Sunday 30 July 2017


I do love a gadget.  I love anything that's computerised and miniaturised and has flashing lights and possibly an LED screen on it.  My house is full of useless gizmos and expensive baubles that no longer work because they had a special charging cable or need Windows ME.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when I worked out that I could go entirely paper free for my trip from Liverpool to Eccles.  A few taps on the Northern app, and I had an electronic ticket sitting there and waiting to go.

It's all very exciting.  I was slightly anxious as I approached the ticket gates at Lime Street, wondering if they'd easily accommodate the e-ticket, but a flick to the barcode and a press against the viewers and I was through.  If anything it was quicker than the paper version.

A while later I got off the train at Eccles, home of the cake and namesake of Ken Barlow's dog.  An Eastern European woman got off the train with me, and immediately asked me where the Metrolink was.  (She said it like that, incidentally; not tram, but Metrolink, her accent catching on the tro).  I told her to turn left out of the station and keep walking.  As always, the minute she walked away, I doubted myself, and hoped I hadn't just sent her wandering into a dodgy estate.

Has Eccles gone upmarket recently?  The last time I was here, in 2014, I'd found it a grimy and unfriendly little place.  Now it seemed far more vibrant and exciting.  Right outside the station was a coffee shop with the curious name of  The Malaga Drift Coffee Company, and then beyond was a series of interesting, intriguing little shops.  They seemed cared for and well-loved.  Across the way was a small real ale place with a map of the Northern rail network on its back wall; sadly it was too early for a pint.

Outside the church - which again, seemed much more open and well-scrubbed than on my last visit - I spotted Eccles' tribute to the late Princess Diana.  How appropriate that I found this memorial as we approach the 20th anniversary of her passing, and I'm sure she was deeply touched to see that the youth of the town thought the best way to memorialise her was with a rock.

I wonder who's still leaving flowers for Lady Di?  I bet they read the Daily Express.

It turned out I had sent the lady at the station in the right direction and, at the bottom of the pedestrianised section, I found Eccles tram stop.

Eccles was the very first Metrolink extension.  Between here and Manchester city centre are Salford Quays, the large area of disused docklands that were prime redevelopment material in the Eighties and Nineties.  Trams sprinkled a bit of transportation glamour over the development, with a nice terminus in an area that needed better links with the city as a bonus, and so the new line was opened as far as Broadway in 1999, and then on to Eccles a year later.  The Wikipedia page says that Tony Blair, when cutting the ribbon, said that Metrolink was "exactly the kind of transport scheme needed to solve the transport problems of the metropolitan areas of the country"; he then refused to actually build any, so that's politicians for you.

It's officially Eccles Interchange, because there's a bus station right next door, but that's not what the signs say.

Once again I was living in the future; a few taps on my phone using the MyGetMeThere app (...don't get me started) and I'd bought a day pass for the trams.  This was the first time I'd ever traveled on multiple forms of transport and been entirely paperless throughout.  It was incredibly easy, and something I'd happily do a lot more.  (Meanwhile Merseytravel are looking at maybe, possibly, letting you put money on a Walrus card online.  By the time they get that system up and working, we'll all be traveling on the HyperLoop using tickets on microchips implanted into our forearms).

The tram took off and passed down and under the busy Ladywell roundabout in a brief but thrilling bit of tunnel.  On the other side was Ladywell stop, and I got off barely a minute after getting on board.  You don't get much of a chance to sit down when you're tram stop collecting.

Ladywell has a Park and Ride attached to it and it's signposted with a remnant of the old turquoise Metrolink corporate identity.  It's only when you see it in situ, next to the yellow and grey, that you realise how dated the old logo was.

I crossed the busy road and walked towards the next stop.  It was a chain of industrial units to my right, tool hire, decorator's yards, trade counters.  On my left, housing association flats, their bin stores tight with padlocks.  They were just about separated from the carriageway by a strip of grass verge, but I hope they have thick double glazing.  In the distance, the blade of the Beetham Tower seemed to beckon you into the city.

