Tuesday 27 May 2014

Same Old Brand New You

There are two entrances to Merseyrail's James Street station.  One's got ticket machines, lifts, a refreshment kiosk and enough yellow and grey to make the Colour Tsars go all funny inside.  The other one, on Water Street, hasn't been updated for decades.  It's accessed via a steep, gloomy tunnel, there's a 1970s ticket counter wedged into a 1930s ticket hall, and it's chipped and dirty.  The booking office is only open during peak hours, and when I tried buying a ticket there a couple of years ago, the lady behind the counter had to write it out on a bit of paper.

Which is why Merseyrail have put in a planning application to refurbish the lot.  As part of the Grade II* listed India Buildings, special permissions have to be gained to make any kind of alterations.  Merseyrail could have done a cover-up.  Times are tough; I'm sure they could have made a valid case for covering up all the surfaces with white boards, like at platform level.

Instead, they've applied to restore and enhance the whole area, and I cannot be more happy.

Working with Michael Cunningham Architects - the people responsible for the superb restoration of Manchester Oxford Road - Merseyrail have applied to bring the Water Street ticket hall back to its 1930s finery.  The mosaic tiles will be cleaned and regrouted; where they are missing, reproductions will be created.  The unsympathetic flourescent lighting will be replaced with "heritage-style" modern fixtures.  The Loop line era ticket desk, all blue tiles and stainless steel, is to be torn out and a more in keeping green wood and glass structure will be inserted in the gap.

The 21st century won't be completely abandoned.  There will still be an electronic departures board, but this will be moved to the side in a more subtle location.  The huge emergency/information point will also be replaced with a smaller, more discreet version.  The wiring will also all be tucked away neatly.

Furthermore, in news that is bound to make the Colour Tsars sob into their banana milkshakes, the yellow will be removed from all the heritage areas.  The posters will be surrounded by grey frames, so not a total victory, but the emphasis will be on restoring the green and cream colouring of the original building.

Meanwhile, there's that subway to the platforms.  This isn't actually listed, so in theory, Michael Cunningham and Merseyrail could do anything with it.  It certainly needs some work.  Anyone who's used it knows that it's at a perversely steep angle, with a slippery stone floor and water running into it.  It's not a pleasant feature.

The water, sadly, isn't going anywhere; it's just one of the disadvantages of being 200 yards from the river.  To try and minimise its effect on the passageway the architects have proposed a subtle drainage system, just below the curve of the roof, to catch the worst of the ingress.  Meanwhile, the stone floor - which is original to James Street's opening in 1886 - will receive an anti-slip surface to stop people from skidding all the way to the bottom on rainy days.

As for getting rid of that gloomy, dank feel, they've proposed something special.  The strip lights will be replaced with coloured LEDs.

As you pass up or down the passageway you'll move through different sections of coloured light, breaking up the relentless slog and making the journey far more interesting.  That in itself would be a vast improvement on what's already there, but the nods to James Street's historic position as one of the earliest underground stations in the world will be further emphasised.  The corridor is going to be lined with reproduction Mersey Railway posters, with feature lighting to draw the eye, and brass plaques will be inlaid into the floor showing the station's position at different points in the city's history.  There will even be a new, bespoke wooden handrail along the length (and no, it won't be yellow).

The final enhancement will be on the outside of the building.  The current entrance is via two small doorways in the corner of the India Buildings, and it's not exactly notable.  The deference to the building means it's difficult to spot; in fact, when I collected the entrance back in 2008, you could barely see the station name.

Those fire doors will be replaced with more prestigious ones, in the same green and cream colouring as the interior of the booking hall.  Two new signs will also be erected.  The first is yet another nod to the station's heritage; there used to be an internally illuminated box on the corner of the building, with "MERSEY" (as in Mersey Railway) written on it.  This will be replicated, though obviously it'll say "MERSEYRAIL" instead.  Meanwhile, over the doors, there will be aluminium letters spelling out the station name, back-lit with a "halo" effect.  Basically, you won't be able to miss it.

