Sunday 24 February 2013


"Oh, you hovered in front of some Merseyrail station signs and shoved a cameraphone up your nose?  That's impressive.  Did you do a lovely YouTube video, including animation?  No?"

You win this round, Tim McCready.

Friday 22 February 2013

The Wolves of Despair

Liverpool would kill for some trams.  There was a whole network planned, three lines, a loop in the city centre.  Streets were designed ready for them to cruise down (ever wondered why Paradise Street is so wide?  Or why there's that odd centre portion to the Liverpool One bus station?).  Then it all collapsed, falling to pieces in a mess of politics and general incompetence.  Some people still hold out hope but sorry, it ain't gonna happen.

I mention all this because, on our recent trip to Birmingham, Ian, Robert and I experienced the Midlands' own tram system.  And it was awful.  Just horrible,  It was profoundly depressing to ride an inadequate, noisy tram when other cities were desperate for this kind of transport infrastructure.

We weren't impressed from the start.  The terminus is at Snow Hill station, and we hunted for a ticket machine.  It turns out you buy the tickets from the on-board conductor, like in On The Buses.  We were shocked and a little bit irritated.  Imagine what it must be like on a busy day, trying to buy a ticket.  Or if you just need to ride a couple of stops and the conductor still hasn't got to you.  Buy before you ride, people.  It's easy to just stick a machine on the platform.  Why aren't you doing it?

Another surprise was the design of the trams.  Each end has a raised platform, behind the driver's cab; it means there's a little flight of steps for access.  Yes, steps.  It seems bizarre.  I shouldn't be too rude though, because these trams are all about to be replaced with a different design.  Obviously, that's great for the city, but I can't help thinking that's a little bit inefficient.  Manchester's Metrolink is still running the same old trams with the turquoise livery; Metro has felt the need to replace its entire fleet after fifteen years.

We could see why they might need to be replaced as we took off.  The tram was incredibly noisy.  Instead of the gentle swoosh of electric motors that we'd experienced on the Oldham Metrolink line a few months ago, there was clattering, grinding and screaming.  Every turn of the tram was announced with a clunk and a shudder.  It was like being on a Blackpool tram - not one of the new ones, those rickety double deckers with an advert for Cannon & Ball at the Winter Gardens on the side.

The Metro was constructed by converting a former freight line, and the result is it goes through some less than pleasing scenery.  Or as Ian put it, "Are they determined to show us the worst parts of Birmingham en route?"  Slag heaps, rubbish dumps, recycling centres.  Half-empty factories.  Burnt down warehouses.  The stops were typically against a backdrop of industrial grime, nestled in cuttings away from the street.  Suddenly I saw why they might not be keen to have ticket machines full of money on the platforms.  Every shelter, without exception, had been slashed at, abstract scores across the glass to leave vandalised dirty smears behind.

We couldn't really talk along the way.  The constant roar and scream of the wheels drowned everything out - a thousand times worse when we passed under bridges or through tunnels.  On the outskirts of Wolverhampton, the tram rose up to run at street level.  Suddenly we were staring through pub windows and at carpet warehouses.  We were charmed by the red-brick walls of the former Wolverhampton Corporation Transportation Department; less so when we saw the sign announcing it was being converted into a Tesco.  Still, it'll give the citizens a bit of choice from the Sainsburys which is, literally, just across the road.

The tram crossed a traffic island on an ostentatious bridge and pulled into the terminus at Wolverhampton St George's.  Note that it's not the bus or train station - those are in a different direction.  The trams finish behind the pedestrian precinct, behind M&S.  We disembarked and were greeted by a drunk in trackie bottoms shouting randomly at passers by.

The Metro is, I have to say, shit.  It is everything bad about modern transportation.  Half-arsed, lazily done, and no real use to anyone.  An extension into Birmingham city centre is only just being built now, when that should have been a pre-requisite; the system is leaking funds because it doesn't go anywhere you'd want to go.  Even that extension's not really enough - a public transport route should ideally be double ended, so you don't end up with a lot of one-way traffic - but the new works are just four stops, terminating at New Street.  Converting a railway line to tram use seems like a great idea, except there are still trains from Wolverhampton to Birmingham, and they only take 15 minutes; why would you bother riding a rickety tram?Manchester closed down those train routes and sent you on the tram instead.  Everything about it is rotten.  I was profoundly disappointed with it all.

