that one either.

The glass minaret of a mosque rose up over the terraces as the light began to fade.  We turned back under the railway at a row of shops, passing up the opportunity to eat at Cheeky Chicken (Love chicken?  Love Cheeky Chicken!) or Chill-Grill (Grill of a Lifetime!).

The tentacles of the Metrolink were stretching out here, too.  A stop for the Rochdale extension looked pretty well-formed to me, even though it's still a couple of years away from being used.  I was surprised that the stop was outside the station though.  The route from Oldham to Rochdale is another former railway line, and I didn't understand why they weren't just using the same old facilities.  It's actually to stop the trams from having to cross the mainline railway which seems, you know, sensible.

From the outside, the station's drab and uninspiring, but it's subtly lovely inside, with a polished wooden roof and glass-walled waiting facilities.  The loveliest thing of all is a clock commemorating the Rochdale Pioneers, fathers of the co-operative movement and the first people to be "gud with fud".

We had a bit of a wait for our train; there was one that headed straight for Manchester, but we wanted a stopping service so we could cram in one last station before the light faded completely.  We took up spots on the bench on the platform, shivering a little at the cold.

I got excited for a moment, thinking Rochdale at least had an ALF, but no, it had one of those crappy corporate signs.  I shall have to come up with an acronym for them.  I don't think it will be a polite one.

With the sun dying rapidly, we raced south, past Castleton and Mills Hill and back into Chadderton to alight at Moston station.  There was a pleasing mural welcoming us.  All very nice, but painting a picture of a gleaming Eurostar when you've just climbed off a rattling Pacer is kind of rude.

That wasn't the true delight of the station.  Moston had not one, but two signs outside.  I know.  Too much.  I couldn't contain myself.

And that was it: four stations safely tucked away.  I feel a bit bad about not really experiencing the full joy of Rochdale town centre, but there are still a couple of stations beyond I haven't got yet, so I've got to come back.  Plus, of course, the tram will be here soon enough, so that'll be fun.

We trudged back to the Metrolink line at Hollingwood, gawping at the enormous televisions some of Chadderton's residents had on the wall (they must all have the worst eye strain).

There was more to the evening of course; Ian had schlepped all the way from London, so we fully intended getting our money's worth out of his company.  There was food, and beer, and jokes, and some fairly rude comments about the people at the next table in the restaurant, but I'll draw a veil over it to protect the innocent.  I'll just leave you with this photo and let you imagine the rest by yourself.

Friday 16 November 2012

Catching Mumps


Trams are great, aren't they?  Everyone loves trams.  Even the most miserable, Thatcherite, Clarkson-worshipping imbecile gets a little smile on their face when a tram comes tootling round the corner.  Especially if they blow their little whistle as they do so.


Manchester is, of course, the capital of British trams (sorry Blackpool), and its lovely Metrolink system has recently opened a new extension to Oldham.  As Ian was up from That London, he and Robert and I headed over to Victoria so we could ride the new line.  We avoided the gentleman enjoying the men's toilets a little too much and clambered aboard a bright yellow tram.

The noise of the new trams is a wonderful thing: an electric whoosh, a slipping, sliding hum that flows through you.  It's second only to the noise of the Jubilee line trains in the list of "unexpectedly lovely noises on public transport", and certainly beats the wailing of unattended children and rap music played through a mobile phone speaker.  Sadly, we couldn't get seats on the hinge - the best place to be on a tram: FACT - and instead settled for one end.

The line to Oldham used to be a railway line, and it shows.  The tram doesn't go through busy streets, but instead rises above them on viaducts, or beneath them past grassy embankments.  We were separate from regular traffic, allowing us to get some decent speed, before we finally terminated at Oldham Mumps.

My favourite thing about Oldham Mumps is that everyone calls it Oldham Mumps, as though that's a perfectly normal name for a station.  It's in the Mumps area of Oldham, which, according to Wikipedia, comes from an old name for beggar but... come on.  It's mumps.  It's big swollen necks and only being able to eat ice cream and soup and getting a couple of days off where you get to watch The Sullivans and school's telly (which suddenly becomes fascinating when you're watching it through choice).  If I was Metrolink, I'd have taken the opportunity to rename the stop - Oldham Prettyplace, or Oldham Gorgeous, or something more positive.

Not that it's that nice at the moment.  This is just a temporary halt.  The plan is for the line to eventually pass through the town centre, into a bus/tram interchange being built over the road, and then on to Rochdale.  Until then, there's a load of gravel acting as the terminus for the line.

