Monday 28 December 2015

The Numbers Game

I'm writing this on board a Pendolino as I head to my mum's for the Yuletide Visit (2015 Edition).  I'm not fleeing the north now it's under eight feet of water, honest, not least because I live on top of a hill on top of a peninsula; if my house ever gets flooded the whole world should be worried.

Actually, the floods have been especially troubling to me because they're happening in places that I know.  One of the reasons I started this blog was so that places became more than just names on a map for me, and it's worked.  As the captions came up on Sky News and the BBC I remembered being there - horrified at the badly written cafe sign in Appleby, eating my sandwich in a park as a group of schoolchildren filed past in Kendal, Sowerby Bridge's Goth shop.  I was brought up as a filthy Southerner, but I'm turning into a plastic Northerner now.

Anyway, the point of this post is: numbers.  It's a stat attack!  Upsettingly, these usually prove to be the most popular of all the blog posts I do.  It seems you're not here for my lovingly formed prose and pithy insights but are just all about the maths.  I can't pretend this doesn't upset me.


It should be 534, because Apperley Bridge opened a couple of weeks ago, but Northern haven't updated the map.  They've lost the franchise - sod it.


For the second year in a row, the number of stations visited has dropped.  I've also done less blog posts in general this year.  It's almost like I'm winding down or something.


That's the number you came here for, isn't it?  Fifteen left.  Fifteen.  And then my life ceases to have any meaning.

Although I should point out that number doesn't include Apperley Bridge, which has opened now, so technically it's 16 to go.  And there's Kirkstall Forge, which is due to open sometime before May, so it's 17.  And Low Moor near Bradford is also under construction.  So 15, plus a few extras.  But they're not on the map so I could get away with ignoring them.  (I won't, of course).

MOST POPULAR BLOG POST OF 2015: the one about my visit to Teeside Airport, because it got picked up on Railforums and so I got a load of train experts rushing over here thinking I knew what I was talking about.  They were disappointed, and none of my other blog posts appeared there.  Or maybe they were just bitter because I got Northern to stop a train for me and they can only dream of such power.

LEAST POPULAR BLOG POST OF 2015: this picture of Northern Rail MD Alex Hynes on a big chair.  You people have no taste.

ODDEST BLOG HIT OF 2015: "diana rigg seascale".  No idea what that's about, though I would like to know the story behind that particular Google search.  Did Dame Diana once visit Sellafield?  Is this a lost episode of The Avengers?  Oh, and there were the usual perverts looking for "dogging in Wigan" or "Penelope Keith's tits".  (Actually, by putting those phrases in this blog, I'm going to get even more weirdos aren't I?  THE CYCLE CONTINUES).

NUMBER OF RUSSELL TOVEY MENTIONS: hardly any, really.  He's gone all buff and A-Gay and, since the Americans saw him in Looking, he's started fancying himself.  Plus he keeps posting pictures of his bloody dog in a hat on Twitter.  I've gone right off him.  I'm casting around for a replacement gentleman to stalk, so if you have any suggestions, feel free to put them in the comments.

QUANTITY OF NORTHERN RAIL TAT RECEIVED: a big fat zero.  They're always handing out stuff at Manchester Victoria - there were Northern-themed Christmas hats in December! - but never when I'm around, and they haven't sent me a goody box full of USB sticks and mouse mats either.  Merseyrail sent me some flip flops and invited me to their Christmas party.  Just saying.

BEST COMMENT OF 2015: this lunatic.

Keep that freak flag flying, dude.

FAVOURITE CITY VISITED IN 2015: Newcastle.  I loved it there, absolutely adored it.  I can't understand why I haven't gone back yet.  I've also remembered that I took a load of pictures on the Metro, and visited some of the stations, and never wrote about it.  Maybe I'll do that in a slow month.

FAVOURITE STATION OF 2015: the one that immediately leapt to mind was Middlewood.  It's nothing, just a couple of platforms, but it's buried in a forest and is only accessible on foot.  That's pretty damn charming.

LEAST FAVOURITE STATION OF 2015: Derby.  It shouldn't be on the damn map.  Also, it's ugly.

That'll do I think.  There might be another blog post before the end of the year, but if not... see you in 2016!

Monday 14 December 2015

It's The End... But The Moment Has Been Prepared For

Last night I was out for a meal, and halfway through chomping on a juicy steak, Robert said to me, "You know when you should finish your blog?  When the Northern franchise ends."