Also, the font they use on their signs is fucking awful.

We headed into Wolverhampton's throbbing centre in search of a coffee.  Perhaps the tram ride had prejudiced us, but it seemed like a horrible place, unpleasantly designed, sparsely populated, filled with shopping centres with weird names ("The Mander Centre"?  To quote Monica Geller, That's not even a word!).  We tipped up in a Costa, having rejected Starbucks on ethical grounds (right on brother!) and swallowed vast amounts of caffeine to perk us up again.

There was a brief moment of pleasantness as we headed towards the station; a proud Victorian civic centre, tucked away round the back, as though the city was embarrassed that they hadn't found a reason to demolish it and replace it with a Morrison's yet.  The very best thing about Wolverhampton is that it's the birthplace of my heroine, Caitlin Moran, and even she got the hell out as soon as she possibly could.

It wasn't enough - we were already fleeing.  Wolverhampton railway station's at the end of a driveway which, like so much of the West Midlands, has been built for cars, not people.  We dodged vehicles trying to get to the entrance, just round the corner from a behemoth of a multi-storey car park.  It was a standard, 1960s, drab box and, of course, they didn't bother putting the station name on it.  Just trust me: this is Wolverhampton station.

The three of us were a little subdued on the train back.  As committed transport geeks, we want to like trains and trams.  We don't go to these places to mock them, but to celebrate them; I want to be delighted and amused by a new town.  The best parts of the day hadn't involved stations or trains or trams at all; they'd been the chats in between, the laughs, the recoils in bafflement when Robert revealed he had never seen a Carry On film.  All of that could have happened anywhere.  Birmingham and Wolverhampton were entirely surplus to the fun.

I can't say I'll be rushing back.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

A Bit of Brum Fun

It's very easy to be rude about Birmingham.  Very easy.  It's very easy to pick at it, a vulture chewing at decayed carrion.  I've decided to be nice.  I will therefore only say positive things about the city in the following blog.

I was in Birmingham thanks to London Midland's Great Escape offer, a £15 ticket that lets you travel anywhere on their trains.  This would have been a golden opportunity to collect some of the stations on the map if London Midland went anywhere near Northern Rail's empire; the only real point of connection is Crewe, and I've been there way too many times in my life.  Since Ian was coming up north, and Robert and I were heading south, we decided to meet at the halfway point: the West Midlands.

I'd never been to New Street before.  I'd been through it, peering out of the train windows at the dark underbelly of the station, but I'd never actually alighted.  We were in a terminating bay so there was a long walk down busy platforms to the staircase (the escalator was out of action); fortunately the users of the station were fully aware of the "stay on the right" rule, allowing the bedraggled looking teenage girl to clunk her suitcase down the steps.

New Street is, basically, a smaller version of Euston: white tiles, false ceilings, nowhere to sit (stop it!  Be nice! - Ed).  In a weird way it reminded me of the Grand Central Terminal in New York - no, bear with me.  In both stations, the trains are squirreled away beneath the streets while the concourse sits above them, the idea being that passengers while away the hours up top until their train is ready rather than sitting on the platform.  Of course, Grand Central Terminal is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece where you can gorge yourself at the legendary Oyster Bar, while New Street is a building site with an Upper Crust baguette shop, but the principle is the same.

We met up with Ian outside the Pallasades shopping arcade and headed out onto the streets.  New Street is currently undergoing a massive rebuilding project to turn it into a mirrored blob; it would therefore be totally unfair of me to refer to it as a soulless void that sucks life and joy from all who enter it.  I'll have to come back when it is finished in 2014 and say it then.

We found a spot for the sign photo.  Some exuberant local girls tried to photobomb in the background, but one glance from Ian and they backed away.  He might seem like a jolly, polite young man, but the look he shot at those women was pure acid; it chilled my soul.

Incidentally that Big Issue seller said he really liked my 007 t-shirt.  I wouldn't normally take fashion advice from the dispossessed, but I'll take any compliment I can get.

We wandered through the Bull Ring, which is a large shopping centre - that's the main thing I can say about it.  The dotty Selfridges is interesting enough, but I don't like the way the design just stops at the brick wall; it's too artificial.  The building looks organic - it feels like it should flow; instead it just looks tacked on.

