Wednesday 20 June 2018

All I Want Is Something New, Something I Can Hold On To

It was a Tuesday morning, and I was going somewhere new.  The journey wasn't new; the journey was one of the most familiar to me.  It was the destination that was new, the newest place to visit on Britain's rail map: Maghull North.

The station opened on the 18th June but, for reasons that were both heartwarming and frustrating, I couldn't make it.  I enviously watched Twitter as one rail fan after another visited, clutching complimentary cupcakes, posing under the station sign.  I invented that move, mate, and there you are rubbing it in my face.  In a way though, it was for the best.  Opening day is a show off.  It's overstaffed and it's over attentive.  I'd have attracted attention from enthusiastic PR people as I wandered around with my camera, and I never, ever want to attract attention to myself.  Second day, though: no-one cares about that.  It'd be quiet.

I got the train from Moorfields, because I always get the train from Moorfields; I like how huge it is underground, great concourses and passageways, usually empty during the day.  I'm not entirely on board with how it has been refurbished - it's lost those big glass-fronted display cases, and the mosaics in the Old Hall Street passageway - but it's still my station in a way that the other city centre stops aren't.  I headed for the Northern Line platform, and received my first disappointment.  The line diagram on the wall of the tunnel hadn't been updated.  This was disappointing, but perhaps to be expected: it's a big job, replacing that. 

I cast around the rest of the platform to see if anything else had been updated.  The map on the wall was still the old one; same for the line diagram at the entrance to the platform.  Maghull North's only presence was on the timetables, asterisked as opening 18th June, and scrolling by on the Next Train indicators.

On board the train, the map was also missing Maghull North; this was a surprise, as I'd been on a train a couple of weeks that showed it.  That's the kind of thing that should be out there on day one.  A new station is an exciting moment for everyone, and Merseytravel should've been really hammering it into your consciousness.  See how we're investing your Council Tax money?  See how we're spending your cash to make your life better?  Look upon Maghull North, ye mighties, and rejoice!

We rolled out on the Ormskirk line, the sights whizzing by: the depot at Kirkdale now with extra steelwork for the new trains, the cutting beyond with that thrillingly high footbridge I'd love to walk across if I wasn't terrified.  The weeds poking through the fence at Walton, the expanse of concrete at Aintree - handy for the National, empty the rest of the year - the sad hulk of the Old Roan pub.  Then it was across the motorways as the traffic piled into the never-ending disaster that is Switch Island and into Maghull station.

There was no-one on the platform.  Maghull is one of the busiest stations on Merseyrail, floating around the bottom of the top ten, and it was a surprise to see it completely deserted.  Maybe the new station had already stolen its thunder.  Before we left, I switched on the video:

I wondered if they'd called her back to do the voiceover.  Did she make her way to some Soho recording suite, whisper "Maghull North" into the microphone, then walked out again a few quid better off?  Maybe it's a Frankenstein recording - the existing "Maghull" spliced into the "North" from Birkenhead North.  Or maybe she recorded a load of potential stations when she originally got the job, and on a computer there are sound files marked Headbolt Lane and Town Meadow and St James.  

A few minutes later we slid into the new northbound platform at Maghull North, the first new Merseyrail station since Conway Park in 1998.  (It opened to the public on the 22nd June 1998, in fact, if you want to bake it a cake for its twentieth birthday on Friday).  Three people got off the train: me and two hi-vis jacketed Merseyrail employees, who chatted to the guard and then slowly climbed the steps. 

Everything gleamed.  The fence built on the platform to separate us from suburban gardens was some kind of graffiti-proof plastic, and the sun glinted off it.  The tarmac was marked with swirls, like a newly laid carpet showing the footsteps of every visitor.

It felt big.  It's only two platforms and an overbridge, but tucked down in the cutting, it somehow felt expansive.  I wandered up the steps.  The lifts aren't ready yet, and a group of workmen were gathered round the base of the tower, working busily.  Not great, of course, but understandable.

