Thursday 23 January 2014

The Definitive Ranking Of Merseyrail Lines

This is an homage* (*blatant rip off) of the excellent Buzzfeed post by Tom Phillips you can read here.  He's a bit harsh on the Northern Line, and I wouldn't have put the DLR first because it's not a Tube line, but anyway: at least he is satisfyingly cruel and cutting about the Arabfly Dangleway.


Note On Methodology: for the purposes of this evaluation, the lines are broken down into sections, based on their terminus - so there are four entries for the Wirral Line, and three for the Northern Line.  Otherwise this would be a very short list, and I would miss the opportunity to waffle on.  I'm also going to deal only with the bits of lines that exist entirely on the Merseyrail map, so if you want to hear complaints about the points work at Manchester Oxford Road you'll have to go elsewhere.

19.  That annoying bit of red line between Earlestown and Warrington Bank Quay

It's too short, it has a stupid kink in the middle, and it doesn't really relate to any proper services.

18.  Ellesmere Port to Helsby and beyond

Because it gets about four trains a month, and to get one you have to clamber up and over the bridge at Ellesmere Port like a hamster in a run. It's like they don't want you to use it.

17.  The line to Blackpool North.

A route which exists purely to carry low-rent stag parties to fun pubs, and which never quite shakes off the smell of stale booze and unspent testosterone.

16.  Ormskirk - Preston

Everyone tumbles off the fast, frequent, electric Merseyrail train and wanders up to a manky Pacer that's chugging like a tractor running on pig manure instead of diesel.  It'll be rammed, no-one will be happy, and it takes forever.

15.  City Line to Wigan

With the exception of the rather fantastic St Helens Central, this is a stream of boring stations with odd names ("Thatto Heath"?  You're just making these up now).

14. Kirkby to Wigan

It's a line for people who want to go to either Wigan or Kirkby.  It might get a branch to Skelmersdale in the future.  Must I say more?

13. The Mid-Cheshire Line

It connects Chester with Manchester, it goes through some very pretty countryside (including the Delamere Forest), and it's got some very posh bits.  Usually full of nice old ladies going out for tea and lunch in Altrincham or somewhere equally glamorous.

12.  Crewe and Runcorn

Ok, it's got nice fast whizzy trains, but they don't always stop at Winsford and Hartford, and Acton Bridge is practically a ghost station.  That's just rude.  Also the trains tend to be full of twats shouting into their mobile phones to let you know they're very important.

11.  Southport to Wigan

Because my friend Jennie used to live in Parbold, and so I have a great deal of affection for this line.  It's my list, alright?

10.  Wirral Line to Ellesmere Port

Get your own damn line, Ellesmere Port, and stop stealing Chester's trains.

9.  Northern Line to Kirkby

Fun fact: the Queen was made to ride the line out to Kirkby when she opened Merseyrail in the Seventies.  I bet she was overjoyed about that.  Now it's just a little stub, and you have to sit on the platform for what feels like forever before the train leaves, all the while hoping that those scallies bounding down the ramp towards the platform aren't going to sit in your carriage.  They always do.  And they always decide to try and compete with one another for who has the most offensive and misogynistic rap music on their phone throughout the journey.

8.  City Line to Warrington

Liverpool South Parkway makes this a surprisingly useful line, busy and interesting.  You can interchange for a whole lot of more fascinating places.  Also: Widnes.  Oh yes.

7.  Wirral Line to New Brighton

Like the Kirkby line, it's too short and stubby, but it's got the seaside at the end, so at least you can have an ice cream.

6.  Wirral Line to Chester

This would be a perfectly fine line if it didn't have Chester on the end.  Chester is a big succubus of snobbery and pretension, and doesn't deserve to be on the same route as perfectly respectable places like Bromborough and Birkenhead.  Also, I'm pretty sure you get radiation poisoning every time you go through Capenhurst.

5.  Northern Line from Southport to Hunts Cross

It's too long.  It takes an hour to get from Hunts Cross to Southport, and boy, don't you notice it.  Somewhere around Freshfield fatigue sets in and all those level crossings and golf courses become a blur, until next thing you know the guard's waking you up back in Hunts Cross because you've slept there and back again.

4.  The Borderlands Line

There's town (Bidston, Upton, Heswall, Wrexham).  There's country (a lot of unpronounceable places in the hills).  It's got a river crossing, it's got posh bits, it's got rough bits.  And did I mention that it goes to ANOTHER COUNTRY (ok it's only Wales, but it counts)?  Points are however deducted for  terminating in the middle of the marshes at Bidston. 