We walked into the town centre proper, along a road that was flatlining.  Oldham Mumps railway station was demolished in 2009, and then it took three years of construction before the line reopened.  The effect of that closure was stark.  Yorkshire Street was full of those businesses you get on the way to stations - the chippies, the kebab shops, the down-at-heel bars.  Head to Lime Street in Liverpool or Brook Street in Chester and you'll see the same mix.  Places you only wander into after dark, probably with a skin full of ale, for just a quick doner for the trip home.  Without the station acting as a magnet, that trade had collapsed, and now there were shuttered businesses everywhere.  It had also killed the daytime trade, those odd shops that manage to exist on the periphery of town centres where the Business Rates are a little bit lower - independent bed shops, sari stores, Polish supermarkets.  Yorkshire Street had effectively fallen off the map.

Sadly, the reopening of Mumps is just going to be a temporary fillip to the area.  The Oldham town centre route will go via Union Street, parallel to Yorkshire Street, and then people won't need to come this way at all; there will be four new tram stops in the centre which people could use instead of walking.

We paused on an elevated square outside the parish church.  Across the way, the Old Town Hall was still going on about Oldham's Olympic legacy; I'm not quite sure what the legacy is, given the town's somewhat peripheral involvement in the Games.  They haven't even got a gold postbox.

There was something going on.  Crowds were gathering behind tape, leaving the road free.  A parade of some sort.  We debated what kind - perhaps it was a Remembrance Day march, or even Oldham Pride - before Ian's Googling came up with the answer: Santa was coming to town.  Not the proper one, obviously, because Father Christmas doesn't exist (sorry kids) but a man in a big red suit pulled by real reindeer (emphasis theirs).

We hung around to welcome "Santa's Reindeer Army", which involved bagpipers, for some reason.  There is never a reason for bagpipers.  Giant puppet characters and "the stars of the Oldham Coliseum's panto" paraded past, cheering the kids in the front row and handing out sweets.  We didn't get any, dammit.

Santa arrived, in his sleigh pulled, as promised, by real reindeer.  The best part of that was the horsey Claire Balding-type who was leading the animals, and who looked distinctly unamused throughout.  Santa waved, the kids waved back and cheered, then an Oldham Borough Council streetsweeper picked up the reindeer poo, and it was all over.

We paused for a coffee and a panini, then walked out the other side of the town centre.  It wasn't going to be all trams.  Since we were in the area, I'd persuaded Robert and Ian to help me collect some Northern Rail stations, and so we had a walk ahead of us to get to the first one.  After nearly being mown down on a pedestrian crossing by an idiot who jumped a red light to turn, we walked down Middleton Road, where we came across the nascent form of a future tram stop.

Come 2014, this will be Westwood tram stop, and the entry point into the town centre for Metrolink.  For now, it's just a couple of (surprisingly large) slabs of concrete.


They're great.

Tuesday 6 November 2012


The Mayor unveiled his Strategic Investment Framework (SIF) for the city centre the other day.  This is a guide to what they would like to happen to Liverpool over the next fifteen years or so.  It's a guide to aspirations, a list of problems that need addressing, and a wish list.  There are plans, for example, to stop the Strand from being such a barrier to movement (trees and pink street crossings).  There are schemes for "great streets", with Lime Street getting the overhaul it desperately needs and a new square between the station and St George's Hall.  The Baltic Triangle is finally being included, and knotted into the fabric of the city centre properly.  It's all interesting stuff.

From a Merseyrail perspective, the SIF acknowledges a seemingly obvious truth: having trains whizzing underneath the city centre every five minutes is a real asset, and one that isn't properly used.  The report says that the "underground" (their words) should be opened up more effectively, with a new station at St James.

I visited the St James site a few years ago.  It has two big assets: firstly, it breaks up the long gap between Central and Brunswick with an intermediate station.  Secondly, there's space for the platforms.  St James was closed over a hundred years ago but the open cutting it was sited in is still there.  There it is, on Google Maps:

View Larger Map

And there, on that same map, is the problem with St James: it's on the wrong side of Parliament Street - four lanes of fast moving ring road.  It's cut off from the city centre it wants to serve.

The solution, of course, would be to build the ticket office on the other side of the road, with passages passing under the road to the platforms.  There's even an open patch of land sitting there for the station building.  Any time you build underground, though, the cost goes through the roof, so this probably won't happen.  Instead there will probably be a station on St James Place, with a cheap footbridge and lifts, and another of those "super crossings" over Parliament Street.

