Friday 28 February 2020

Map!: The Interconnected Edition

The advantage of being at a small country station where the only seat is a hard metal bar is that you spend a lot of your time stood in front of notice boards staring at maps.  I was delighted to spot at Claverdon that the West Midlands Railway had issued a new map to delight and infuriate me.

There seem to be two aims with this new map.  The first is to bring it completely into the corporate fold.  Have a look at the West Midlands Network Brand Guidelines (no really, do: it's quite interesting) and you'll see that there are corporate standards for logos, images and fonts.  The map that came out last year roughly followed this but now it has been fully corporatised, if that's a word, with the font changed to LL Circular and logos for parking and bus interchanges springing up everywhere.


It's a pleasingly modern font though I have to confess the logos get a bit much - almost every station has at least one of them.  It doesn't help that they've also added small notices for the QE Hospital at University and - sigh - "Resorts World", making Birmingham International Station positively overstuffed.

One feature added to the map which I do like is a very clear highlighting of the request stops to the south of the city.  Far better than a quiet x in the timetable.  Incidentally, when I was on the train to Stratford, the guard actually walked down the train touting for request stops - this is absolutely brilliant for someone like me who gets anxiety about asking for them.  

The other reason for the new map seems to be a new emphasis on interconnectivity.  The old map was quite happy to show other rail company's lines, as befits a map issued by a public transport organisation rather than a private corporation:

The new map - as well as changing Virgin to Avanti! (yes, it does need that exclamation mark) - adds in even more of them, really underlining where you can connect to other routes.  

So the top left, which previously went as far as Crewe and then had some vague lines pointing away to the cities of the northwest: has termini at Piccadilly and Manchester Airport, plus some extra northern towns en route.

Similarly, Leicester was a simple dot before:

...but now it's got the Midland Main Line marked on there, meaning - hurray! - Luton Airport gets a mention.

Smethwick Galton Bridge has had a proper redesign, with its lozenge replaced by a pleasing massive dot.  The pedant in me wants multiple lines to be marked with the lozenge, the design nerd in me enjoys that perfect circle.

The Metro has been extended to the Library in Birmingham city centre:

At the Wolverhampton end, they've extended the line into Wolverhampton station, which raises questions.

There is an extension to Wolverhampton station under construction, but it won't be opening until the station redevelopment finishes - probably later this year.  Fair enough; they're reducing the need to reprint the map in the autumn.  However, the extension won't take Wolverhampton St Georges out of action - because it's close to the shops, it'll stay as a terminus, with every other tram going there instead of the station.  The new map doesn't show that, which could be annoying if you got on a tram thinking they all went to the station and ended up in the city centre terminus with a mad dash for your train.  On top of that, there's another stop on the extension, Piper's Row.  Will that be added later?

Elsewhere, New Street's become a little bit more complicated.  Back when I was planning my trip to Perry Barr, I looked at the map and decided it would be interesting to complete that loop that's on the map.

I was surprised to check the timetables and find that loop wasn't a thing - it was the designers being tidy with their terminuses and having them enter the New Street lozenge from either side.  The new map corrects that, breaking the "loop" so that they are clearly different services:

It's not as pretty - and they have to double up the line north of Hamstead - but it is much more accurate.  

The biggest alteration comes with Transport for Wales services.  Firstly their line colour changes from a baby pink to a dark grey.  More in line with their corporate branding, yes, but nowhere near as interesting, particularly as the ticket zones are also coloured grey.  But they've also gained another line between Shrewsbury and Crewe:

I suppose this is handy if you live in, say, Telford, as now you know you don't have to head into town to come back out again if you want to get to Manchester Airport.  On the other hand, this now means I have to go to Wem.  Wem!  That's not a place, it's the noise a boxer makes when he's smacked in the jaw.  And they've added the Stone-Barleston-Wedgwood bus link back in, even though I was absolutely delighted to see it go in the last update.  

Well, TfWM have decided to add one station - just one - on the lines outside, seemingly for no purpose other than to get me really, really annoyed.

(They've also swapped the green line so it passes over the purple line when it went under it on the last edition).

Similarly, I did a one-off visit to Burton-on-Trent to close that branch:

And now they've added a single station beyond it, presumably while laughing at me the whole time.

