Wednesday 31 December 2014

Contractually Required End Of Year Post





I can't pretend I'm not disappointed that the total visited has slipped.  To be fair, I got some really tricky ones this year, but it's mainly me slacking off over the last couple of months.  I could have fitted another dozen in there, easily.  I've already booked a trip for the first week in January though - just a little one, but enough to get me back on "track" (hahahahahahaha).

I know that posts full of pointless statistics are always popular with my readers - it's almost as though there's a strong streak of OCD running through railway fans (imagine!) - so here are some more.

MOST POPULAR POST OF 2014: This one, in which I introduced my trip on the Settle & Carlisle.  I think that shows the power of the Settle & Carlisle Line rather than being a resounding endorsement of my writing.  That post is also much more popular than the subsequent accounts of my visits to the stations, which makes me think loads of people Googled it, read my florid introduction, and thought "I'm not reading another eight pages of that".

MUSICAL ACTS WHOSE MUSIC I SHAMELESSLY APPROPRIATED FOR BLOG POST TITLES: Abba, Ian Jones, REM, Boney M, Daniel Diges, A1, Simon & Garfunkel, The Farm, Bjork, The Specials, Garbage, Jay-Z.  I think it's fair to say my musical tastes are "eclectic".

NUMBER OF REFERENCES TO RUSSELL TOVEY: A lot less this year, actually.  It's not that I'm going off him, I'm just trying to play it cool.  Though his new blond hair is a serious mistake and I sincerely hope it's for a role.

EXCITEMENT LEVELS ABOUT SPECTRE: Somewhere around 98%.  I'm not really keen on Blofeld coming back.

BAFFLING BLOG HITS: Too many to mention, but basically imagine any of the stations on the right and put the word "dogging" or "prostitutes" after it.  I don't know what kind of list I'm on.  I would like to say, once and forever, that you will not get any advice about whores on this blog.  Sorry.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR: Northern Rail wouldn't send me a map for my wall.  Was it really too much to ask?  Just a little map.  I'd even have one of the old ones.  It's not like I'm asking for one of those amazing Northern Rail USB sticks or umbrellas or Santa hats or one of the other five million freebies they seemed to hand out this year to everyone who wasn't me.  But no: the reply from their customer service department was swift and negative.  (Second place disappointment: the lovely and frankly bonkers Tim seems to have left their Twitter team).

NUMBER OF LOVELY BLOG READERS: All of you, of course.  Except you.  You know what you did.

BEST STATION OF 2014: Kirkby Stephen.  I got to drink tea on a station platform in my socks.  Amazing.

WORST STATION OF 2014: Any number of perfunctory halts in Manchester made up of a couple of empty platforms and a bench.  BORING.

And that, I think, is that for another year.  See you in 2015!

Monday 29 December 2014


Waiting at Bedford station for my train north, a thought occurred.  I'd only been along this route once before in my life, on a trip to Keele as a green sixteen year old.  I was checking out my first choice university though, in all truth, there was no need for the trip: I'd already made my mind up where I wanted to go.  It was Keele or bust.  It just appealed.  The trip involved a train to Derby, then another to Stoke, then a bus; the only things I can really remember about the journey now was the cobbled streets outside Derby station and the railway bookshop at the side of the entrance to Stoke-on-Trent.  Even then my imagination was caught by stations and books and not much else.

The Midland Main Line is still run by diesel trains, unlike its electrified brothers to the East and West.  It's dirty and old fashioned.  It delighted the trainspotting teenager and his dad on the island platform though, the boy pumping his arm up and down in a vain attempt to get the driver to blow his horn.  Unfortunately we'd all heard him blow it as he crossed the river, and he didn't want to push his luck by honking twice in quick succession.  The boy shrugged philosophically, and folded up his camcorder and tripod to move to a different spot for a different video.