I immediately punched him in the jaw for having the temerity to tell me how to write my own blog, but to be honest, I'd had similar thoughts myself.  In case you're not up on the world of railway franchising, the company that currently runs trains across the North of England - a conglomerate formed from Serco and Abellio - were beaten in their bid to carry on running the trains by a different company, Arriva (part of Deutsche Bahn).  What this means is a lot of new uniforms and posters and, possibly, improved services and routes.  (The latter part is not as important as new signs).

When the news came through I was weirdly upset.  I didn't start travelling over the Northern map because of some loyalty to the company, or because I thought they were especially good at what they did.  They were just the people who ran the trains I wanted to use.

As time has gone on, however, I've grown accustomed to their face.  It's like that quiet, nice bloke in the corner of the office, the one you're not actually friends with, but who you chat to easily and who doesn't actively make your life hell.  When he announces he's leaving, you get a little wrench, a little sadness, and a little worry about who's going to take over his role.

Thoughts of the Northern franchise ending naturally lead to thoughts of this blog ending.  I'm still in double figures for stations to collect, but the numbers are dwindling fast.  There have been a couple of Network Rail shaped blockages - the Farnworth Tunnel works have meant that I couldn't collect a station in Manchester, and Apperley Bridge station opened for business yesterday, adding another stop to my spreadsheet.  On top of that, Kirkstall Forge and Low Moor stations both have promised opening dates of "the spring", which could be anything between March and May - and the Northern franchise ends March 31st.

So it's possible that this blog and the franchise will end at the same time.  It's certainly a date to aim for.  I definitely know what the last station will be, and have done for a while.  Finishing before the turquoise of Arriva come sweeping in would put a neat bow on the whole experience.  But, to quote a different Doctor at the end of his life...

Saturday 12 December 2015

Suburban Sprawl

The platform at Chassen Road was busy, excitable, full of people heading into Manchester for the Christmas markets and shopping.  They all got on the train, leaving me alone, fiddling with my camera.  When I finally looked up though, a grin split open my face.

There was some kind of track in the park next door to the station.  I had no idea what it was - it looked like a monorail, weirdly - so I wandered round to have a look.  It's a miniature railway run by the "Urmston & District Model Engineering Society", a wonderfully sensible name for what is, let's face it, a load of grown men playing at trains.  I stood on the bridge over the track and wished there was a train running.

It was small, but interesting, a bit like Chassen Road's station building.  Yes, it had the kind of odd opening hours that can only be properly divined by using a ouija board, but the simple square with the occasional flourish of brickwork was charming.  One of those buildings where they didn't really have to try, but an architect had put a little extra effort into it, and bless him for it.

The station sign, however, is rubbish.

From there it was a walk along gently curving avenues to my next station, Flixton.  There were tall, bare trees, and semis with one car parked in the drive and a second on the verge, and a Balmoral Road; you can pretty much guess the social class of a district if there's a street named after a royal residence.  I was in Margo Leadbetter territory again.

This little corner of Trafford had been fields and hamlets until the railway came and turned it into prime commuterland.  Developers had built rows of neat homes with gardens, plus a row of shops and a huge pub, the Roebuck.  When this district came into being, somewhere between the wars, I expect the shops were useful amenities - a grocer, a fishmonger, a butcher.  Now it was a Chinese medicine centre and a craft shop that offered lessons in "decopatch" (no idea).  The Peter Pan kebab shop featured a copyright baiting image from the Disney film; whoever had painted it couldn't do mouths, however, and the jaw looked like it had been pummeled by an East End gangster.

Further along, I encountered another indicator of 1920s middle class wealth, the golf course.  Two of them, in fact, one on each side of the road.  My dislike for golf and, more particularly, people who enjoy golf, is a theme I return to over and over on this blog, so it should come as no surprise that the flooded fairways made me smile.  I'm not a nice person.

Parked in a layby just outside Flixton village was a tiny burger van, its sandwich board promising cooked breakfasts.  I imagined the builders and kitchen fitters and roofers working on the suburban homes calling here first for a bacon sarnie and a tea.  I was almost tempted myself, but one of the cooks emerged from behind the hut wiping his hands down his apron, and I immediately assumed he'd nipped round the back for a pee and hadn't washed his hands.  Once you get that idea in your head you don't fancy sampling his sausage bap.

Flixton was doing its very best to pretend it was a rural enclave.  There was a charming church, and a pub, and cottages with coats and wellingtons in the porch.  It was very pretty, but Greater Manchester was all around it, inescapable; the Village Inn was now a Thai restaurant, and Corporation houses had been built beside the green.