3.  City Line to Newton-le-Willows

It's the first intercity railway in the world.  If this line didn't exist, we'd all still be stuck in tiny villages, eating mud and marrying our sisters because no-one could go anywhere else to experience new things like cauliflower and eggs and people with less than eight fingers on each hand.  It's railway history, no, legend, and poor old William Huskisson died in the process.  You should doff your metaphorical hat every time you travel on it.  HUSKISSON!

2.  Northern Line to Ormskirk

I'm not just putting this second because it's my old home line: the Ormskirk branch is a veritable roller coaster of emotions and experiences.  SHIVER as you pass Walton Gaol and the Ashworth High Security Hospital!  THRILL at the idea of crossing the track on that really really high footbridge between Walton and Kirkdale!  LAUGH as you speed past all the poor queuing cars at Switch Island!  PERVE at the many attractive students who take the train on a daily basis!  ENJOY the sweet spot between Sandhills and the plunge into the tunnel where for the briefest of moments, the two cathedrals and the Radio City Tower are in perfect alignment, and you fall in love with Liverpool just that little bit more. 

1.  Wirral Line to West Kirby

You board at a petite Victorian terminus in a charming seaside town.  There are fast, regular trains, that take you through classy suburbs and expanses of golf links.  At Moreton and Leasowe, there are actual biscuit factories, like Willy Wonka but crunchy.  Under the motorway and past the docks, then a stop at Birkenhead Park - the oldest public park in the world - before you go to the modern, shiny Conway Park.  Then you're underground, through Hamilton Square and under the River Mersey into the Loop.  Four stations to take you pretty much anywhere you want to go in Liverpool city centre.  And before you know it, you're back on the way out again, heading back towards the sea.

We have a winner.

Thanks to Sean for suggesting this.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Ending on a High

It's odd how an island platform can change your perception of a station.  I don't mean a large, busy halt, where the island is just one of four or six or twelve stopping places.  I mean when there are two tracks and the only place you can alight is on a strip of concrete between the two.  Suddenly you're isolated and set apart.  You're lonely.

Billingham station was an island platform, with a set of concrete steps to take you over the tracks.  After the open spaces of Seaton Carew it seemed harsh.  It's as though you've been abandoned in the middle of Railway-land, not a friendly country occupied by Thomas and Friends, but an expanse of iron and steel that's not interested in humans.

On the other side of the tracks there was a small turning circle and a taxi firm in a prefab hut.  My fellow passengers were obviously locals - they strode confidently down what looked like a dead end street to me, but must have been a secret short cut.  Another girl ran ahead, into the car park of the vast Tesco's just outside the station, and flung her arms round her waiting boyfriend.

There were little units lining the road - workshops, car washes - presumably the kind of industrial development that was all over here until the superstore came along.  I walked along the road, then paused underneath the giant chimney of the Stockton-on-Tees District Heating centre (now closed).

Shouldn't I have turned left by now?  Or was it right?  I pulled out my phone and looked at Google Maps, but I couldn't quite work out my walking route into Stockton town centre.  I turned back - perhaps if I returned to the station I'd be able to start again - and the little arrow on Google turned in what looked like completely the wrong direction.  My internal compass, normally so reliable, was fudged, like I was sat next to a magnet.

I realised I was tired.  It was now early afternoon, and I'd been up for twelve hours.  I was booked on a six thirty train back to Liverpool, which meant I wouldn't be home until about 10:30 if I was lucky and managed to get a decent connection at York.  If I'd been at home, this was about the time I'd have slipped back to bed for a siesta.

So I took a bus.

Well, the bus stop was right there, and they were every ten minutes.  I got on behind a Goth boy, and asked for a single into Stockton.  The driver seemed confused when he realised I wanted to pay with cash.  We seem to have reached a state with public transport where people who don't have regular passes - people who aren't commuters, pensioners or students - just don't use buses.  I've had similarly befuddled looks from drivers on Merseyside, baffled that I wanted to exchange money for a service.

The only thing I knew about Billingham before I arrived was that it was where Jamie "Billy Elliot" Bell grew up.  It turned out to be a fine, well-laid out council estate, with long curving avenues and greens.  The gardens, sadly, were mostly paved over for car parking, but it still seemed like a good example of social housing.