I bagged a seat by the luggage rack, luckily; my bag was laden with presents after my Christmas at my mum's.  She got me alcohol and my brother got me Blu-rays - they know me so well.  It was a chilly train, the old InterCity 125s not blessed with the same level of comfortable air heating as the Pendolinos (but not cursed with their frequent faults either).  Across the way was a tired mother and son, him watching a DVD on a tiny player, her leaning back and trying to rest despite his frequent interruptions.

Bedfordshire quietly went by.  Flat and unexciting, the land dotted with ponds made from gravel and clay pits.  A dual carriageway appeared alongside and raced us for a while.  Small towns went by, places that probably used to have a local train service until Beeching, leaving behind only the occasional mossed over platform or a sudden widening of the gap between the tracks to accommodate a long-gone building.  The change to Northamptonshire was unmarked and unnoticeable.

Wellingborough was a surprisingly tiny station.  It looked like a little country halt, with preserved lamps and a field on one side.  We discharged a load of passengers then carried on again, to Kettering next, then onto Market Harborough.  They were towns I recognised - names from a distant map - but I couldn't tell you a single fact about them.  Was Kettering Wicksteed Park?  And Market Harborough... nope, nothing.

Snow began to appear on distant fields.  We'd only had rain in Luton over Christmas so it came as something of a novelty.  The snow crept in, first on flat roofs, and far off hills, then the fields became dusted at their tips.  It got thicker and deeper.  Untouched expanses of white that I wanted to break with footsteps.

Leicester - finally somewhere I'd heard of.  Ugly though.  Big blocky buildings and a station that was in need of refurbishment.  We loitered for a while, even though we were already late, and I watched another gaggle of trainspotters at the end of the platform.  Half a dozen of them, drinking Pumpkin cups of coffee; one had a Tupperware of sandwiches.  They were laughing and jocular, and a member of the station staff kept giving them sideways looks.  I wondered if he was going to ask them to move on.  Tell them to take their tripods and their powerful cameras and leave because of, oh, I don't know, "security concerns".  That's as good a reason as any.

Pushing on, and the local stations reappeared, little halts in little towns for commuters to Leicester.  We barrelled past without stopping, not even at Loughborough.  The mother across the way started packing up the crisp packets and bottles of coke she'd accumulated since London.  A man came down the carriage with a bin bag and her son stood up excitedly on the seat.  "Us!  We've got rubbish!"

I nipped to the toilet, clicking the lock and making the "engaged" sign light up (all lower case Rail alphabet, the last bit of Seventies style to cling on in the privatised train).  Those twee, "Please do not flush nappies, sanitary towels, your ex's jumper, hopes..." stickers have migrated to the Midland Main Line.  I expect that kind of crap from Virgin, a train company that probably has EPIC BANTZ on its logo, but I thought East Midlands would be above it.  I pumped with my foot to get the water to wash my hands and went back to my seat.

I thought East Midlands Parkway was the place where HS2 would stop, but it turns out that's East Midlands Hub, about 5 miles away.  Parkway was built to try and act as a midway point for Leicester, Nottingham and Derby commuters, only for it to be astonishingly unpopular.  I can never fully get on board with a station called "Parkway" - it's a made up word that only developers like.  It didn't help that it was built alongside Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station, cowering under its cooling towers and lending the station a bleak dystopian air.  You wouldn't want to come here unless you had to.

Through Attenborough and Beeston, names that rang bells for Dickie and Cheshire reasons rather than anything to do with the stations themselves, and then the outskirts of Nottingham.  I metaphorically closed my eyes.  Nottingham's on the Northern Rail map, so I'll have to come here and visit it properly.  I didn't have time today.  I had a connection to the Liverpool train to get, and I was antsy about getting a seat.  I didn't fancy standing for three hours.

The Midland Main Line is no beauty.  It's the B-team.  The West Coast and East Coast Main Lines, and probably the Great Western as well, connect up properly important places.  They get the big hitters and the big names.  The Midland goes to Conference towns - only Sheffield, as its grand finale, scrapes into the Premiership.  It does the job, but I couldn't see Michael Palin turning up with a camera crew for a Great Railway Journey any time soon.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

319 Problems and My Trains Ain't One

I'm writing this on an iPhone. A 4S as well, not one of your modern times new the size of a dinner plate. I'm tapping at it with chunky thumbs and getting a hunch in my back.  I'm writing it just because I am so devoted to you, my beloved readers. 