In short it's the most exciting railway project in Liverpool since Central was rebuilt.  There's an opportunity here to create something which isn't just an improved passenger experience, but is also a tourist attraction in its own right.  Think of how many people visit the Philharmonic Pub on Hope Street just to look at the gents!  Restoring this beautiful ticket hall will make a new sparkling gem in the centre of the commercial district; hopefully it'll be combined with longer opening hours, so that visitors can experience it throughout the day.  I am genuinely thrilled by the proposals, and I have to give rapturous applause to both Merseyrail and Michael Cunningham Architects.  Now please hurry up and do it!

All images, apart from the photographs which are my own, are taken from the planning application and are reproduced for illustrative purposes only.  The full application can be viewed here; comments can be registered until the 29th May.

Friday 23 May 2014

Something Tiny (Algo Pequeñito)

The Northern Rail map's been tinkered with.  Last year, there was a wholescale re-draw, but it a was a largely successful one so there's been no need to do anything too comprehensive this time.

The tinkering's got one purpose, really, to include the new station at James Cook University Hospital on Tees-side.  The single platform halt opened along with the new timetables, on May 18th, and it's good to see that Northern have updated the map so quickly - poor old Buckshaw Parkway had to wait a whole year before it turned up.

It's a shame, then, that the new station is so badly represented.

That's the situation on the old map, with the circles equally spaced.  The new station - with its rather long name - has to slip in between Middlesbrough and Marton, so some juggling is required.

Unfortunately James Cook University Hospital station has been awkwardly placed, not centred between Middlesbrough and Marton (even though the rest of the line has been nicely repositioned).  Worse, they haven't used the whole name - this piece in the local newspaper clearly shows its full unwieldy title on the nameboards.  The spacing between "James Cook" and Marton makes me think that "University Hospital" was due to go in there, but was removed.  Perhaps they were afraid that if it spread over two lines people might think there were two separate stations.  Even if this is the case, there's no excuse for that awkwardly positioned dot.

(And yes, I have added James Cook University Hospital to my "to do" list).

The only other change I can find is perhaps the most surprising.

Northern have actually taken their logo off the map!  I can't understand why they'd want to do that; it must be a mistake.  Someone at Northern House is not going to be happy.

Those are the only changes I could see between the 2013 and 2014 maps from the Northern website; if you see any other alterations, please let me know.  I thought the Todmorden Curve might have appeared on the map; this is a small bit of track which has been restored in Yorkshire and will allow trains from Burnley to run direct into Manchester.  The track's been laid but a lack of rolling stock meant that new services won't be introduced until the winter at the earliest, so as it is, the two branches remain unconnected.

I was also surprised that they didn't put Ilkeston station on the map as "under construction"; no harm in a little boasting, and there's plenty of room for it above Nottingham.

There must have been an interim map between last year's and this year's, though, because I spotted a quite glaring difference while I was at Church Fenton a couple of weeks ago.  I'm guessing it was produced in house, rather than by a design company because... well, look at it.

Apologies for the poor quality.

Someone had listened to me when I complained about the missing Merseyrail Wirral Line on the map, meaning that there was no connection between Chester, Ellesmere Port and Liverpool.  And they decided to correct it in the worst possible way.  Suddenly we have a horribly angled line - changing from 60 to 45 degrees in the middle - that sort of crashes into Chester and Ellesmere Port at the bottom and turns into the Northern Line at the top.  It goes the wrong way, avoiding the misshapen lump that's the Wirral, and not crossing the Mersey at any point (quite a trick if you can manage it).  Plus the line from Ellesmere Port into North Wales has been left, a line which doesn't actually exist.

The new map restores the old, awkward layout.

It's still not great, and it still implies that the only way to get from Chester to Liverpool is via Warrington, and trains are still available into Wales from Ellesmere Port, but at least it doesn't offend my delicate sensibilities.  A tiny victory, I suppose.