We passed long rows of local shops, past "The Theatre Upstairs" (Listen very carefully, we shall say this only once: 'Allo, 'Allo, 17th-22nd Feb) and over the wide dual carriageway that whisked the tankers and trucks to the chemical works without stopping.  After that, the houses became smaller and grimier, and then disappeared altogether.  They'd given up trying to regenerate this part of town, abandoned all pretence that it could ever be a decent place to live, and now it had been decimated.  Wide tracts of rubble showed the spots where there used to be flats.  Piles of earth as high as a house towered over bare streets.  Signs promised new developments to come, but were deliberately vague about a timescale.

The bus finally dropped us off on Stockton's High Street - the bit of it that was still open, that is.  The wide central avenue was being torn up and repaved as part of another redevelopment, one that will see the installation of a paved expanse, a water feature and an "automaton".  Should we be inviting automatons onto our nation's high streets?  That's just asking for the robots to rise up and destroy us.  We may as well just bow down before our new computer gods right now.

What they'd done so far looked good, plenty of clean new paving and, of course, new lamp posts.  It was just away from the High Street that things became problematic.

I have a great affection for what you might call "grimier" cities.  I like a town that works hard and doesn't take your appreciation for granted.  Chester, for example, basically says "We've got a Roman ampitheatre and a medieval wall and some rows.  We're really fucking charming.  You have to like us, or you're an idiot."  It takes your appreciation for granted, and sort of doesn't care about you.

A town that's been knocked about has far more appeal to me.  Somewhere like Doncaster, or Dewsbury, or even Liverpool.  A city that's been kicked about for a bit but has worked its way back up.  It might not be as pretty as others, or have as many tourists, but it's got a reality to it, a healthy cynicism and sense of awareness about its position in the world.

It's no pleasure for me to say that I didn't like Stockton.  I had a good root around, up and down backstreets, through the shopping centre and off the ring road, and it never grabbed me.  It seemed drab and unwelcoming.  It was ugly.  It just didn't seem to care.

I walked around for a bit and finally gave up.  I couldn't find a positive.  I decided to just head for the station.

Worse was to come.  The impressive building at Stockton dates from the end of the 19th Century, and is a wide, elegant structure with a station clock.  It's just that it's not actually part of the station any more.

That lovely brick building is now sheltered accommodation for the elderly.  To reach the actual station, you have to walk through the car park (there are no pavements worth speaking about) and down a side alley to access the platforms.  They're almost apologetic, as though they'll happily disappear if you wouldn't mind sending a bulldozer round.

A rat run of ramps and stairs takes you up and over the tracks.  At the top you can see what Stockton station used to be before it was rationalised and cut back.

I took a seat in the shelter on the platform, and almost immediately it started to rain.  I stared out at a tower block through the mucky glass and thought, I can't end it like this.  This can't be the last station on today's trip.

Thank goodness for Heworth.

It was the only stop on the Northern Rail line between Sunderland and Newcastle.  I hadn't collected it before in my eagerness to get on the Metro, and I didn't think I'd have time to get it on the way back because I'd assumed I'd have walked from Billingham to Stockton.  That bus meant I suddenly had time to spare.  And what was this beautiful, shining beacon on the platform at Heworth?

Short of installing a giant neon sign saying This way for lots of free booze and sex, I don't think they could have made the entrance to the Metro more welcoming.  I resisted the urge to run straight in, giggling maniacally, because of course the Rules of the Blog dictate that I have to actually exit the station.  I took the ramp up to street level, where a bus exchange surrounds the Metro station building, and where Margaret Calvert's friendly sign provided a pleasing spot for my selfie.

Inside the ticket hall was bright and warm.  It was starting to fill up with kids, rushing from school to the train into town.  I bought a ticket - I'd foolishly only bothered with a single to Sunderland earlier - and headed down the steps to the platform.

Once again grinning like an idiot, I wandered up and down, just enjoying being there.  I love the Metro.  Properly love it.

It certainly cheered me after the misery of Stockton.  Soon I was on a little yellow and black train, my foot once again on the hinge, whizzing under the streets and over the river.  There was only one way to finish my day properly.  I walked out of Newcastle Central and into a pub nearby.

I love Newcastle Brown Ale, always have, ever since I used to spend my Friday afternoons drinking it in a pub in Luton after my A-level classes had finished.  It's probably my favourite alcoholic drink and, trust me, I've put in plenty of research.  As a student, it was practically all I drank, until money started getting tight halfway through the term and I'd go onto the cheaper lager.  I'd shared a flat in halls with a Geordie, who'd told me that it's called "Dog" in Newcastle (it being what husbands usually end up with when they tell their wives "I'm just taking the dog out") but I didn't have the guts to ask for it by that name.  Instead I ordered a Newky Brown, and the barman gave it to me with a half-pint glass.  That's how they drink it here; so much classier than me simply necking it from the bottle.