Pleasingly, there were people waiting on the southbound platform.  It was already getting use.  A woman was talking to her mate, and fortunately she had a mouth the size of a small black hole and I could hear everything she said.  I listened in case she was talking about the station, but no, it was only the most banal of chatter. 

It'll look a lot better once that embankment has greened over a bit.

The footbridge leads directly into the ticket hall, which pleased me; it's a tiny security measure, forcing you to pass a staffed window to get onto the station property.  It's slightly undercut by an under construction bridge straight into the car park, but still: the idea is there.  I'd have taken a picture of this, but there was a policeman waiting outside the station.  Not a real one, one of those community police volunteer types with the blue badges, but he eyed me suspiciously as I approached.  There's a small space between the lift tower and the station building, with a concrete slab and temporary fencing; I'm guessing this will eventually be a cage for bike storage.

Inside the ticket hall, a disappointment.

Position closed?  On the second day?   It's also interesting to note that there's no room for an M to Go shop, even though there's one at Maghull: this is rail tickets only.

I passed on through to the car park.  It was surprisingly full already.  Junction 1 of the M58 is two minutes from the station, and I guessed a lot of Maghull's passengers had already transferred their loyalties.  There was space being taken up at the end by the builders' compound, but I wondered if it would need extending sooner rather than later.

Which brings us to the bit that really interests me: the station building.

It's... okay, I guess?  There's a lot of glass, which is good.  The high ceiling is a pleasing feature.  As usual, I wish they'd have illuminated M and double arrow logos.  It does the job.  But when I think of what Merseytravel have only just opened over in Ainsdale, it's a real let down.  This was an entirely new site - you could build anything you want.  There wasn't the restriction of an existing station.  And this is what they came up with?  A cynic might look at the difference in average house prices between Ainsdale and Maghull, or the relative noise made by the local community, but I'm just sad that there wasn't something a bit more exciting on show.  It's a perfunctory building, totally acceptable, but unlikely to win any prizes.

From the side it's even more shed-like, and I hate that Maghull North on the side.  It's just plain ugly.  It's notable that the station is entirely angled towards the car park.  If you're arriving on foot from School Lane, you pass down some steps that give you a great view of the fire door and the bins.  This is also where the station sign is, and it's just a bit too low. 

Perhaps those fences are due to be disassembled, but until they go, that's all you can see from the road.  Not a great advert.  Still, a station sign is a station sign, so I had to do the usual.

As Robert pointed out on Twitter, it's apparently just a "P+R", not the full "Park and Ride" these days. 

I could've just got back on the train and gone back into town, but let's be honest, that wouldn't have been very on-brand for me.  I decided I'd walk to the old Maghull station and get the train from there.

I got something of a surprise once I left the station.  I'd visited this site back in 2015, when it was just a scabby bit of land that used to belong to Ashworth Hospital.  It had been marked down as a suitable site for a prison initially, until the Government changed its mind and decided to build houses on there.  I'd always, in my head, assumed that they'd wait for the station to open before they built the homes.  Apparently not. 

There was an avenue of houses, with cars outside, neat gardens, a DPD van delivering an online purchase.  It wasn't finished yet - the road ended abruptly - but this was the community that the station had been built to serve, already living.

I turned back, snapping a shot of the station over the bridge as I passed, because I can't stop myself:

Maghull is an odd little town.  There's been a settlement here for centuries, but it never really achieved much: even when the railway came, there were barely a thousand people living here.  It was the construction of a fast road from Liverpool to Ormskirk in the thirties that spurred the growth.  The motor car meant it became a commuter spot, and that's what it still feels like.

It's a town entirely made of suburbia.  Endless semis stretch away down curved avenues; there are neat precincts of shops (hairdresser/sandwich shop/mini-market) and patches of plain green recreation ground.

It's nice but it's not interesting.  It's formless.  The central precinct, and the library, are far from the station on the Liverpool Road; in between is a lot of the same houses.  It's probably a decent place to bring up a lot of very bored children, who'll move out as soon as they possibly can.  It's safe and dull.