The road passed over the freight line to the quays and past the council depot.  At a pedestrian crossing, as I waited to go, a tram went swishing past, through the lights on its own special signal.  I reached Weaste stop as it left, but it didn't matter; there would be another in a few minutes.  The reliability of good transportation.

There was a familiar block of flats behind the tram stop.  Last time I'd come to Eccles, I'd spent a pleasant afternoon meeting friend of the blog Phil for the first and, as it turned out, last time.  I'm rubbish at being a friend.  I don't have the confidence to just say, "hey, fancy a pint?"  Even as a kid, I never knocked on other people's doors to say "coming out?" - I waited for people to knock on mine.  I get anxious about it.  What if they say no?   What if they don't want to?  What if they thought I was awful?  There's also the difficult second album syndrome - I'll have used up all my tried and tested anecdotes in my first encounter, if it went well, so a second encounter means I have to come up with new stuff.  It's awkward.  I'm awkward.  I couldn't even nip in and say hello to Phil there and then; he's moved about three times since.  It's nothing personal.  I'm just a terrible human being.

The tram stop quietly filled up.  A man and his daughter, hunched on the bench, awkwardly chatting.  A couple who hid behind the hedges so they could kiss some more.  A student with earphones rammed in tight wearing a mix of riotous colours.  The tram came in and took us off again.

What to say about Langworthy tram stop?  It was there.  Two platforms and next tram indicators and a bit of seating.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  I originally started station collecting because I like station buildings, so the tram stops of Metrolink are a big whole of nothing for me.

I crossed the tracks - always tinged with excitement and guilt - and headed down Langworthy Road, a long straight heading to the Quays.  Thick wodges of tree screened off the carriageway from the business units behind.  There were no other pedestrians, just me and a stream of cars and lorries.  The only point of interest was FutureSkills at MediaCityUK - the random capitalisation is not my fault - which proclaimed itself in large letters by the side of the road.  I couldn't actually work out what it was, though, and I had to Google to discover it was a college.  Call me old-fashioned, but I feel like the word "College" should've been in there somewhere.

Up until now, the trams had shared the carriageway with the cars, but at Broadway they went off into their own trackway.

On the opposite platform was a young lad - presumably a student from the college - who seemed incredibly excitable.  He was shadowboxing, then shadow-kicking, then he ran back and forth, up and down the slope of the platform.  I'd like to think he was just filled with the joys of a summer morning, but I have a feeling it was more chemical based.

I'd hoped to end today's tram journeys at MediaCityUK's stop, accessed via a triangular junction beyond Broadway, but that's only in use in peak time.  Instead, my tram turned left, depositing me at Harbour City.  Above me another vast apartment block was taking shape.

Of course, since I was in the area, I had to wander down to the Quays.  One of the Universities was having its graduation ceremony at the Lowry and the plaza was filled with proud parents and embarrassed students trying to slope off for a pint.  I was on the look out for someone famous, in the same way I am whenever I pass Broadcasting House; surely there had to be at least one 5 Live presenter nipping out for a coffee?  Not a one.  It was very disappointing.

I wandered around the plaza for a little bit, but there's not actually much there.  The Blue Peter Garden was already full of people taking pictures, so that leaves you with the back of the Coronation Street set and the Tardis inside one of the studio buildings.  It's an office complex with the tiniest sheen of showbiz glamour.

And there's surprisingly little to it.  Go back one street, past the gleaming Booths, and MediaCityUK falls away remarkably quickly.  Back there it's still 1980s office blocks and industrial units, entirely unaffected by the presence of the BBC Breakfast sofa.  The minute you can't see the water in the docks, the land values drop precipitously.  It doesn't feel like real regeneration; it's superficial.  It's been shipped in.

I was back at Broadway stop, about to get the return Eccles tram, when I realised I hadn't got the sign pic at Harbour City.  I'd been so excited at the slim chance of seeing Business Steph I'd entirely forgotten why I was there.  Such a media tart.

I rushed back round the corner to the slightly clunky and dated environs of Harbour City for a picture and a tram.  The buildings here are in that exact sweet spot where they look both new and old-fashioned, before their style comes back.  Next to the gleaming steel and grey towers they seem provincial.  Salford Quays is a strange mix of buildings and styles and purpose; I looked forward to coming back and exploring properly.