Newcastle: home of a superlative metro and an astonishingly good beer.  I may just retire there.

Tuesday 14 January 2014


I'd marked down an hour's wait at Seaham.  It's to the south of Sunderland, but frustratingly far from anywhere else; if I'd tried walking to the next station it would have been a real trek.

I'd got an idea of its isolation on the way.  I'd not realised how close the rail cruised to the coast here, rugged cliffs, windswept fields of waving grasses and bleak river mouths.  It was coldly beautiful, enhanced by the chilly January weather.  It was an aggressive coast that fought with the North Sea for dominance, rather than letting the sea win.

Because I'm a generous soul, I'll believe that the New Year's storms were responsible for the Town Centre sign pointing the wrong way, not the local bored youths.  It meant that I took a curved, lazy route from the station into the town, through mostly residential streets.  Seaham was once a mining town - indeed, when the station opened it was called Seaham Colliery - but of course that industrial base is long gone.  Seaham's since re-established itself as a commuter and retirement town, with new housing developments springing up.  It reminded me a little of Rhyl or Prestatyn - those relentless strips of homes that string along the North Wales coast, almost but not quite boasting a sea view.

I finally came out on Seaham's little seafront.  When the colliery was here, this was an industrial port, but now it's a strip of green with paths and parks.  I crossed to the water side of the road, letting the sea wind batter at my face and cheeks.  There were hardy walkers out, mainly pensioners, arm in arm along the front.

I wanted some lunch - it was about eleven, but I'd been up since four - and there were plenty of small cafes and restaurants along the sea road.  I was anxious about time though.  I'd pictured myself relaxing with a bacon butty and a cup of tea, but the walk had taken longer than I'd thought, so I decided to just find a takeaway and snatch a sandwich.

At the town centre, there were signs that Seaham wasn't as resurgent as it could be.  There were empty, salt battered pubs, an ugly glass and steel shopping centre, pound shops and vacant fronts.  A drugs rehabilitation charity sat on the high street alongside the butchers and games shop.  The recovery is coming but slowly.

With a cheese stottie in hand (a kind of large, flat muffin that the locals swear by) I looped back towards the station.  This time I followed the old railway line; there used to be a branch down to Seaham Harbour station which closed in the mid-20th century.  Now there's a pedestrian path under the main roads, with the occasional bridge and terrace of houses hinting at its old life.

I passed up the opportunity for a "locally famous" vodka slush from the newsagents next to the station and instead sat on the platform to eat my stottie.  The line only gets one passenger train an hour, not least because it's a busy freight route.  An endless mineral train passed through ahead of my little Northern Pacer.

Between Seaham and Hartlepool there are even more stunning North Sea views, but I was completely unable to concentrate on them thanks to the passenger in the seat in front of me.  He was a young lad, in his early twenties, displaying the famous North-East resistance to the cold by wearing a thin jumper and jeans and not much else.  He was shouting into his Blackberry: "I just spent 36 hours in a fucking cell.  What for?  Two robberies.  One robbery and an armed robbery."  There then followed a long, impassioned, outraged denial, allegations of police cruelty, and pleas for sympathy.

With that call finished, he tossed the Blackberry onto the seat in front and pulled out an iPhone.  In calmer, cockier tones, he told the same story to someone else.  His Teeside accent was so thick, at times it seemed like a foreign language; it was peppered with dialect words and turns of phrase, and snapped out at a speed that made me sympathise with the court stenographer on his case.  The armed robbery seemed to have been in Darlington, and his fingerprints were "somehow" found on the weapon; he was arrested in Sunderland, ready to be taken to Darlington for questioning, but his solicitor had intervened because the journey would "break his bail conditions."

I was trying hard not to listen, not least because I was worried about the implications if he confessed.  Was I required to tell the police if he said it was all true?  What about everyone else on the train?  Are we all witnesses if he suddenly shouted "yeah, of course I did it, but they can't prove it" into his phone?  It was an unnecessary source of stress, and I was glad when I got off at Hartlepool and he didn't.

It won't surprise you to learn that he had his feet on the seat.  I'd have locked him up just for that.

Hartlepool station's been charmingly restored.  The ironwork has been spruced up, the glass canopies have been cleaned and repaired.  A glass walled waiting area has been installed on the platform, between the Trainstop Cafe and the booking hall.