You can download the new map here.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Mopping Up

Sometimes I'm genuinely excited to head out on a Tart.  There are destinations that have so much potential - places like Sheffield, or Leeds, or the Cumbrian Coast Line.  They're pretty or they're interesting.  I try to save them and pepper them throughout, like the best Quality Street in the tin; have them all at once and you're left with a load of toffee pennies.  Take Newcastle, for example; eagle eyed readers will have spotted that I still haven't collected that station, for the very good reason that I want to luxuriate in it.

Sometimes, however, I'm visiting places out of a sense of obligation.  I don't have very high hopes of there being anything interesting, but they're on the map, so off I go.  Most of Manchester's suburban stations.  Posh Cheshire.  And today's stations: the little knot around York.

It didn't help that I couldn't get one ticket to cover all the stations.  Northern has a great range of one day rangers, but this area was a blind spot: I'd have to buy individual tickets for each journey.  I ended up collecting a stack of orange card from the machine at Lime Street.

Ulleskelf sounds like an entry in the Ikea catalogue, not a railway station, but that's the Viking influence for you.  It's a long single platform between lines, cobbled together with different heights and one of those enormously long ramps for the disabled.  There was a girl leaning up against the fence, listening to her iPod, not interested in boarding the train or meeting anyone off it.  I left her behind and headed up to the street to find the sign.

There wasn't a sign.  Dammit.  I feigned interest in the timetable and map while I waited for the girl with the iPod to wander up from the platform; I have a little bit of shame about my sign selfies.  She saw me and asked if I needed any help, the damnably polite and cheery hussy that she was.  I thanked her, watched her disappear round the corner, then bombed back down to the platform for the proof of my visit.

Back up again, I skirted the village proper and instead headed south, past the Viking 4x4 Centre ("Ex-Military Land Rover Specialists").  It was positively balmy.  The scent of flowers and grass wafted towards me, installing itself in my nasal passages and inflaming my hay fever.  The path quickly vanished, but there was a wide grass verge for me to walk on, recently mown and a little damp.  Drainage channels were cut into the verge to let water run off the fields; I skipped over them, a camp jump every five yards or so.

It being the Tuesday after Eurovision, I had the Official Song Contest Album bouncing around in my ears.  Strange how your perception of the song changes after you've seen it onstage; for example, I now find it impossible to listen to Poland's song without giggling.  I was ambivalent about Spain's entry on first listen, but seeing Ruth Lorenzo perform it knocked it up to the next level, while the perfectly pleasant tune from Belgium became utterly creepy once I saw the histrionics onstage.  My top three songs were Iceland, France and Latvia; their respective positions were 15th, last, and "failed to qualify", proving that my taste in music is somewhat eccentric.  I was ok with Conchita Wurst winning, but it didn't blow me away.  This is probably because it was just Skyfall with the serial numbers filed off, and I'm afraid that good though Conchita was, Adele did it better two years ago.

Still, Rise Like A Phoenix is good to sing along to, for me anyway; I have a natural bellow.  I let rip as I wandered down the near empty road, only pausing when a hefty looking man jogged past me.

A "crash vehicle exit" seemed incongruous, out here in the quiet countryside.  It was actually a back entrance to RAF Church Fenton.  For seventy years it was a home to fighter planes, before closing at the end of last year.  It's difficult to imagine that this was once home to screaming jet engines.

A little further on, a small estate of redbrick houses clustered around the main entrance to the airfield.  It looked surprisingly busy for an abandoned air base.  There were police cars stationed outside the main building and a delivery van turned into the driveway as I passed.  Soon it'll all be converted into a variety of "live/work" units, whatever they are; there was a planning application pinned on a telegraph pole but I couldn't really work it out.

There are still warning lights, with an aircraft symbol and "STOP when lights are flashing"; the end of the runway was practically on top of the road.  Beyond that was a brick signpost with a carved grey stone aeroplane inlaid into it.

Unsurprisingly, Church Fenton is proud of its association with the RAF; the first pub I encountered was called the "Fenton Flyer", and featured the station's wings on its sign.  I wondered what its future was now that the air base was gone.  No doubt a lot of the people who lived in the village worked at the base - not just air force personnel, but kitchen staff, cleaners, drivers.  The Fenton Flyer must have seen a massive drop in its takings once the airmen were no longer around.  As I wandered the village's roads, I wondered who lived there, what they did, and where Church Fenton was headed.