I overshot the railway station, so I doubled back along the canal, where the houses opened out onto the water.  Decks and landing spots had been built at the rear of very ordinary looking houses; a strange combination of waterside idyll and banal living.

The old station crosses a level crossing, backed by a pub and another precinct where bored boys lined up to buy sausage rolls from the bakery (only one schoolchild at a time).  I went to the Liverpool platform, busy with pensioners and a distracted looking man and a student with earbuds rammed tightly in her ears.

South again, and I had a bug.  I didn't want to go straight into town, I wanted to do a bit more walking, so I jumped off the train at Sandhills.  I thought that since I'd seen Merseytravel's newest station, I could have a look at what might be the next one after that.  At Sandhills, there was a hopeful sign that someone in the publicity department planned for Maghull North:

That gap between Maghull and Town Green is just begging for a sticker with the new station on it, isn't it?

I left the station, heading for the main road, when I suddenly realised there was something in my shoe.  I stopped and shook it free, and a fifty pence piece fell out.  I'll remind you that I'd been out walking for about two hours at that point and I hadn't noticed anything untoward at all.  There are two explanations: either I have insensitive feet, or I've started spontaneously producing cash with my body.  I'm leaning towards the latter explanation.

I thought I'd walk along Regent Road, rather than the busy main route of Great Howard Street, but after a couple of blocks I realised that was a mistake.  It was quieter, yes, but too quiet.  There were no other pedestrians, and the buildings were unfriendly and dark.  It was very "first five minutes of a Death Wish film" so I looped back onto the main route by Tai Pan, the enormous Chinese supermarket.  There was a constant noise from the cars, and the whole path was being torn up and remodelled as part of the dualling of Great Howard Street, but at least I felt like I was in the city.

There have been plans for a station along here for decades.  There's a mile and a half of track between Moorfields and Sandhills; a long gap without a station for Merseyrail, but especially so given that's an inner city district.  Nothing's happened, because it's area with few residents and mainly industrial businesses.  Garages, factories, warehouses. 

So what's changed?  The first shot in the arm was the Titanic Hotel, opening in the warehouses by the Stanley Dock.  Opposite it, the Tobacco Warehouse is being converted into 500 flats.  Further south, the apartment blocks are starting to spread north across the border line at Leeds Street.  There's also the TenStreets plan, where the Council is hoping to turn the stretch from the Stanley Dock to the Princes Dock into another new cultural neighbourhood like the Baltic.

The biggest driver for a new station, however, is Everton.  They've been trapped in their cramped ground at Goodison for decades, hemmed in by city streets and a church occupying the corner spot.  They tried to move to the King's Dock, then suggested moving out to Kirkby, but they finally seem to have settled on a new stadium on the riverside at the Bramley Moore Dock, about three quarters of a mile from Sandhills.  A second station further down the line would help to spread the passenger load on match days.  Plus, to be cyncial for a moment, Merseytravel could probably get Everton to help pay for what would be a fairly expensive station on top of a viaduct.

A site hasn't been identified for the new station yet, but there's a big patch of open land next to the railway which remains suspiciously unbuilt on.  Doesn't that look right for a station with long ramps to properly accommodate crowds? 

Further south the line becomes hemmed in by roads and businesses, workshops, tyre shops.  Every arch rattled with the noise of machinery.  An apprentice mechanic hovered outside the entrance to one, sneaking in a fag break. 

The only problem I have with the proposed station is its name: Vauxhall.  Nope.  There's already a large, popular Vauxhall station in London.  We don't need another one.  Call it TenStreets, call it Stanley Dock, call it Love Lane (the inappropriately romantically named street that runs parallel to the railway).  Use a bit of originality.