It was certainly a step up from the empty platforms at Seaham.  Inside, a whitewashed ticket office opened out onto the taxi rank.  Hartlepool station was doing its best to make a good first impression.

I stopped by the station sign for my picture.  You'll be happy to hear I've had my hair cut since this photo was taken.  I'm less happy, because I quite like having longer hair - it gives you something to play with - and I also didn't want to give any satisfaction to the many people who kept saying "when are you going to cut your hair?"  I'm extremely bloody minded, and the minute someone says I should do something, I make up my mind not to do it, even if I was planning on doing it anyway.  Still, it's all gone now, so the wind can no longer catch it and whisk it into comedy shapes like the one below.

Plus side: at least I'm not bald.

I've often mused on the priorities of "regeneration" schemes.  Different Northern towns in need of a boost spent their Government cash on different schemes.  In Barrow, the windows of empty shops were covered with large photographic murals to make the street look less abandoned.  Hull had turned its quaysides into a new residential and leisure destination.

One constant in all these regeneration schemes is that the street furniture will be replaced.  All the bins, lamp posts and benches will be ripped up, thrown out and new ones are cemented in.

Hartlepool seemed to have spent all its money on new lamp posts and paving slabs and signs and then given up.  I have never seen so many elaborate light fixtures outside of John Lewis.  Each one was peaked by a flying final and embedded in creamy white pavement.  Meanwhile, each of the adjacent streets had a high metal arch at its entrance, like the one welcoming you to Carnaby Street in London.  Except here, the arches were welcoming you to "Station Approach" and "Whitby Street", which don't have the same frisson of fashionable experimentation and Biba glamour.

I could perhaps forgive all that if I stepped out into a thriving, bustling town centre.  Instead almost the first shop I saw was occupied by the Hartlepool Food Bank (bloody coalition).  The proper town centre was off to the side, across the main road, and I was in a strip of grim pubs and closed takeaways.  I headed down Whitby Road, past pay and display car parks and a fishmongers' with a giant crab painted on the side, until the town just seemed to stop.  Lumpy houses and industrial units appeared, surrounded by acres of empty grass and mud.  There were still Christmas decorations in some of the windows ("Santa!  Please stop for Poppy-Letitia!") which made it seem even more grim.  After about December 27th all the joy and happiness seems to leak out of decorations, making everything tired and sad.

I just about managed to not get run over by a white van and headed for the coast.  Coronation Drive crosses over the railway tracks and then hugs the beach to the south of Hartlepool.  There was a generous promenade between the sea and the road, dotted with playgrounds and benches.

I stood above the sea defences and stared out across the water.  It was hard to believe that only a couple of days before this coast had been attacked, repeatedly, violently by storms and tides.  It was beautifully calm, looking like a summer's day; only the tingle in my nose and the tops of my ears gave a hint of the true season.

Off in the distance, the steelworks on Teeside belched out white clouds of smoke and steam.  They became somehow romantic: cloud makers.  I couldn't tear my eyes away as I walked south.

There was a cafe with an adventure playground in the front, quiet today, but still with a scent of chips to tempt the passing motorists.  A single jogger pounded the beach.  How wonderful, I thought, to have this as your local running track, the soft sand cushioning your sprint, the music from Chariots of Fire playing on your internal jukebox.

Seaton Carew rose up on the horizon.  The Staincliffe Hotel - no really, that's what it was called - caught the sun and formed a sinister silhouette in the distance.  In my head it became the kind of seaside B & B that has at least one escaped lunatic and probably a couple of sexual perverts as guests.  When I finally reached it, the hotel was disappointingly ordinary, advertising its availability for weddings and functions.

There was a little square, almost a village green, with a red telephone box and a parade of tidy  houses around it, before I turned up Station Lane.  I liked Seaton Carew, not least because it sounded like a character from a James Robertson Justice film.  It was a bluff, unpretentious seaside town, one that had given up on attracting holiday makers for a week and had repurposed itself as a cheery day out.

The station wasn't actually on Station Lane, but was instead down a little side path.  On the platform you could see the track recede into the distance in both directions, off into the horizon.  There was also a mosaic on the platform, which I thoroughly approve of - more of this sort of thing, please.

Alright, I'm not actually sure what it is - a man in a onesie on a boat?  A sort of furry figurehead?  The first all kitten voyage to the New World? - but it's better than just another set of Northern Rail posters about violence to the staff and rail replacement buses.

(Also, why is there a tree in the sea?)