Sunday 16 July 2017

Map! - The Tram Edition

It occurred to me that, in my rush to shout about doing the Metrolink map, I actually forgot to post a picture of the map.  So here's a picture of the Metrolink map.

I'm afraid it is not good.  It's simultaneously too simplified to work, and too complicated to understand.

The essential problem Metrolink's designers have to grapple with is that there is a central part of the map which is shared by multiple lines.  The normal way to show this would be to colour each route differently, then parallel the lines - as happens on the top of the Circle Line, for example:

The three lines - Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City - share the tracks beyond Baker Street, and so they share a space on the map.  It's chunky, but it's easy to understand.  This can get excessive, as happens in Frankfurt:

...but at least you can understand what's going on.  Follow the colours.

For some reason Metrolink have eschewed this approach.  I don't know if it's a desire to keep the map tidy, or if it's a commitment to the corporate colours, but every route on the map is shown in one shade: grey.  The positive of this is that the central City Zone doesn't need to have thick bands of colour running through it; a single silver line is adequate.  The downside is everything else.

The way the designers have showed the different routes is to stick coloured arrows at each end of the line, with a key in the corner.  Altrincham to Etihad Campus, for example, is the orange B:

It's not friendly.  It's a designer who has worked out a way of doing something when there's a perfectly sensible way of showing different routes.  It's a solution to a problem that didn't exist.

And go back to that City Zone map, above.  There's a triangle of routes passing round the city centre but to see where you're going - whether you're heading for Shudehill or St Peter's Square - you have to squint at some tiny boxes.  Those D and C arrows at Piccadilly both seem to be pointing in the same direction, but C goes to Victoria and D doesn't, and A skips Piccadilly altogether - or does it?  Does it reverse and go back out?

Imagine landing at Manchester Airport, and trying to work out how to get to, say, Crumpsall.  Your blue F stops at Deansgate-Castlefield, so you need to change to a different tram.  You find Crumpsall, go to the end of that branch, see it has an A and a C; track back down the route to find if those two go through Deansgate-Castlefield, squint to follow the little boxes on the routes in the City Zone (where there are grey route lines on a grey background), find the A swings back up, follow that line to Altrincham just to check it passes through where you'll be.  Swear repeatedly.  And then, by the way, the tram comes into the stop and it doesn't have an A or an F or a C on the front; it just has the name of the terminating station.  So those little coloured arrows don't really have much point beyond the map.

It's too complex for such a simple network.  Trams start on the edge, pass through a central space, and go back out again.  It doesn't need to be this difficult.  It didn't used to be this difficult.  The whole map was in colour until only a couple of years ago:

Infinitely better.  Not only is it easier to read, the colours make the map seem more exciting.  The old map was closer to art than the tedious route diagram we now have.  It copes with seven colours with ease, and could easily take a few more; the current map has eight different routes, but the second city crossing means East Didsbury trams bypass to the north and don't need to cross the others.  It's fun.  It's simple.  It's great.

I have complained about this on Twitter, because I am a white middle aged man and so complaining about stuff on Twitter is my main hobby, and TfGM replied to say that a revision to the map was underway.  They were a bit cagey about how much of a revision it would be though.  I don't mind the basics of the map - the lines are in the right place, the font is lovely, the Park and Ride and railways circles are cleverly deployed - it's just that it's not very good as a wayfinding tool.  Which means it's rather missing the point.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

The Getaway

As mentioned in my last blog post, I've actually been away.  I had a week in Croatia, sunning myself in a villa near the town of Motovun.  It was mainly a relaxation holiday, one of those ones where you sit by the pool with your iPod playing and reading a book and turning brown.  As such there wasn't much opportunity for railway-based antics.

I was in the wrong bit of Croatia anyway.  As a country, it mainly splays across the Balkans, with a long strip down the Adriatic coast.  Right on the edge, jutting out into the sea, is the Istrian Peninsula, and that's where I was staying.