One place it wasn't headed was on a fast train to London.  The connection from the HS2 Leeds branch onto the existing rail network is due to be just outside Church Fenton, and I saw a number of posters around the village saying "NO" to the line.  It seems there are a lot of campaigners in the village who are very much against this link, citing the noise and inconvenience of the building works and the subsequent fast trains.

It made me scratch my head in confusion.  Obviously I wouldn't want a new viaduct built fifty yards from my house; I recognise that when your home is affected by a new development it's almost a violation.  But Church Fenton, up until a few months ago, used to be home to an RAF base.  A base for aeroplanes.   I'd take the whizz of an electric train going by over the howl of a Tornado or the grind of a propeller.  Less chance of a train falling on top of your house, too.

It was lunchtime, so I looked for a bench to sit on and eat my sandwiches; that pain au raisin on the train seemed like a long time ago.  I headed into the churchyard of St Mary's, nodding a hello to the vicar who was just locking up, and took a seat on a bench amongst the gravestones.

For a while I took in the rural scene, the gentle hum of cars going past, the builders bantering over the road.  A steady stream of pensioners in smart togs trekked by on the pavement, no doubt headed for the local pub for their dinner.  A robin drifted down onto a gravestone clutching a caterpillar in its beak.  It swallowed it in one go.

After a while, I realised I was bored.  Charming country vistas are all very well for a while but a view just becomes background after a while.  It was too quiet for me.  I got up, left the churchyard by the back gate, and wandered round the corner.

The White Horse must have been refurbished in about 1997, because it felt sort of modern, and at the same time, dated (much like yours truly).  The TVs showing Sky Sports News were square cathode rays, and the furniture was just a little bit too chipped for comfort.  It was quiet though, and there was a pub dog, always a plus; a sad eyed Labrador wandered over to me for a bit of affectionate patting.  Having received his fill of attention from the newcomer, he wandered outside and flopped onto the cool stone pavement by the smoking area.

It was finally time for my train.  I strolled back through the village, past some roadworks and a lad on a bike who was just circling the block, over and over, and found the entrance on an overbridge.  Sadly, the station building was no longer in use for railway purposes; it's now an Indian takeaway.

Access to the tracks is through a cool passageway in the building, the final remaining piece of the building to still be in use.  Leaflets and timetables were hanging off the walls but there was no sign of a ticket office.

The station sits over a junction, with trains from York splitting onto the Leeds and Pontefract lines, so it was surprisingly large.  There were four platforms, and a constant stream of fast trains ploughing through from city to city.  Once again I wondered exactly what the anti-HS2 campaigners thought would change once they got a little bit of extra track further down the road.

Regular readers (hello you!) will know that I'm not really interested in trains.  I like trains; I like that they exist, and I think there should be more of them.  As actual objects, however, I'm not bothered.  I don't know the different classes, I don't know the carriage numbers, and I don't know anything about wheels or traction.

While I was waiting at Church Fenton, though, the automated announcer broke in to warn me to stand well back from the platform edge as a fast train would be passing through.  I looked down the track and saw that there were, in fact, two trains en route from York, a freight one on my right and a passenger one on my left, and I thought that might make an interesting picture.  So here you go: finally, a picture of trains on the blog.  I have absolutely no idea what type of train they are or where they were going but, there you go; a proper treat for my trainspotting friends.

The driver of the passenger train saw me taking a picture, incidentally, and fired his horn.  I don't know if it was meant as a cheery acknowledgement of the rail lover or if he was taking the mick; either way, it scared the shit out of me, and made me jump so hard I didn't get a chance for a second picture.

Finally my train arrived and I was whisked off to Sherburn-in-Elmet.  Isn't Elmet a type of hairspray?  Anyway.

Passengers had to cross the track to reach the village, which isn't unusual in itself, except this crossing had flashing lights and a barrier.  It all seemed a bit over the top for a simple barrow crossing like they have at hundreds of other spots on the network.

