There's been a few quiet improvement projects happening at stations across Merseyside. I say "quiet" because not much fuss seems to be made out of them; the workmen just seem to be toiling away and no-one's noticed. I devoted a quiet Sunday to having a look at how a couple of them were getting on.
My first stop was Birkenhead North. It's recently gained a new park and ride facility, with a secure car park on the opposite side of the tracks to the station building. Now things are going up a notch.
The wrought iron footbridge has sadly been dismantled and taken away so that the station can become accessible to all. Now concrete and steel are slowly forming into a brand new over bridge.
These will be the new lift shafts, in a new structure similar to the one at Hooton. The bridge is going to go right across to the car park, making the platforms directly accessible from there and avoiding the need for a long walk round on Wallasey Bridge Road. The new bridge will connect everything together into one complex.
Of course, you can't just demolish a bridge without giving passengers an alternative route; that would be annoying and lead to a lot of people being electrocuted on the third rail as they try to get to Liverpool. They've jerry-rigged a new bridge at the opposite end of the platform which looks like one of those structures the Army have built in Somerset.
There was a reminder of how important the new bridge will be while I was there. A young mum with a toddler and a pushchair struggled up and down the steps, taking five times as long to get to the middle platform.
(That makes me sound like a right bastard, but she did have another lady with her; she wasn't on her own. I didn't just watch her and hope she'd fall over like some kind of sociopath).
The sad part of this is that Birkenhead North still has some of its original ironwork on its platform canopies, which the bridge will no longer match. That's the price of progress I suppose.
One train journey later I was at Bidston. It's always been an odd, desolate little halt; because of the marshy soil around the junction it was constructed from wood, as they were afraid something heavier would sink into the ground. There's a single island connected to the road and the footpath by a pebble dashed bridge. As the terminus of the Borderlands Line it's possible to wait here for quite some time - especially if there are problems with the trains - but the passenger facilities have mainly been a couple of benches on the platform. Not so great when the cold winds sweep in from the Irish Sea and gather pace across the acres of bare fields and swamp that surround it.
Something needed to be done. Now if it was up to me, I'd have moved the whole shebang to alongside Tesco across the way; that would be before the service to New Brighton branches off, so you'd have increased the number of trains to the station, and there would have been a better connection to the superstore and the retail park which are the main attractions round here. You might even have got Tesco and the retail park to help pay for it. That would be quite an astronomical ask though, and there are higher priorities elsewhere, so instead the architects at Merseyrail and Merseytravel came up with an alternative.
Their solution was to box in the open area between the ticket office and the toilets to create a new waiting room. Glass walls and electric doors have been put in to create a warm, cosy space. The roof's also been replaced with glass to leave it bright and airy.
In some ways, it's too welcoming. While I waited for my train a gang of tween girls arrived and set up shop in the waiting room, breaking up the tedium of "playing out". They grouped in a corner and played Let It Go from Frozen on a loop via their mobile phones. While it's nice to have your ears assaulted by something that isn't misogynistic gangster rap or banging techno - I appreciate Idina Menzel as much as the next gay man - it's still incredibly annoying, particularly as the open space and slate floor made it echo into something unrecognisable. (Also, Pharrell Williams' Happy should have TOTALLY won the Oscar. So there's that too).
Ironically, a song about how "the cold never bothered me anyway" ended up driving me out into the biting wind and spotty rain, and I went onto the platform. There's another, slightly bittersweet, technological improvement out here; despite the sign, there's no longer a pay phone at Bidston station, because when did you last see someone use a pay phone? Someone who wasn't a drug dealer, anyway? Instead a purpose built Help Point has been installed, which is sad, but it is the 21st century after all.
The work's not finished at Bidston, thankfully, because there are some distinctly slapdash features around - pipes held in by insulation foam, puddles on the concrete. A poster apologises but the "inclement weather" (i.e. apocalyptic end of days storms straight out of the Hellmouth) has meant the work has had to be delayed.
My final stop on my tour of the new look Merseyrail was Aigburth. Readers with long memories may remember a moment of hysteria when news reached me that the historic canopy at the station was being removed. It turned out to be the kind of panic that erupts when people are left uninformed. Network Rail were working on the canopy, and they planned on getting rid of some of it, but they'd not really publicised the plans; rumours erupted, petitions flew around, and the work had to be halted while everything was smoothed over.
Now Aigburth has a much smaller, more square canopy over just one part of the platform. This is to help with maintenance and also to stop the roof from chucking its waste water all over the tracks. I'm still not happy - surely there should be more covered space in a country as rainy as Britain? - but it's certainly not the holocaust we had believed it to be. The ironwork has also been retained, which is good to see, and also offers a glimmer of hope that it might one day be used to support a decent canopy again.
These are tiny, piecemeal projects, not grand schemes that revolutionise stations and the way we travel. They're not Crossrail or Liverpool South Parkway. Still, in their own small way, they improve the experience of riding the rails, and help to increase traffic and satisfaction across Merseyrail. Always a good thing.