Istria does have its own railway, running up through the centre from Pula towards Ljubljana in Slovenia, but it doesn't connect with the rest of Croatia's network.  This is a relic of the old Yugoslavia, when it was all one country and it didn't matter that you couldn't get a train from Pazin to Zagreb without going via Slovenia.  There are plans to connect Istria to the rest of the country, but it involves a lot of expensive tunneling, so for the time being Istria remains a backwater in the national system.

I decided to be kind and not force the BF to take me to the railways, much less travel on a train; it was meant to be a holiday after all.  However, after driving up the coast, we passed a sign and I found myself burbling "therewasarailwaystationdownthere."

A pause.  "Do you want to go and look at it?"

I feigned insouciance.  "Yeah, I suppose, I'm not really bothered."


We'd arrived at Lupoglav station at a busy moment; a shift change.  One man walked out of the station building and went over to his mate and began talking. They turned and stared at me as I started snapping photographs.  I don't speak Croatian, so sadly I couldn't explain "I collect railway stations".  Actually I'd have problems explaining that in English.

Lupoglav's station building was wonderfully Eastern European.  The front had been enclosed with a brown porch, the kind of utilitarian construction that carries the whiff of 1970s construction.  Inside was a bench and timetables and a grinding air conditioner.

I went in, past the cast iron ashtray with a few fresh cigarette butts, and into a superbly old-fashioned ticket office.  Wood paneling and a brown and cream tiled floor; a battered bench and a glass window with a hole cut in it.  It was gloriously Communist.  It just needed a framed portrait of Tito on the wall and I could have lived out all my "desperate defector trying to flee to the West" fantasies.

Despite its silent atmosphere, Lupoglav actually gets a half-decent service.  There's a train roughly every two hours in each direction - not bad for a town of only 929 people.

There was a grinding of engines outside.  One of the stilled trains had stirred into life, and the BF and I stood on the platform in the hope we'd see it pass.  I say platform: it's more a vaguely humped area by the side of the tracks.  It's certainly not the high slab of concrete you'd expect on a British railway station.  I wouldn't fancy being a tiny old lady trying to board here with a suitcase.

The train continued grinding its diesel engine - electric trains have reached the main Croatian railway network, but not here - but there was no sign of it moving.  Eventually we melted under the gaze of the two railway workers, still staring at these tourists taking pictures of empty tracks, and got back in the car.


The only other station I visited was Buzet, further north.  We'd spent a pleasant hour wandering round the quiet hilltop town that gives the station its name, and when we were done, I suggested we drive out to the railway.  It was quite a way; this photo of Buzet was taken halfway between the town and the station.

There was still a climb up quiet mountain roads after that.  In fact it's so far away, calling the station "Buzet" seems like a bit of a con, like those airports Ryanair flies to that turn out to be an eight hour bus ride distant from the place you want to visit.

What Buzet station does have going for it is the glamour and excitement of a frontier station.  This is the last stop before you cross the border, and so there are signs welcoming you to Croatia and the flutter of flags.  Admittedly, thanks to the EU and Schengen, there's not actually anything to denote a frontier, no passport control, no stern looking guards.  Just a friendly hello to international visitors and oh for the love of God why are we leaving the EU again?!?!

There was a police station by the line, though it looked locked and closed; perhaps it comes to life when a train passes through (once again, we'd arrived between scheduled stops).  There was also an unfriendly looking man in the ticket office who didn't appreciate me poking my head round the door; I beat a hasty retreat.

No porch, either.  Buzet was definitely better looked after than Lupoglav, as you'd expect from the first station over the border.  Present a clean smile to the new arrivals and all that.

Also, unlike British railway stations, you didn't have to pay 30p to use the toilet.

I may have been facetious up there, but there is something exciting about a border station.  I could've got on a train there and ended up in Slovenia.  A change at Ljubljana and I could've been in Italy, in Austria.  So much more exciting and glamorous than the grim grind of air travel, passing through anonymous departure and arrival halls that all look the same, taking off your shoes and your belt, queuing over and over.  This was proper international travel.  A part of me wanted to jump on a train and just go somewhere.  Anywhere.

The BF coughed in the background, and I slipped out of my daydream and we went back to the car.