It is still a good map, though I think the lines through New Street could maybe have done with another pass - they're still a bit confusing.  It looks great, and the colours are fantastic.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to update my spreadsheets.

Bloody Wem.

Thursday 27 February 2020

Wet, Not Wild

There are times when collecting stations is an epic affair, a voyage of discovery through fascinating landscapes and intriguing vistas.  When you excitedly cross off stations with interesting names or histories.  When you discover new places.

Then sometimes, you travel for hours to tick off two obscure country halts just because they're on the far side of the map.

Bearley station (I was disappointed to hear it pronounced Beerly, because Barely would have been a more apt description) is a single platform on the Stratford-upon-Avon to Leamington Spa line.  It gets five trains in each direction from Chiltern Railways, plus a single West Midlands Railway service in the peaks.  There is a shelter and an information board, but no ticket machine or office.  It is... there.

I was, unsurprisingly, the only person to get off the train, dropping down the high step onto the platform.  I think the guard was surprised to see me alight.  I walked down the ramp to the road, past the station cottages which, in the grand tradition of station cottages everywhere, had gone all out on the railway memorabilia.  There was a particularly cute name board with a metal steam train on the top that I wanted to tuck in my backpack.

At the roadside was the sign.  Despite being barely touched by WMR services, they're actually responsible for running it, and had weirdly sent out their sign people to make sure it reflected the current corporate look.  There are stations in Birmingham with thousands of passengers a year making do with the colour scheme from two franchises ago but apparently it was really important to update this one.

The week before I set out, I went to the Ordnance Survey website to plan a route.  (Incidentally, I can highly recommend it - £23.99 a year for unlimited access to OS maps across the UK).  I came up with a course that took me through a couple of villages, crossing the countryside via footpaths and back roads.  It was interesting and meant I got to see a bit of the area.

Then the rain came.  When I got up, six hours before, it had been raining.  It was still raining now.  Endless, relentless, strong rain, breaking up the soil, turning it into mud.  I'd worn hiking boots and waterproof trousers, but I knew that wouldn't be enough.  This was Wellington boot weather.  Disappointed, I turned away from Bearley village, with its vineyard and church and adjoining RAF base, and instead headed out towards a back country lane, marked by a closed down pub and a care home.  Langley Road was a lot less scenic, but at least I couldn't sink into tarmac.

February was at its worst that day.  It should have been dying out, the first tendrils of spring starting to break through, the promise of a new year.  Instead the month had gripped hold of the landscape and made it cold.  The only green was the rough grass, battered after the winter, still afraid to grow.  The only flowers were daffodils with their blooms resolutely closed.  They stayed as tight yellow buds, as though they were afraid of shining against the relentless grey.  Everywhere was brown and black.

I've said many times how much I hate walking on the road.  It's dangerous and a little scary, particularly here, where the traffic was hefty SUVs and 4x4s burning through at speeds beyond the limit.  Sometimes you just have to though.  The wet weather had left huge puddles in the gutters while the verges were sodden.  I dodged from one side of the road to the other, trying to keep away from blind bends, stepping up onto the grass when I had to.  Where there was a particularly huge expanse of water, I waited until the coast was clear, then ran past; I'd seen the glee those fast drivers had taken in splashing through them and I didn't want to end up soaked.

A little further along there was a foot crossing for the railway, accompanied, as all these access points are, by a sign with the number for the Samaritans.  You'd have to time your suicide attempt well on this stretch of track; miss your opportunity and you're lying on the rails for an hour, getting a chill from the cold metal under your neck.

I filled my mind with busy thoughts, watching for cars, wandering.  Getting back in the swing of things.  I always enjoy the walks between stations, even if it is relentlessly grey.  It's the activity, the breaking out of the routine.  It's the walk with a purpose.  There wasn't much here that I couldn't have seen anywhere in England but it was still new lands to conquer.

I passed a small business park, with a curiosity in the grass outside; a single champagne cork.  Clearly this was a cut above the country employment parks I was used to seeing, a couple of craft-type businesses and maybe an accountant.  But then again, this was Warwickshire, not Lancashire, and so there was a thicker stockbroker belt here.  As I trudged on there was the honk of a horn and the Stratford-Birmingham train appeared in the distance, seemingly floating on the hedgerows as it slid by at speed.

