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.


Rincew1nd said...

I did offer to get you cupcake!

Scott Willison said...

You did, this is true, and it was much appreciated!

taruhanayamonline said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Strange but true... the first railway station ever built in Birmingham was also called Vauxhall. It's now been renamed Duddeston.

As the first station out of New Street towards Lichfield, it has certain similarities to Ardwick in Manchester.

Mister Roy said...

Great piece of exploration