A walk down Moor Lane revealed the real reason for this excess of equipment.  Sherburn-in-Elmet had been bypassed, with the A162 sent on a wide circular route around the town.  At the same time, the bottleneck created by the level crossing had been overcome with a road bridge, leaving the station on a quiet cul-de-sac instead of the busy main road.

It was chucking out time for the local schools, and the roads were brimming with excitable tykes in white shirts and shorts.  I picked my way through a queue at the bus stop on my way into the town centre.  I ended up following a teenager with a dog for almost the whole way in.  The dog was a colossally ugly pitbull, with a face like a cone of fur.  I didn't dare overtake the boy in case his little angry pooch took a dislike to me so I shadowed him all the way to the crossroads.

Sherburn's a proper old market town, with stone buildings clustered around a medieval crossroads.  At the edges twentieth century homes, blank and uninteresting, have been built, but in the centre there's a feel of a community and a busy shopping district.  Ok, there's a Tesco Metro and a Spar, but there were also small local businesses.  I turned left, going southwards on Low Street towards the town's other station at South Milford.

The modern houses soon swept back in again; Sherburn must have experienced a Milton Keynes-like explosion in population in the sixties.  A girl hung around the back of a bus stop, chatting urgently on her phone, in a way that I'm sure would have got her father very worried indeed.  Across the clear spring skies I could see a power station, its cooling towers pumping out steam.

It was all remarkably cheering.  I pulled my smartphone out of my pocket to find out how long I had until my train to Leeds.

A chill swept over me.  Cancelled?  It couldn't be cancelled.  I couldn't miss that train.  As you may have spotted from the timings above, trains via South Milford were not that regular.  I needed to be in York by 18:40 for my appointed train home.  I couldn't have a cancelled train.

In an example of pathetic fallacy that even Stephanie Meyer would have rejected as trite, the skies darkened.  As I walked down the road, furiously tapping at my phone to try and calculate a new route, and trying not to panic, angry black clouds began to creep in from the west.

I missed the Huddersfield train by about five minutes; I couldn't turn round and go back to Sherburn-in-Elmet station because the trains there were just as infrequent.  I was going to have to go to Selby, wait there for an hour, and then hope that the train to York was on time and not too far from the Liverpool platform.

You can just sense my gritted teeth there, can't you?

I wandered up to the platform - there was no rush - and for a while I stood there and watched the grey clouds getting closer.  The absolute flatness of the landscape made it even more apocalyptic.  Tiny features on the horizon were overshadowed by the vast churning storm.

Then the rain finally came, and I retreated to the shelter to hide.

Luckily the Selby train was on time, and though I had an hour's wait on the platform, there was shelter and seats and a 3G signal so it wasn't too bad.  I had a bit of a whinge on Twitter, and Robert helpfully came back to me with the Realtime Trains website; it not only features updates on a train's position, but also tells you what platform it will be using.  In the cavernous expanse of York station, it was a considerable advantage to know where I'd arrive and where I needed to be without consulting a departure board.

The detour meant that I didn't get to visit Micklefield station, on the edge of Leeds; but on the plus side I discovered that Selby station has what looks like a beautifully preserved Victorian public toilet.  Sadly it's locked behind a barred gate but still; it was a little heritage feature I'd missed on my last trip, and I was glad to find it existed.

I actually made it to York with enough time to pause at a vending machine and buy a Twirl.  My stresses were all for nothing.  It didn't matter.  I had the luxury of a first class seat on the train home waiting for me.

Thursday 15 May 2014

A First Class Story

My suave, sophisticated exterior, my je ne sais quoi and general elegance, may have convinced you that I am a man used to the finer things in life.  And while it's certainly true that I carry myself with the air of one of the 1%, at heart, I'm a cheapskate.  No, that's not true; I'm not cheap, I'm just careful.  I didn't have much money growing up so I learnt to be cautious with my money; I saved for things I really wanted, rather than frittering my meagre funds on pointless indulgences.