The rain had stopped by now, though I was still speckled with drips from the trees, and the puddles stayed as large as ever.  A ditch by the side of the road burbled with overflow.  You'd hear the noise of running water, and expect a cheery country stream, only to be confronted by a heavy rivulet of muck.  Thick brown water gurgled past, churning, bringing up a stench of decay.

As I passed a gate, two sheep spotted me, and wandered over in the hope that I was a wandering shepherd going around providing extra meals to livestock.  I thought about giving them a stroke through the bars but the lack of food would've only disappointed them so I trekked onwards.

Up ahead there was a sign: Mud on road.  "I mean, obviously", I thought, because there had been mud all over the place throughout my walk.  I didn't understand why this spot was special.  (Also, that sign makes me think of this Viz cartoon every single time).  I turned the corner and saw why.

The road dropped down beneath the railway and in the dip the run off water had gathered in a deep pond.  Thick streams of mud were smeared across the tarmac and, as I watched, a Range Rover barrelled through and splashed water against the bridge walls.  I paused, listening for traffic, then when I thought it was quiet, I ran through and out the other side, straight down the middle.  I kept going to try and dodge the worst of the muck before finally dropping back onto the verge.

A sign for Langley village told me I was halfway to the next station.  It was accompanied by a warning that number plate recognition was in use.  Elsewhere, a farm shouted that there were dogs on the loose - a sign that I think was meant to scare you, but as this sign was right next to it, I don't think the burglars will be quaking in fear.

I realised that I'd not really been taking in the landscape, instead focusing on the road ahead.  To be fair, it wasn't especially inspiring - a few hills and grasslands beneath dull skies.  It was midday but you couldn't tell.  As I paused a black Porsche roared past, engine growling, the canvas roof shut tight.

As I approached a crossroads a swarm of birds ducked and dived through the skies.  They seemed weirdly obsessed with this one spot, flocking to it, vanishing then reappearing.  I thought of the magic of crossroads, the folklore around them; centuries of lore and mystery tied up in them.  Was this a mystical spot?  Were the birds perhaps drawn by voodoo or spirits?

It turned out there was an animal sanctuary there, and the flock of birds were probably stealing food off the livestock there.  Still, for a moment I felt all Iain Sinclair, only not really annoying, so it wasn't all bad.  I turned left.

Saddlebow Lane was delightfully named, but it was even darker and narrower than the road I'd just turned off.  There were at least strips of grass there; here the trees hugged the road tightly, bending over my head, while the runoff from the fields poured down the gutters in brown rivers.  The hefty drains were overwhelmed.  I was walking downhill, so I knew there would be a bottom at some point, and soon I encountered it.  The road was covered with debris where the floodwaters had overwhelmed it.  I was glad they had receded.

Back up again, silently begging each vehicle that passed not to go hard through the water and soak me, then I reached the top and the sign that every station collector treasures:

As with Bearley, Claverdon station was some distance from the village itself.  If I'd followed my original, OS-lead route, I'd have come out in the village itself, a manor first recorded in the Domesday Book, but as it was I encountered the station first.  I walked down to the single platform - the other one having been mothballed when the second track was removed in the Sixties - and discovered that I was way, way ahead of schedule.  There was an hour and a half until the next train.

Normally in these circumstances I'd find a nice pub, but the nearest one was a half a mile away up a steep hill.  I had a flask of water and a sandwich, so I settled into the bare shelter and waited.  Two stations collected at the bottom of the West Midlands Railway map.  Now it was time to begin the hundred mile, three train journey home.

This is a very odd hobby.

Wednesday 5 February 2020


I'm back!

Yes, after months of silence I've finally returned to the blogging fold.  I mean, I've not been completely silent, as anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, and I've been continuing to churn out my usual nonsense at the Coronation Street Blog.  And some kind souls dropped a couple of quid in my Ko-Fi, even though I was providing no content at all (though now that I think about it that may have been a subtle hint).  But I haven't had the chance to go out on the trains, for the simple reason that it's all been a bit mad at home.  I have spent the past three months having endless stilted conversations with workmen, trying to be jolly while being totally terrified, sitting in a room while they act all working class elsewhere in the house.  For someone with major social anxieties it's not been fun.  (Also, and I cannot stress this enough, when it comes to workmen, porn lies).