I walked further south, past the remains of The Goat pub, the traditional sign that my train from Ormskirk was nearly in town.  I love Liverpool, and I love Merseyrail; I love when Merseytravel manages to do something great like build a new station.  Maghull North already seems to be a success and it's not even a week old.  A station off Great Howard Street could be a success too.  Let's not wait twenty years before we build it.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Impermanent Way

There used to be two routes from Liverpool to Southport.  One is still there: the ramrod straight Northern Line from Liverpool Exchange (now Moorfields) into the town centre.  The other took its own sweet time getting there.  The Southport and Cheshire Lines Extension Railway made its way from Aintree to Southport via the most indirect possible route.  It ran across empty fields and called at tiny hamlets with barely a couple of houses.  It lost money hand over fist, and was finally put out of its misery in 1952.

Head down Shore Road from the present-day Ainsdale station and you arrive at what was Ainsdale Beach halt.  It would've been handy for the Pontins resort, except that didn't open until 1970.  Yes, they were still building new holiday camps when Bowie and Bolan were in the charts.  Even more incredibly, it's still there, looking like Strangeways in satellite pictures.

Great for the beach and everything - the good thing about Southport is there is a hell of a lot of beach (not so much of the sea, but loads of sand) -  but it's weird to think that in 2018 people are still having the Hi-de-Hi! experience.  Especially when it keeps making the news for all the wrong reason (just today: bed bugs biting a toddler).  The shuttered hulk of the Sands seemed to act as a warning to travellers.  This resort couldn't even support a pub.

I'd decided to walk from Ainsdale Beach to what would have been the next station on the line, Birkdale Palace.  The entire railway was torn up after closure, and the section between Woodvale and the town centre was turned into the Coast Road, a handy bypass for the small, exclusive villages that trail away from Southport.  It's a simple two lane road, with a combination bike and footpath alongside, and I thought it'd be a pleasant walk on a warm day.

I made a mistake almost immediately.  After a while of walking on tarmac, I spotted a pedestrian sign pointing into the grass at the side of the road.  I can't resist a detour, so I swung off the main road and into the hillocks at the side.  That was how I found myself on a long, undulating path, rising up and down on the dunes, wedged between the busy road and the fenced off fields.

I'd picked probably the most boring and yet also most tiring way to walk to Birkdale.  The path was rough and threadbare, but the high sandy dune to my left meant there was no way to get back down to the pavement.  To my right was an vista of overwhelming flatness, just a load of scrub and the odd tree until another dune blocked the horizon.  And it rolled, tight on my calves going up, slippery sand going down.

On my left I could see the tops of the cars and the occasional brightly coloured cyclist, but there was no sense that I was by the sea.  It was clear why the S&CLER's route had failed to win over passengers.  You don't mind an elongated journey if it is at least pretty.  The quickest way from Lancaster to Carlisle is not via Barrow, but thousands of people make that journey specifically to see the beautiful sea views from the train.  Here, the train would have pootled along on its endlessly snaking path, and all you'd have seen was a series of green hillocks.  On the other side of that dune in the above picture is the wide expanse of Ainsdale Beach and the Irish Sea, shimmering in the June sunshine.  You can't see any of it of course, so you'll just have to imagine it.

It was also quite clear that I was the first idiot to come this way in a long time.  I hacked and slashed through stinging nettles and brambles, my lightly tanned arms suddenly crisscrossed with red lines.  My bloody mindedness stopped me from giving it up as a bad lot and turning back - I'd come so far! - but I certainly cursed that tiny little pedestrian man and my stupid curiosity.

The backs of houses appeared, and I was able to escape onto the foot-slash-cycle path.  This presented problems of a different kind.  Suddenly there was traffic.  The thing about these theoretical shared spaces for cyclists and pedestrians is that cyclists go a lot faster and tend to be a lot stroppier.  I was perfectly within my rights to walk on the path, and I stuck to one side of it to allow the people on bikes room to go round, but I still got angry bells for having the temerity to be in their way.  The long stretch of the cycle route gave them a chance to really hammer those pedals, and they didn't need some fat blogger lolloping in their way.  After a while I just stepped off the pavement when I saw a cyclist coming; it wasn't worth trying to stand my ground any more.