After a brief pause so Robert could have a free pee in the shopping centre toilets (he'd absolutely refused to pay the 30p for the ones at New Street - he claimed it was for principled reasons, but I think he's just cheap) we went to Moor Street station.  Which is wonderful.

I'm just going to sigh lovingly for a bit.  Don't mind me.

Birmingham Moor Street is one of the rare good stories to have come out of privatisation.  Under British Rail, the station was ignored, platforms were closed, and it was more or less abandoned to its fate.  Chiltern Railways, however, wanted to run a service from London to Birmingham, and they picked Moor Street as the terminus.  They not only brought it back to life, they made it better than it had ever been.

It's all ironwork and wood and glass; a muted crystal palace.  Rather than daub it with their corporate colours, Chiltern Railways have used heritage fonts and signage to make Moor Street a classy, elegant time capsule.  Shops and cafes are marked with triangular sign boards rather than glowing neon.

I don't believe in preservation just because something's old; I don't agree with listing buildings that don't work.  Where there is a glorious architectural gem, however, I want it to be enhanced and preserved and made real.  Moor Street looks like a 1930s terminus, but it works in the 21st century; it's a proper, effective train station.

It was lunchtime so we headed for the Centenary Lounge, a wonderfully preserved 1930s cafe on the concourse for coffee and a sandwich.

If it was a proper pre-war experience, of course, it would be staffed by a buxom woman with a permanently sour face; she'd dole out stewed tea from an urn and maybe a fly-battered scone if you're lucky.  This is the 21st century though, and so the Gaggia was operated by a smiling Asian man and there were paninis and delicate pastries available.

My only disappointment was entirely my fault.  The cafe sells GWR branded cutlery and crockery.  It also uses this crockery for service but because I'd ordered a latte, I got it in a boring glass.  I lovingly stroked the saucer instead.

Our train only went one stop to Snow Hill.  The contrast was stark.  Instead of open, sunshine filled platforms we entered a dark space underneath a multi-storey car park.  There used to be a much better, much larger station here, until Beeching intervened, and this was the 1980s rebuild.

There was some artwork.  At least, I assumed it was artwork; there was nothing to tell me who it was by, or why it was there.  Maybe it was one of those out-of-work actors who spray paint themselves and beg for change; if so he was really good, because he didn't move once.

Up top, the ticket hall had some remnants of the old Snow Hill.  Rich green tiles lined the walls, peppered with commemorative signs, signs for refurbishments, for reopenings, for visits by MPs and Right Honourables.

And hidden in a corner - the station cat, a welcome moment of whimsy:

I could say an awful lot about Snow Hill station, about its architecture, its location, its signage, but I promised right at the start of this blog to say nice things and so I will just keep quiet.  I will say that I'm glad they reopened it, because it's better to have more stations, not less; I will also say I think Snow Hill is a very pretty name.

Oh dear.  All this pleasantness is getting to be a strain.  I think I will have to go and have a lie down.  It's just not in my nature to be this nice, and I still haven't written about the trams.  I suspect my newfound saintliness will have faded away to nothing by then.

Monday 11 February 2013

Second Time Around

Back in November I posted a video of James Street being refurbished.  It was blurry, noisy and slightly rubbish.

So here's another one.

The best thing about the whole refurbishment programme is that the original, Victorian tiles have been revealed.  I didn't realise they were still there.  I'd assumed that the 1970s renovations were so "scorched earth" that they'd been ripped out and thrown in the nearest skip.

It also raises a sad and worrying question.  Are they just going to be covered up again?  Are we going to have to wave goodbye to that wonderful 19th century decor again? 

I'm guessing the answer is probably "yes".  It's always cheaper to just stick up a new look over the top rather than carefully restoring what's already there.  The white tunnel linings already seen across the Underground stations will sit quite happily over the top of these walls, leaving them for when there's actual money available to restore them properly.  As you can see from the video, the space where the Mersey Bookstall once stood has been bricked up in a fairly slapdash fashion - they're clearly not bothered how it's going to look.

I really, really wish this wasn't the case.  I wish this platform was being restored to its full glory.  I wish it was being cleaned up, the tiles repaired, modern but in keeping replacements found for those that were dumped in the Seventies.  I wish it was Liverpool's version of Baker Street's Metropolitan Line.