I was early for my train, so I crossed over the railway bridge for a wander about.  More suburban development greeted me; a row of shops with Art Deco stylings, then the wonderful curve of Reade House on the corner.

I loved the shape of it, those wide aluminium windows, the chipped away paint on the "glamorous" font over the entrance.  That front door isn't in keeping, but the rest of it - wonderful.  One of the flats is for sale - £125,000; can one of you buy it so I can come round and have a good nose at the interior?

I took enough pictures to mark myself out as a weirdo to passers by then headed back to the station.  Transport for Greater Manchester had stolen a corner of the park next door to build a park and ride facility; it included a space for charging electric cars, and I am willing to bet a considerable amount of money that it has never been used.

Yes, I am wearing a Christmas jumper, because I am, at heart, quite tacky.

The original station building was converted into a pub, only to be burnt to the ground in the nineties; its replacement isn't bad, just generic.  At least the ticket office was open.  But there was nowhere to sit down, no waiting room, and it was a problem exacerbated when I got down to the platform.  There was the most minimal shelter I've ever seen - literally just a roof on columns.  No seats underneath it, not even one of those bars to lean on.

The slightly damp bench, meanwhile, had been given over to an art exhibit, which I am calling Ennui on a Winter's Day.

My next station, Humphrey Park, was added to the network in the 1980s, and it still feels like an experiment they've forgotten to end.  The wooden platform, the lack of facilities, the way it's hemmed in on all sides by back gardens - it has a temporary air to it, as if the Council's going to turn up one day and take it all away.

I got off the train with a man who was doing his very best to make pushing a baby around look masculine.  He shoved the pushchair with one hand, barely touching it, trying to look very casual about the fact that he had a child with him.  At the roadside, he stopped to make a phone call, and he stepped away from the baby by about a foot, so the person on the other end of the line wouldn't catch on that he was being paternal.  It made me wonder how the child was even conceived; he was so afraid of femininity, I'm surprised he allowed himself to touch a woman in case he caught ovaries off her.

From Humphrey Park, there's two ways to get to Urmston -

- and I chose the most direct one.  The area around the station was a huge council estate, and I walked past stout homes.  They're always saying on Homes Under The Hammer how local authority homes are a good investment because they're so well-built, and I could see it in these houses.  They were generously sized, peppered with intriguing details and set back from straight roads with parks and playgrounds.  It was a district built by people who wanted the best for the residents.

Pleasingly, even with the privatisation of the stock, the local housing authority still seemed to be trying to build well.  A new row of shops looked friendly and open and had attractive flats above, while a curve of townhouses squeezed some good sized homes onto an awkward site.

The M60 roared ahead of me, carrying shoppers to the nearby Trafford Centre.  I still haven't been there; I only ever remember it exists when the adverts appear at Christmas, and there is absolutely no way I am going to a giant out of town shopping centre in the run up to Christmas.  Perhaps I'll go when they build the tram extension.

If I have a complaint, it's that it was all a bit samey.  After a while I started to wish for a change in style, or a curve in the road, or anything different.  It was just the same buildings, over and over.

It was only as I reached Urmston proper that the homes changed, back to the suburban, Metro-land style.  Big ugly detached homes running along the roadside, a lot of them with big ugly extensions to make them even bigger and uglier.  On the main road into town, they got older, proper Victorian villas built for bewhiskered management and now converted into nursing homes and flats.

It meant that the giant white and grey hulk of a Sainsburys came as a bit of a shock, an iceberg of a supermarket crashing into the town centre.

It was another example of the council being so desperate for someone, anyone, to invest in their town, that they basically let the supermarket do whatever it wanted to them.  Wedged into one corner of that behemoth was the local Conservative club, no doubt relocated after their old building was obliterated by a loading bay, while Urmston library was in the other corner.  It wasn't on the ground level - that's valuable selling space - but was instead accessed by a couple of escalators, putting it out of the way, where no-one could see it.  The branding for the cash machines on the supermarket was more prominent.

Please note that books are only the third symbol on that library sign.

Behind Sainsburys was Eden Square, a precinct built in a similar style, but without any heart.  The buildings were shiny, all glass and smooth fronts, but they housed charity shops and pound stores, plus a Costa, of course.  Why do councils keep letting this happen?  Why do they let supermarkets fuck their town centres over and over?  Sainsburys and Tesco and Asda have long ceased to be places that sell just food, and if you let them build a superstore right in your shopping district, then people will go there for everything.  They'll buy their books and their deodorant and their clothes along with their groceries, and the money the council got for a refurbished district will all be wasted because they'll have nothing but empty stores.