Birkdale Palace station served the hotel alongside, which was just as glamorous as you're imagining.  Opening in 1866, the hotel aimed at the more luxurious spa end of the market, hoping to attract rich Victorians wanting to take the air.  Its guests included Clark Gable and Frank Sinatra, but despite its glittering reputation and handy transport links its parade of owners all ended up going bust.  It finally closed a century after opening, and was demolished.

There's nothing left of the station, and the site of the hotel is now uninspiring houses.  There's still a Palace Road, though, and the Fishermans' Rest pub occupies the former hotel gatehouse. 

I wandered into the chichi Birkdale village, with its award-winning delicatessens and butchers and endless gift shops.  I nipped into one, because it's the BF's birthday soon and I needed a card, and witnessed a posh woman bark "Weddings!" at the staff.  Just that.  "Weddings!"  Not a question, not an enquiry.  The woman behind the counter showed her the cards, and the posh woman snapped "Matching paper!"  She was exactly the kind of woman who would complain to the manager if she received poor service in a shop, without realising that it's a two-way street; maybe if you were less vile, people would be more helpful.  I hope the waiters spat in her champagne at the reception.

Birkdale was certainly far too posh for me, dripping with sweat and with jeans covered in sand and brambles.  I could've done with a drink, but there were only glamorous bars with people in perfectly starched shirts sat outside sipping at chilled white wine; I didn't want to depress the house prices.  Instead I slinked to Birkdale station for the train home.  The quick, direct, no need to go via Sefton, train home.

Monday 11 June 2018

The Shock And The New

"What are you doing?"

If you're a weirdo railway nerd, hearing these words at a station sends a chill down the spine.  We live in strange, difficult times, and somehow in all of this, taking pictures of a railway station has slipped onto the "typical terrorist behaviour" list. 

I've been lucky.  I've been doing this blog for more than a decade and I've not been stopped from taking photos yet.  It's always in the back of my mind, particularly when I'm in a busy station, but so far I've been able to snap what I want.  It obviously helps that I'm a middle-aged white guy, rather than, say, a young Muslim. 

I was at Ainsdale, on Merseyrail's Northern Line, and I was taking photos of the new station building.  A slight wooden structure, more cottage than ticket office, had been replaced with a far more impressive structure, and I wanted to take a look.

I was just leaving the new ticket hall when a builder approached me and asked me the scary question: "What are you doing?"

"Just taking some photos," I stammered.  I was instantly on my guard.

"Why are you taking pictures?" he continued.  Obviously, the correct answer should have been, "because this is a FREE COUNTRY, and I am entitled to do whatever I like if it doesn't inconvenient anyone else!"  I didn't, of course, because I am a coward.  Instead, I garbled, "Because I like train station architecture."

It turned out this was exactly the right answer.  The man in the hard hat wasn't interrogating me because he thought I was ISIS; instead, he wanted to talk to another fan.  It turned out he was very, very proud of Ainsdale station, and what he had helped build.  "What do you think of it?" he beamed.

Here's what I think of it: I like it.  Merseytravel, to their credit, have never bought into the off-the-shelf station designs Network Rail have offered in recent years (for example, at Buckshaw Parkway).  They've always hired their own architects - in this case, Liverpool firm Owen Ellis - to come up with something unique.  At Ainsdale, they've scored.  The drum at the centre of the station building is a proper landmark.  It's a statement.  The different coloured cladding draws your eye and points out: important stuff here.  This is the centre of the station, so head to this bit to buy tickets.  I hope it's dramatically lit at night.  My builder friend told me it hadn't gone down well with the locals initially, but they were coming round.

I can imagine it must have been a shock after the cast iron and wood of the old station, especially for the more conservative residents, but as they used it they'll have come to appreciate it.  It's quiet and calming but at the same time interesting.  And it works as a space - it flows from the entrance through to the ticket window through to the platform. 

It's still not finished, of course; that large empty void will be filled with benches.  Stations are a place.  You should feel comfortable being in here at ten o'clock at night, and the bright open building does that well. 