Actually that's not true.  What happened was I rode up from London to my mum's house in Leagrave on a Thameslink train yesterday. Not news of course, but the fragment of interest in it this year is that these are the trains us poor souls in the north are going to be gifted with. 

If and when Network Rail get round to finishing the electrification of the Manchester-Liverpool route, these will be the workhorses that will run the services. These are class 319s and they're twenty odd years old: too old for the Capital's commuters apparently, but fine for us northern scum. I suppose the thought is "you've got Pacers right now, so be glad you're getting anything;" this is the same principle I used when I wrapped an empty crisp packet for the BF's gift tomorrow. It's better than NOTHING AT ALL. 

We've been promised a refurb before they come our way. Possibly including air conditioning but I'm not holding my breath. With any luck they'll address the on-board toilets, which have always been a crime against humanity: faeces smeared boxes that are cleaned only once a decade. Still if I squinted I could pretend I was riding THE TRAIN OF THE FUTURE. 

Apparently feet aren't allowed on the seat, but enormous penises are. 

So yeah: they're ok. They're electric trains, which is a plus, and yes, they're not bloody Pacers, or that mad scheme to turn wrecked Tube trains into something suitable for the mainline. Hard not to feel just a little bit unloved though. 

(Also, merry Christmas and all that jazz). 

Thursday 18 December 2014

The Railways vs. Spontaneity


Tea makes everything better.  Tea soothes and calms.  Tea relaxes and massages the tensions away.

I needed a cup of tea.  Another one.

I'd decided to be spontaneous.  It'd been too long since I'd gone out on the trains; a couple of plans had to be aborted, and I'd had a lot of stuff going on at home as well.  The run up to Christmas was getting hectic.  A nice day out in the hills, I thought.  A quick wander round the North.  That'll clear my cobwebs.

I picked the Darwen branch almost at random.  It connected two stations I'd already done, Bolton and Blackburn.  It mixed town with the scenic Pennines.  I figured I could collect it and still be home for four o'clock, because I had some stuff on that evening (it's been a positive social whirl around here, I tell you).

It was only after I'd bought my Lancashire Day Ranger that I realised how bad the "signalling problems at Lime Street station" actually were.  The big friendly board above Costa promised me that my train to Manchester Victoria was running and on time; it was the Newcastle service, so I figured it would get priority over the grunting Pacers running to Blackpool.  As I stood on the other side of the barrier, at platform 3, I watched tense unhappy faces twitch with each announcement.

We are sorry to...

This is a platform alteration...

This service will not call at...

The dull flat tones of the computerised voice drizzled fake sympathy into our ears.  The Wigan service, due to leave at 10, was cancelled by the autotuned woman, only for a bluff Scouser to break in a few moments later - "please disregard the previous announcement.  The 10 o'clock service to Wigan North Western will run as normal."  Words that became sarcastic as it tipped past 10, then 10 past 10, then carried on, with the diesel on platform 2 remaining dark and untouched.

I bought myself a cup of tea.

I stood at the head of the local platforms, watching for trains.  The way into Lime Street is via a long cutting, giving you a moment of excitement as the white lights of the engine burst out of the darkness.  The trains that arrived were rolling Pacers, lolloping from side to side and chugging their way up to the platform.  There was no sign of my First TransPennine train, the long blue cylinder with a first class section and a trolley service.  Just these dying workhorses of the rails.

My departure time ticked by without any sign of the train.  There were no announcements.

The Wigan train was still at platform 2.  They were just taking the piss now.

Suddenly my train crashed out of the station throat, six cars of Desiro, along with an announcement that the Newcastle service would now leave from platform 6.  There was a hustle of disgruntled passengers - none of us actually angry, just resigned - a crash of suitcases, impatient coughs to get old ladies to move to one side to let thrusting businessmen rush by.  I found a seat at the back of the train while around me people looked at the reservation tickets, wondering if they were valid.