I finally managed to carve out a single day on the trains to myself, even though this week is also extremely hectic.  Heading to the Midlands seemed like a bit too much - I still needed to get back to deal with a plasterer that afternoon - so instead I went somewhere that wasn't even open last time I went out on the rails: Warrington West.

Opened on the 15th December, Warrington West is the newest addition to the Northern map.  It's two platforms on the Liverpool-Manchester line, and at track level it's pretty standard: grey lift towers, steps, shiny new tarmac beneath your feet.  It already felt well used.  I was one of half a dozen passengers to get off the train, and there were people on the platform waiting for the faster service behind it. 

Up above there's a ticket office, which was a pleasant surprise.  A lot of new stations are built without them, a machine on the platform taking up the slack, but this had a proper building and everything.  As to the building itself... erm.

I'm glad they went for something different.  I'm glad it's not one of those off the shelf Network Rail designs that look like they arrived on the back of a truck.  I'm not sure I actually like it, though.  I'm guessing the curved roof is meant to evoke the hangers of Burtonwood airbase, the largest American air base during World War II which was nearby, but it's not especially pleasant.  Inside it's cold and empty, too much space for too few facilities - barely a bench - and then you're out the other side and...

Let's be glad it got built at all, shall we?  Let's be glad that there was an investment in rail.  Let's focus on the positives.  Like my mug under a station sign.

Admit it: you missed me.

Across the way was the real reason the station was built - an extensive car park.  Warrington West is less than a mile from Sankey for Penketh station, a halt that's existed since 1874 but has the misfortune to have been left behind by geography.  When Sankey opened it was serving a few small villages in Lancashire and that was fine; Warrington was a town several miles distant.  Time and urban creep brought it closer and closer, but Sankey was still on a back road without much in the way of facilities.  Warrington West, on the other hand, is smack bang in the middle of the new suburb of Chapelford, with a handy bus to the massive Omega development beside the M62 - a series of distribution centres the size of a space station.

Sankey station is still there, but its services have been reduced to nothing; just two trains a day.  You need an actual Act of Parliament to close a railway station - an expensive and complicated procedure - so it's easier to leave it there and have the most token of services.  One day they'll finally shut it and Sankey's Grade II listed building will become a coffee shop or a private house.  For now it remains as a 19th century relic.

I headed away from the station and into Chapelford.  As a tribute to Burtonwood's status as a US Air Force base, the streets have all been named after places in America - Boston Boulevard, Chicago Place, Minnesota Drive.  The contrast of big American placenames with piddling little English houses was stark.  The worst example was this one:

Sunset Boulevard is Hollywood glamour, it's intrigue and excitement, it's Gloria Swanson descending the stairs in an elaborate dress.  It is not a rainy backwater in Warrington lined with "executive" homes.  I was the only person about.  These suburbs were built for motorists and even though there were kindly pedestrian signs showing me walking routes, nobody was using them.  The only people I saw were white delivery vans dropping off internet purchases on doorsteps. 

Chapelford is still relatively new so perhaps it's unfair to judge it on a damp February wander.  But I didn't detect any hint of life or soul as I walked round.  It was a dormitory.  People here worked somewhere else, then drove home and went to bed.  It lacked energy.

I crossed back over the railway line.  I could've got the next train back to Liverpool from Warrington West, but I wanted to get a bit of exercise, so I thought I'd walk into Warrington and get the train back from Central.  At the railway line Sunset Boulevard turned into Burtonwood Road, then I travelled back in time.

Chapelford became Sankey and immediately I was in a world of slightly-run down semis and terraces.  Some of them had been elaborately renovated - the owners clearly following Phil & Kirstie's instructions that if you can't afford where you want to live, buy as close as you can and do it up - while others had gone to seed with mossy driveways and faded paintwork. 

There are two types of New Town.  One is the entirely new construction - your Milton Keynes, your Skelmersdale, your Cumbernauld.  Yes, there are going to be older communities in it - we are a tiny island and you can't really go too far without hitting a village - but the town centre and the facilities will be all new.