Of course it's hard to say no when your budget has been cut, cut, cut.  But I've been all over the north and time and again I've seen towns with no heart or life, just a colossal superstore eating away at the fringes, and I've just about had enough.

I stomped away from the town centre and over to the station.  On the Manchester platform, there's a modern station building, a bit rough round the edges - there were reeds growing out of the gutters, actual reeds! - but serviceable.

I was headed for the other platform, where the old nineteenth century station building still sits.  It's been converted into a pub, the Steamhouse, and I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to combine a station visit with booze.

I was the only customer, and the staff all seemed a bit distracted; I spotted tables laid out for a party at the far end of the bar, and I guessed that there was a Christmas party on its way in at any moment.  I had some disappointing nachos - who knew that such a thing existed? - and my pint, then headed out to the platform.  The seating area there had been decorated with "funny" signs - Happy Birthday (one person in 365 finds this sign SPOOKY!) and  Jokes about German sausage are the WURST - and I regretted not seeing them before I went in, because I wouldn't have given them my patronage on principle.

This just in: apparently there's three ways to get to Urmston.  Just you wait.

Friday 4 December 2015


I need to start with an apology.  I did you a disservice, Derby.  I just wasn't in the mood.

Derby is the most far-flung outpost of the Northern map.  There are other stations that are quieter, more isolated, more northerly, but Derby is tucked away at the bottom on a limited services only branch.  This is pure East Midlands Trains territory, and whatever beef I had about visiting Nottingham, take that and treble it for Derby.

In fact, a quick glance at the new Northern timetable reveals that their only Derby services are a Nottingham-Leeds one that calls at Derby at 2108 on a weeknight and a Leeds-Nottingham one that's "set-down only" at Derby at 0545 on a weekday morning.  It shouldn't be there.

Add to that a two-and-a-half hour journey to get there (via a change at Sheffield), terrible weather, and a scalded hand from a takeaway cup of tea with an inadequately affixed lid, and I was not in a good state of mind when I arrived at Derby Midland.

My initial impressions were bad, too.  I left the station and encountered a row of tawdry shops - a taxi firm, a kebab shop, a "spa" that offered "assisted showers" - I don't think that meant it had a hand rail for the disabled.  There was something a little different to the side, something that sparked a memory for me though: a row of railway cottages.

I realised I had been here before.  Been here right at the very start of my railway life, in fact.  When I was sixteen or seventeen, I'd gone to Keele University for an open day.  I'd gone on my own, and it was the first time I'd taken an InterCity train.  The first time I'd gone anywhere other than London on my own.  The first time I'd gone north of Bedford.

I had an InterCity from Luton to Derby, then a different train to Stoke-on-Trent, and now that I was here I remembered leaving the station for a look round.  Anxiety about missing my next train, plus a realisation that the actual town centre was half a mile away, meant that I soon turned round and headed inside again, but I remembered those cottages.  They stuck in my head.  Admittedly, in my memory, there were cobbles outside, but that may have been my subconscious Southern bias.

A little jollier thanks to that flash of memory I headed for the town centre past a colossally ugly Royal Mail depot and curry houses that catered for the drunk and the stag.  Heavy rain hammered at me; the nation was still in the process of getting rogered by Storm Clodagh.  Wet pavements provided the perfect conditions to send me sprawling.

The Derby Royal Hospital shipped out of the town centre a few years ago, but after years on the market its former site on London Road was finally being redeveloped.  I was sad to see what looked like an interesting modernist building was in the process of being torn apart.

I was even sadder once I hit the town centre and realised it had pledged itself to THE MALL.  intu Derby - the lack of a capital letter is very much their fault - seemed to fill every gap in the streetscape, so that even when you were walking down what seemed like a perfectly reasonable road, an entrance to THE MALL popped up.  It seemed to want to suck you in.

I resisted, even though a covered shopping centre would have stopped me drowning for a moment, and instead pushed on into the town itself.  I expect a legion of Derby residents will be furious with me for suggesting this, but it was very much like a smaller, less grand Nottingham.  Pedestrianised streets and the occasional bit of Victorian grandeur.

I ducked down a side alley, and found myself in the Market Hall.  Its impressive arched roof caught my attention, but I noticed it wasn't anywhere near as busy as the rest of the town.  That MALL again, I suppose.

I realised I wasn't enjoying myself at all.  The rain, the half-heartedness of the town centre, the knowledge of that three hour journey home - it was all sitting on top of me.