As we sped across Chat Moss en route to Victoria, I did some calculations.  We were twenty minutes late.  I was going to miss the hourly service to Darwen, which meant a long wait in the station and a recalculation of my plans.  I didn't have time to do four stations any more.  I could only do one pair - either Hall I' Th' Wood and Bromley Cross, or Darwen and Entwistle.

In the Pumpkin cafe, with my anxiety-crushing second cup of tea, I turned to Twitter.  Which pair should I do?  The response was unanimous: Darwen and Entwistle.  It was the more scenic route, the nicer walk, the more interesting stations.  There was a lovely country pub at Entwistle.

I made my decision.  I would get off at Bromley Cross.

Hey, this isn't a democracy, people.  If you want to influence where I go on my trips you can start paying for the tickets.

Besides, as we pulled out of Victoria, our train began to be battered with sleet.  The weather forecast had been changeable - meaning, they couldn't make their damn minds up what was going to happen.  When I'd left the house there'd been a prediction of snow; it was downgraded to sleet, then rain, then the snow came back on the horizon.  I decided that perhaps Entwistle - a request stop which features a couple of reservoirs, a pub that may not even have been open, and that's it - might not be the best place to be stuck in the snow, particularly after a five mile walk from Darwen.

Bromley Cross didn't seem like a bad station, anyway.  It had a ticket office and a signal box.  There was a working station clock and a barrow crossing to get you between platforms.  It was okay.

No station sign though.  GMPTE had done one of their cheap jobs, erecting a generic BR/PTE sign that didn't name the station on it.  I walked all the way round in search of a proper sign but there was no luck, so I ended up squatting on the platform like a weirdo.

The sleet continued to whirl about me as I wandered into town.  I was right on the fringes of Greater Manchester, with stone terraces mixed with new build cul de sacs and the occasional block of flats.  Innocuous streets ended with a staggering view of the Pennines, like a Government-sponsored mural painted on a brick wall to cheer up a low area.

The weather finally gave up then.  It'd been fighting the too-warm December, trying to bring a little bit of wintry atmosphere to my walk, but it wasn't going to happen.  It folded and let the day become mild.  The sun breached the clouds in laser-shards, low above the horizon and making me squint.

After a brief snigger at a sign for Ramsbottom - I am thirty seven years old - I turned onto a busy main road.  It was lunchtime at the local Catholic school, and teenagers were chomping chips and burgers.  Jamie Oliver would have had a fit.  They clustered in twos and threes with their heads low.  A white van cut into a side street, then paused; it rose from the main road at a ridiculous angle, and he had to rev his engine hard to get the power to go up it.

I turned right at the Bolton Castle pub and saw the railway bridge in the distance.  Is that it? I thought.  I'd seen hardly anything of interest, just the edge of town.  It had taken me about twenty minutes.  And here was my second and last station of the day.

On the plus side, what a brilliantly named one.  Hall I' Th' Wood.  Apostrophes necessary.  Is this the only example of a dialect pronunciation making its way into a station?  I can't think of any off the top of my head, but then again, I have a terrible memory.  The area is named after a 16th century mansion, unsurprisingly in a nearby copse, and referred to by that nickname.  It's great.  It deserves a better sign though.

It's a relatively recent station, too, opening in 1986 and consisting of two platforms splayed either side of the main road.  There's a little wooden shelter and a bench but that's it.  I stood by the track, rocking backwards and forwards on my heels, waiting for my train.

What a let down.  All that way for just two stations.  Not even difficult to get to ones - these weren't Redcar British Steel, just regular commuter towns.  Perhaps I should have listened to my Twitterati?  (No, let's not be hasty).  I resolved to be more organised in 2015.  I resolved to plan better and not be so casual about my station collecting.  And I resolved that, when I got back to Manchester Victoria, I would have a cup of tea.