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.
I think I must be a bad human as well. Probably, meeting me once is enough for most people anyway.
I still prefer the original Metrolink livery, and did used to like the logo although with hindsight, it does look rather naff. I suspect the current logo won't be a keeper either. Still the current one is far better than that of Sheffield Supertram. Seriously Sheffield. Just using the Stagecoach corporate livery? Come on. Ditto why the Welsh Assembley let their franchised trains be branded with Arriva...
As for apps, well when I relocated back to Manchester last year I lived for a short while near the Ashton branch of the Metrolink and would use it regularly. I did try out the My Get Me There (shudder) app. It was slow, cumbersome and horrible. On one occasion a ticket inspection took place. I promptly started getting my phone out of my pocket. The inspector took one look at it, and with a sigh said "I'll come back." He then checked the rest of the carriage. By the time he'd returned, the app finally loaded up.
I don't do app ticketing now because I live on the national rail network. But most of my local journeys involve train and a tram. Can you get a through train/tram ticket in the Northern app, or the My Get Me There app? Can you bollocks...
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