There's still a couple of months for me to be proved wrong.  Sadly I think that when Platform 3 reopens it will be clean, modern, and a little bit charmless.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Preview of Coming Attractions

January's so miserable; February's not much better.  It's another New Year and I'm still carrying those extra pounds (/stone) and I'm a year older and I look it.  I needed something to look forward to.  

So I booked myself a little trip.

It's this year's Epic Journey With Little Purpose!  Except, for the first time, there's actually a point to it.  I'm going to have a week of bouncing round the Cumbrian Coast Line in mid-April, enabling me to wipe a swathe of otherwise difficult to collect stations off the map in one go.  A week long orgy of Tarting.  Hopefully there will be a bit of sun and not much flooding otherwise I'll be stuck in a Travelodge in Barrow-in-Furness staring out the window.

I know it's a few months off, but I'm already pretty excited by the prospect.  I have routes to plan, timetables to consult, spreadsheets to fill in.  And it'll make up for the general lack of activity round here.  

Such fun!

Monday 4 February 2013

Mash Note

I've somehow managed to write three blog posts about York without ever talking about the station.

This isn't because I have nothing to say.  It's because I have too much to say.

York was opened in 1877 and it is one of the finest railway stations you could ever hope to travel through.  The North Eastern Railway poured money, design brilliance and elegance into the building, crafting every sinewy curve and arch with love and pride.

Stand on the central footbridge and marvel at the high, clear glass roofs, the stone buttresses dotted with circular portholes to let steam and smoke drift outwards.  It's spacious and yet doesn't feel empty; it's still filled with the throbbing, pounding pulse of a mainline railway station, the urgency and excitement and tension.

Look down at that bridge and appreciate the way it moves.  It's a later addition, built in 1938, and you can sense the hand of a modern architect bringing Art Deco into this space.  The span is accessed by symmetrical staircases at each end, curving upwards, with soft wooden handrails to guide you.  Head across it and your eye is drawn to the former signal box, now a coffee shop, but placed within the shape of the bridge.  The signalmen must have loved being at the centre of all the business of the station.

And at the head of the bridge, a wonderful, enormous clock, intricate and elaborate, one of a dozen clocks that are scattered throughout the station (and which are all in perfect working order).  Heraldic arms remind you that the railway station was to the Victorians what a castle was in Medieval times; the centrepiece, the fulcrum of a city, the dominant force.

The concourse below is actually a new addition, put in during the Eighties by removing some of the tracks.  New facilities - cash machines, ticket office, a florist - filled the space but they pay deference to the building around them.  There's a restored North Eastern Railways map, inlaid in tile on the wall; look closely and you can see that not all the tiles are original - one was added at a later date:
Historical Map Circa 1900
This map shows the system operated by
the former North Eastern Railway Company.
In 1923 the company became part of
the London & North Eastern Railway and,
in 1948 part of British Rail.
Details of present-day services on
British Rail Inter-City, Paytrain and Suburban routes
may be obtained from the Information office.
One plaque; two histories.

A corridor leads you to another concourse area, with a small, dignified memorial to the men killed in a bomb at the station during the war.  The roof looks like a banqueting hall; that castle theme again.  Tourists hang around here, trying to work out how to get into the city, to the museums, to the history, and somehow never taking in the space and the inspiration around them.

The taxi rank is under a massive stone porte-cochere, bigger and prouder than any other you've seen, built to take the finest of carriages and maintain the ladies' hemlines at all time.  The waiting Hondas and Vauxhalls seem unworthy.

Back inside you appreciate that passageway even more; the narrow space makes the station opening up before you that much more epic.

And amidst all this inspiration architecture is a proper, busy, working station.  Trains pouring in, disgorging passengers, luggage, dogs.  People everywhere.  Blinking LED screens, tinny tannoy announcements, Pacers and Sprinters and Intercities.  Pigeons pirouetting under the ironwork.

I love York station unreservedly, unashamedly, wholeheartedly.  It's an icon and a wonder.  I haven't even mentioned the tiny, elaborately decorated real ale pub (which I haven't yet visited - another day, another blog), the white Yorkshire roses in the supports, the artisan bakery on platform 8... there's too much to say.  I wandered around it in an adoring daze, utterly bewitched,

Thank you North Eastern Railway.