My own personal preference would be an entirely new station that doesn't use the St James infrastructure: a brand new station at Chinatown, a little bit up the road.  Somewhere like here:

View Larger Map

There are two triangles of land there, on Great George Street, which sit directly over the top of the Northern Line tunnel.  Those would be a much better spot for a station, as they're actually within the ring road, they're close to Chinatown, the Baltic Triangle, the top of Bold Street and the cathedral, and they're vacant.  And if you're in true fantasy network mode, they're much closer to the disused Wapping railway tunnel, which passes under the site - handy if you ever want to reopen it for rail traffic out to Edge Hill.

(I'll stop fantasising now and get back to reality.  Sigh).

If St James wasn't there we'd still be saying there's a need for the station.  That big empty cutting is distracting us all - why don't we think about where the need is, instead of what we've got to hand?

Moving on.  The other suggested station is somewhere between Central and Sandhills, another long stretch of the Northern Line without a station.  Merseytravel have long suggested a station called "Vauxhall" here - I can't see that name lasting beyond the planning stages; one station sharing its name with a major London terminus (Waterloo) is fine, Merseyrail, but two would be pushing it.  The line's on a viaduct here, which would make it tricky to build, but it's also surrounded by cheap industrial land so the cost is a lot lower.

Of course, all that cheap industrial land is precisely why they haven't built it.  It's chicken and egg - if they build it now, no-one will use it, but until they build it, no-one will want anything round there except grimy workplaces.  This is all predicated on the ambitious Liverpool Waters plan happening - and I'm not holding my breath.

In other, smaller pieces of info, the SIF seems to have given up on Merseytram (plans for Dale Street and the Strand make no mention of leaving space for tracks) and Moorfields is marked as a major site for investment.  The latter is particularly exciting, as God knows it's awful round there right now.  There's a big commuter station right there, with thousands of people passing through, but for some reason the only development round there is a scrappy car park and a "Private Shop".

The biggest problem with the whole of the SIF is that it's aspirations.  No-one's got any money any more, not the Council, nor the developers.  Things like demolishing the Hunter Street flyovers so that the back of the museums becomes a new, open square?  Marvellous.  We can't afford it, but it's a great idea isn't it?  Basically, cross your fingers and hope for the best.  It might be all we get.

Images taken from the SIF report.  You can download the whole thing here (registration required).

Thursday 1 November 2012

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (without the planes)

Liverpool Central might think it's the glamourpuss on the network, with its new floors and its shiny escalators and its LCD advertising.  It's far from the only Merseyrail station getting a makeover, though.

Over the water, Bidston and Birkenhead North stations are getting new park and ride facilities.  This might not be as exciting as a glass-roofed extension, but in its own way, it's just as important for driving new users onto the network.

When the M53 came to Bidston, all sorts of approach roads were constructed to enable better access to Junction 1.  The problem is that in the process they managed to hide the station away behind a whole load of open space.

The open space is no more.  Normally this would be a cause for sadness, but in this case, it was just a wide expanse of dull grass that did nothing except get in the way of accessing the station.

Instead this will soon be a parking facility for the station.  It'll mean that Bidston becomes far more of a hub than previously and will make that park and ride logo on the station sign far more apt.

There will still be greenery here, but far more regimented landscaping.  Some nice trees.

Over at Birkenhead North, an even larger car parking facility is under construction.  I was surprised when I wandered down there (on a much less pretty day) and found the green space in front of the station was still there.

There used to be a row of houses there, plus a pub (The New Dock) which was so violent and unpleasant it had the nickname of "The Blood Tub".  When they were demolished a few years ago, I'd assumed it was for the parking facility, but instead, it's simply been landscaped as an extension to the park next door.

The car parks are actually going to be on the opposite side of the railway line.

That seems odd to me, especially as there won't be a footbridge or anything over the line: you'll have to exit the car park, walk round the station and then back in again.  I suppose you have to go where the room is, and let's be honest, it's better to use the derelict dock land as a car park than as a rodent breeding ground.

The new facilities are due to open in December, though the work at Birkenhead North is in two phases.  They're also refurbishing North's ticket office; that's due to reopen next week.  I really hope they work and are well used.  Bidston's right next to the motorway, so it's the kind of place that should be a park and ride hub, and Birkenhead North has plenty of space for it.  I just hope the local scallies don't view the dozens of parked cars as an opportunity for thieving and mischief.  Can we just have one nice thing?