We chatted for a little bit, both independently bemoaning the fact that this sort of development isn't more common.  "They could do with spreading some of the money down the line," he said, and it's notable that the area that gets the more interesting architecture is full of well-to-do passengers.  Maghull North opens next week, and though I haven't seen any pictures of the new building, the renders showed a distinctly plain station.  Good architecture should be for everyone, not just the rich.

I finally managed to drag myself away from him.  I was a little shaky, because (a) I'm never good at talking to people and (b) I'd fully expected him to be aggressive.  His pride in his work was charming though, and he's right: it is a very nice station.  It's a very good station.  I might even go back and see it again when it's properly finished.  And when the builders have all gone.

Friday 1 June 2018

Foot Passenger

Earlier this week, through no fault of my own, I found myself in Chester with a couple of hours to spare.  It was early on a scorching hot Bank Holiday, and the city centre was still lazily waking up: people were comfortably sleeping off barbecues and the shops were opening... whenever.  I wandered over the Dee to Handbridge, and sat for a little while watching the weir and listening to a podcast.  Then I remembered a little bit of transport infrastructure I'd never seen, and decided to go and take a look.

I have long campaigned for more footbridges by railways.  Actually, I say campaigned: what I actually mean is I have long bitched about the lack of footbridges by railways.  It mainly stemmed from when I visited Tonfanau station, during a lovely trip along the Cambrian Coast.  Tonfanau is on the north side of the Dysynni estuary, and Tywyn is on the south side.  The railway takes the shortest route between the two points, over the river, while the road goes round the long way.  Not wanting a five hour detour, I clambered up onto the railway and basically trespassed.  I'm not proud of it.

My point is: there should have been a footbridge.  (There is one now, built a little further inland, and I am disappointed they didn't name it after me).  If there's a railway forming the shortest crossing between two points, I think there should be a footbridge strung along the side of it.  It's a quick, easy fix, and a handy way to link communities.  There's nothing more annoying than seeing a Sprinter merrily skim across a river while you clamber on board a bus for a huge diversion.

There's only one crossing of the River Dee between the Grosvenor Bridge in Chester city centre and the A494 in Queensferry: the railway bridge taking the line to North Wales.  And, for once, there's a footbridge for pedestrians, connecting the racecourse to the upscale district of Curzon Park.  I suspect it's no coincidence that a footbridge was deemed necessary for those two parts of the city rather than, say, connecting Saltney with the industrial park at Sealand. 

After a long hot walk through Chester's most suburban suburbia I turned up a side road to the golf course.  The footbridge is reached via some steps from the road surface (so bad luck cyclists and people in wheelchairs), taking me down into cool undergrowth.  The footpath was slippery, despite the baking sun, and angled downwards just to add to the general feeling of mild peril.

It was only as I reached the crossing itself - literally as it hoved into view - that I remembered: bridges tend to be high.  And I don't like heights.  Hate them.  My heart immediately began to pound as I realised I'd walked two miles to reach a footbridge I really didn't want to walk over.

There is a facet of my personality that will always outvote something as small as crippling vertigo, and that is my bloody mindedness.  If I had come all this way to walk across a bridge, then I was going to bloody well walk across a bridge, and not even the prospect of dying of a heart attack midway could stop that.  I put my glasses in my pocket - because I'm always scared they'll slip off and fall in the water - and ventured across, one hand skimming the handrail just in case a train came across and tried to shake me into the river.  To my left, I could see the railway tracks; to my right, an admittedly beautiful view.

After, oh I don't know, about four and a half weeks of walking, I finally reached the stairs on the opposite bank. 

I headed down them to the blessed safety of dry land.  On the north bank, there's far more places to go; a riverside stroll, or a walk between the railway viaducts and the greenery of the Roodee.  It was all very pleasant, and helped to moderate my pounding heartbeat.  There should be more footbridges attached to railway bridges, because they're a simple but effective way to make cities more pedestrian and cycle friendly; just don't expect me to enjoy using them.