First class travel comes under this category of "why bother?".  I very rarely travel first class by train because it's an awful lot more money to spend for very little payback.  The only time it's sort of worth it is travelling to and from London; usually the train is so rammed that the free wi-fi and tables at the front of the Pendolino are a welcome change.  Even then I'm more of a "£15 Weekend upgrade" person, rather than paying in advance.

However, I was on the TransPennine Express website, booking my seat for a trip to York, and I noticed that there was only a few pounds difference between standard and first class.  Why not?  I wondered.  I'd never done it before, and I was curious to see what I got for the extra cash.

Short answer: antimacassars.  Antimacassars as far as the eye could see.  It was a glorious sight.  I love antimacassars or rather, I love the word antimacassar.  It's right up there with pianoforte and portmanteau and heliotrope; elaborate Victorian words that have too many syllables and are a bugger to spell.  Each seat came with its own antimacassar, made out of some kind of woven paper, and ostentatiously labelled to remind you that you was in the top tier of travellers.

The seats also had a recliner button.  This sounds great, but in reality it shifted your spine into a colossally uncomfortable position.  It was like an osteopath's table, if the osteopath gave up on getting you horizontal and just decided to do what he could with you.

I didn't have a table.  My assigned seat was facing backwards, rammed down the end of the coach on the row of "priority" seating, so I was left with a fold down tray that could barely hold my many accoutrements.

(From left to right: my battery to charge my i-devices, my Kindle, my iPod, my journal, a pen, and a cup of tea from home).

Still, at least I didn't have anyone sitting next to me.  There were only two other people in the compartment, both in suits, one of them already barking into his iPhone.  The other one, a younger man, sucked on his Caffe Nero as though it were a life-giving elixir, eyes staring dully ahead.  Fierce air-conditioning chilled the glass walled section so well I was tempted to burst into Let It Go.

The diesel engines coughed into life and started carrying us out of Lime Street.  It didn't seem right, a first class compartment on a noisy diesel, like an MP3 player in the dashboard of a Robin Reliant.  The rumble beneath us didn't scream "high life".  Michelle, our conductor, appeared to check our tickets.  I say check; she scribbled something on them and completely failed to spot that the man with the coffee had a standard ticket and wanted to pay for an upgrade.  "I haven't done one of these in ages," she said, swinging her little ticket machine under her bosom.  I guessed that he couldn't face the cram of standard in his fragile state.  They went into hushed tones to discuss the cost, so the rest of us wouldn't be disturbed by talk of something as common as money, but it sounded a bit like fifty two quid.

Michelle looked at my ticket through her Su Pollard glasses, saw my destination and said, "York.  There's where I'm getting off too."  My social awkwardness struck; I wasn't sure how I was meant to react.  "I don't care," seemed a bit harsh, but that was how I basically felt; the alternative seemed to be suggesting we go for a drink, which I really didn't want to do.  In the end I went with half-hearted gurgle laugh, a kind of "a haha", which pleased nobody.

At Liverpool South Parkway, she did the full, "on behalf of the train crew, thank you for travelling with First TransPennine Express" speech, which seemed a bit over the top for a station on the Northern Line.  We gained a couple more passengers in First, but the real onslaught came at Warrington, when suddenly the section was half full.  Meanwhile, in Standard, it was standing room only, and I felt a pang of guilt for sitting there while faces were pressed against the glass dividers staring in.  A man tried standing in the vacant trolley space, but Michelle wouldn't have it.  "These people have paid extra to travel in this section."

"I know.  That's why I'm not sitting down.  I'm not taking a seat."

"I'm sorry, you'll have to leave.  These people have paid for First Class," she repeated, and I cringed again.  She may as well have stamped UNCLEAN on his forehead and thrown him on the tracks.  How long is it before you start feeling a sense of entitlement about your seat?  No-one else seemed bothered.

We swept past Deansgate-Castlefield Metrolink station, which seemed impossibly glamorous with its modern trams and its LCD advertising screens and the Beetham Tower looming over it all (then Whitworth Street destroys the illusion with its snooker hall and ugly nightclubs).  Platforms 13 and 14 at Piccadilly continue to be a blight on the network; overcrowded, breezy and oversubscribed.  People swarmed on and off, and my companions all left and were replaced by new faces.  They're still mostly wearing suits.