The sad hulk of the burnt out Assembly Rooms - due for demolition - detracted from an otherwise fine bit of civic pomp.  They'd put an ice rink out front, but it was deserted.  I headed down to the river, hoping for a bracing view, but it was relentlessly grey, and much of the banks were in the middle of being redeveloped.  The waterline looked disturbingly high, too.

Nope, I thought: nope.  I'd had enough.  I was going to head back to the station.

That's just creepy, sorry.

I walked past another failed bit of regeneration - a Hampton by Hilton being converted to a Premier Inn - with a sadness.  I don't like finding places lacking; joy is infinitely preferable to disappointment.  I just couldn't get in the groove with Derby.  It meant that I never got to see Lara Croft Way, the bit of the ring road named after the busty heroine (she was created in the city), but it was just a stretch of dual carriageway.  I don't think there was an actual statue (give it a couple of years and a misguided Kickstarter campaign, like the Detroit Robocop).  Instead I got caught up in the bus station access roads, darting across one way streets to find a bit of pavement; though at least that took me to a bit of the city called The Cock Pitt and I got a cheap laugh.

Despite being a railway town through and through - it's the only place that still builds trains - its station is a disappointment.  The original building was demolished in the eighties and replaced with the one you can see above.  The crest of the old railway company was retained and stuck on the outside wall, a bit like marrying a younger woman then grafting your first wife's face onto hers.

I was going to buy a baguette and a cup of tea from the Upper Crust in the cramped little ticket hall, but the two ladies ahead of me seemed to be baffled by the entire concept of french bread with a bit of ham in it and were taking an age to decide.  Instead I headed back to the platform to wait for a pootling diesel train to Crewe.  My last station in Derbyshire, done.

So yes; I'm sorry Derby.  You just didn't grab me.  Maybe I'll come back another time and try again.  Apparently my preferred interval for visits is 21 year.  See you in 2036!

Wednesday 25 November 2015

People Watching

You know people?  People in general?  Annoying, aren't they?  Their foibles, their prejudices, their way of stinking and moaning and complaining and just ruining things for everyone?  People are just so annoying.

I was reminded of this when I was in Maghull yesterday to see an exhibition about a proposed railway station.

Here's the situation: on the fringes of Maghull, right at the limits of Merseyside, is Ashworth Hospital, the high security institution.  It used to spread over two sites, but a few years ago the southern site was closed and demolished.  First it was earmarked for a prison, but then the government changed its mind and decided to build hundreds of new homes there.  Merseytravel nipped in quick, pointed out that it was right next to the Ormskirk branch of the Northern Line, and suggested a new train station might be a good idea.  Sorted!

The exhibition at Maghull town hall was to show the plans to the locals and allow them to express their feelings about them.  And goodness, they were keen to express them.  I stepped into a small room full of pictures and maps and some incredibly furious people.  They were haranguing the three or four members of the Merseytravel staff.  I heard complaints about the car park layout and the lack of acoustic fencing and the sheer inconvenience to them this new station will cause.

And here's the thing: I don't understand a single one of their objections.

I'd been out at the site of Maghull North that morning, in the middle of a relentless, unpleasant rain storm.  It was miserable and wet, with cars whizzing by and splashing the pavement from puddles in the gutter.  I found the roundabout that will lead into the new housing estate, and the fenced off entry to the development site.

A bit further down the road was the bridge over the tracks.  According to the Merseytravel website, by 2017, this site will look like this:

In 2015, it looks like this:

And this is why I didn't get the objections.  Remember, on the right hand side of the tracks, there is a secure hospital for the criminally insane and a prison and a motorway junction.  This is not bucolic, fragrant, England's green and pleasant land.  When Ian Brady is one of your neighbours, it's pretty hard to lower the tone.

A new railway station will improve life for everyone.  A fast, frequent service to Liverpool and Ormskirk.  A manned station building to discourage anti-social behaviour.  A park and ride facility, close to the M58.  Full access for the less able.  Relief for Maghull and Ormskirk stations, both of which are in the top ten busiest stations on Merseyrail.

I'm biased, I know.  I just can't see the downside.  There are studies that show living within walking distance of a railway station can add 10% to the value of your home.  It'll help alleviate the pressure on the local roads from those hundreds of new houses.  I mean, the railway line's already there: there are already electric trains whizzing by eight times an hour, nineteen hours a day.

I heard a woman at the public exhibition describe the plans as a "disgrace".  Perhaps she was an architecture critic; the station building is a bit perfunctory.  More likely she was just "people".  People are annoying.

You can comment on the plans for Maghull North here.  Please say something nice.