The other type is like Warrington.  Warrington was a quiet, perfectly ordinary town for centuries.  It had a bridge over the Mersey, it had a couple of stations.  When the Industrial Revolution happened it got factories and chemical plants but there was nothing to mark it out as especially different from dozens of other towns across the north-west.  In the Sixties, however, someone in Government looked at it on a map.  Warrington is halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.  It has the West Coast Main Line passing through it.  It has the M6 going down one side, and the M62 to the north, and the M56 to the south.  They slapped NEW TOWN on Warrington and it doubled in size.

It's left the town feeling disjointed.  Each new suburb was grafted on to the side.  It didn't grow organically, it didn't spread.  Going from Chapelford to Sankey felt like a border crossing; I'd gone from one part of town to the other and I doubted they ever talked. 

I followed roads lined with trees, cul-de-sacs hidden from view behind signs saying leading to...  There was a Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints church, crowned with an incongruously American-style of spire, and I remembered reading once that Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses do incredibly well in New Towns. There are a lot of lonely people, away from their families, disconnected from their communities, and then a church literally knocks on the door and offers to be your friend. 

At the end of the road I entered the Sankey Valley Park.  It's a long strip of green running from north to south through Warrington, following the Sankey river and canal, and it's a refreshing example of New Town optimism.  They constructed a slice of open space for the enjoyment of everyone, instead of lining the waterways with expensive apartments.

It was a moment of calm and pause.  There was the odd dog walker, and a lad on a bike, but otherwise I had it to myself.  But it was another barrier.  As with the railway line, as with the dual carriageway, the Sankey Valley Park felt like a demilitarised zone to be crossed, a no-man's land between sectors.  It was an impression reinforced by the townscape when I walked out the otherside only a few minutes later.

Now it was tiny straight terraces with the brutalist hulk of the Warrington Hospital looming in the distance.  It was a whole different universe, never mind a different town.  I walked up to the ring road, with a bus stop filled with sad-faced patients, and a petrol station/general store/post office.  It ducked back under the railway line with a constant stream of noisy traffic at my side.

I hate walking down main roads - it's so dull, and the carcinogens pumped out of all those cars mean I may as well stay at home and neck a load of fags - so I took a chance and ducked down a side alley.  I came out in another world again.  Warrington is a foam bath, bubbles clinging to one another, connected but separate. 

I'd arrived at Regency Square, a development that made me quite furious.  You hear the name Regency Square and you think of elegant Georgian terraces; fine houses grouped around open space giving you air and space to breathe.  This Regency Square was four roads surrounded by houses, but in the centre were more houses.  There wasn't a spot to promenade.  Instead the homes at the centre turned their back on one another, with the middle being given over to parking.

I understand why it's laid out like that; of course I do.  Land is precious and modern developers wanting to extract the maximum amount of cash don't want to build a park that won't have any return.  That's fine.  Don't call it Regency Square though.  You're writing a cheque you can't cash.

In fairness, there was a brief burst of green space on the northern edge, between two apartment blocks.  Hedges formed a perimeter square around a patch of paving slabs.  No statue, no fountain, not even a playground; just grey squares of concrete laid in amongst some gravel.  Enjoy!

I left the estate and entered an expanse of industrial units and trading parks.  They were doing works on the railway bridge so it was reduced to one lane; this meant that an HGV was forced to park on the pavement, leaving only the tiniest of gaps for me to squeeze through, but he put on his hazard lights so that was ok, apparently.  On the other side, a white Mercedes screeched to a halt on the double yellows beside me and the driver dashed across the road to the garage opposite.  He left the engine running, and part of me immediately wanted to steal it, but he looked like an extra from a Guy Ritchie film so I quietly continued on and spurned a life of TWOCing.

I was now on the fringes of the town centre, with the Golden Square shopping centre appearing on my right.  It gave huge prominence to Debenhams on its exterior signage, which didn't bode well for its future, while its "open til late" poster plugged a bowling alley and a Nando's.  I doubted the residents of Chapelford ever came into town unless they had to, driving out to the Gemini Retail Park (it has Britain's first IKEA you know) rather than paying for parking in the multi-storey here.

I wonder if Warrington West will change this, if a regular, fast railway service into town will get some people to abandon their cars.  After all, Warrington Central is only a short walk from Golden Square's entrance.  I doubt it.  I expect they'll stay in their bubble, and if they boarded a train, they'd go all the way to Manchester or Liverpool for their entertainment.  It's hard to change people.