Also joining us at Piccadilly was the refreshment trolley and, with it, the Trolley Boy.  That might seem like a patronising term for a member of the train crew but I suspect that he'd embrace the phrase himself.  Whippet thin, nut brown from a tanning salon or four, and with diamond studs in each ear, he locked his cart into position then appeared at my elbow.  "Can I get you a hot drink?"

Finally!  Freebies!  I drank my tea somewhere around Widnes, so I opted for a coffee with milk.  It's delivered to my seat, giving me a good chance to admire his diamanté studded Swatch and the small diamond piercing in the flesh between his thumb and forefinger.  Then he continued to dole out the hot beverages, before returning to me with a basket full of baked goods.  "Would you like something from the basket, sir?" he says, and perhaps it was just my over-sensitive ears, but I interpreted it as meaning "just ONE, you fat bastard."  I grabbed a mini pain au raisin; the alternatives seemed to be some kind of snack bar for people who want to attend meetings with a poppy seed jammed in their front teeth and what may have once been a shortbread.

I took one bite and paused: was this a practical joke?  Was it a test to see if you really belonged in First Class?  Because I was sure I was eating packing materials.  It was cloyingly thick and packed with so many artificial flavourings, in lab conditions it may actually have achieved sentience.  Obviously I ate it (see above re: cheapskate) but I was glad I had the hard coffee to get rid of the taste.

Beyond Stalybridge, the woman across the way kicked off her heels to rest her feet on the seat in front.  I was outraged.  You expect that kind of behaviour from louts on a Merseyrail train, but not people in First Class.  So there's your answer: you acquire a sense of entitlement somewhere in East Manchester.  Note it on the map.

We passed through tunnel after tunnel, the diesel engines working their hardest to lift us up over the Pennines.  Beyond Batley we stopped completely; the driver apologised that a late running stopping train has held us up.  It's a reminder of just how crammed the network is, how precise the train movements are, how easily they can become dislodged.  One tiny fleck of dirt in the gears and the machine stops.

Soon we were speeding again, and most people got off at Leeds.  There's only half an hour left of travel for me.  My new companions were an elderly lady in a bright fuschia jacket, making her look like the oldest Pink Lady at Rydell High, an Asian businessman who immediately whips out his laptop and begins banging away furiously, and a man with two newspapers.  One was the Daily Mail and one was The Times; he read the Mail first, but all I could notice was his nostril hairs, which were silhouetted against the light from the window and seemed to be about eight feet long.  I had a strong urge to lean across and yank them out.

I took advantage of the long uninterrupted section to use the toilet.  There's a disabled toilet at the end of the train, behind the driver's cabin, which you can only access through First Class; it's not officially the Top Toilet, for our exclusive use, but it may as well be.  When I left there was a woman waiting to use it, leaving me feeling anxious about her judging what state I left it in (I only had a pee, but that's not the point).  When she returned I studiously looked down at my Kindle.

Michelle announced that we were approaching York, "where there will be a change of crew", and most of us stretched.  Beyond York, the train heads to Scarborough before turning round; no-one in the compartment seems to be the type for a day out by the sea.  Except for me in a short sleeved shirt, and possibly the Pink Lady, but she was up and rushing to the exit in a show of speed I hadn't expected.

A couple of hours after leaving Lime Street and I'm at my destination.  Is it worth the extra cash?  For me, no.  As I board the train at Liverpool - the start of the journey - I can pretty much always get a seat.  If I was getting on at Warrington or Oxford Road the extra cash to be guaranteed somewhere to sit down might be worth it but for me it was just a bonus.  The coffee and pastry really didn't sell it either.

Still, I have booked a first class trip to Grimsby in June.  Again, it's more of a security blanket to guarantee a seat when I change at Manchester.  I'll try to remain grounded, readers.  I'll try not to become a diva.