Monday 19 April 2021

Borderline Obsessive

When I was trying to decide where to travel over the UK's rail network for a book that never ended up happening, there were a lot of possibilities.  One route that was definite though was the Borders Railway in Scotland.  I went up there in June 2016, and here's the start of that trip.

Edinburgh Waverley is, of course, one of the Great Stations.  It's big and it's busy and it's right in the centre of a bustling historic city.  But - and I'll whisper this quietly - I don't really like it.

It's undeniably beautiful in places, with a wide clear roof and some lovely features.  It's never quiet.  It's exciting.  I just can't take to it.  I think it's the position.  Waverley is located in a drained loch in the centre of Edinburgh and as such is below street level.  Stand on Princes Street, one of the most famous and elegant roads in the country and which the station runs alongside, and you can't see it at all.  You reach it via a series of escalators, descending into the depths.  I feel like stations - major stations - should make their presence felt.  They should dominate and entice.  Waverley doesn't want you to know it's there.

I headed to my platform on the far side of the station.  I was going out on the Borders Railway, formerly known as the Waverley Route.  For over a hundred years trains could reach Edinburgh from Carlisle over the line, until That Man Beeching came along and closed it in 1969.  As always with Beeching's cuts, basically the minute he closed it a campaign began to reopen it, and forty-odd years later construction began on a restored line.

It wasn't all new.  My first station, Brunstane, had opened in 2002 on an old freight line.  It was very much done on the cheap - a single platform, no ticket office, few facilities - but it brought the railway back to an area of the city that had done without for way too long.  

I left the station and crossed over the tracks on a footbridge still graffitied with a pro-independence Yes.  It took me to the car park of The Range, still quiet at this time of the morning, and then into a dark underpass that smelt of urine.  Halfway through it I remembered that Trainspotting was set in Edinburgh.  I emerged in a low dent, a pedestrian hollow that had been designed to walkers away from cars but actually had a disorienting effect.  There were no landmarks or helpful signs to get me anywhere.  

I finally turned out on a busy road, green embankments concealing any buildings, and found the footpath marked on my OS map.  It took me round the back of a housing estate, where a pink inflatable castle poked over the fence, and alongside an Asda that was roughly the size of Caracas.  You could've holed up in there for months and not needed to ever leave.  Handy for the apocalypse. 

Another bridge took me over the quiet South Suburban railway lines.  It's a route that loops from the Waverley route round to Haymarket, meaning that freight trains can get from one side of Edinburgh to the other without having to pass through the busy central section.  There used to be passenger services too, but as with so many loop lines, most people wanted to get to the city centre, and once buses arrived to offer a direct road route the South Suburban couldn't compete.  There have been suggestions that it could be reopened, but not much passion for it.

I was deposited at the back of Fort Kinnaird, a retail park with a name that sounds like you asked a rude Scottish child about their schoolwork ("How were your exams?" "Fort kinnaird!").  It had begun to drizzle by now, a low, wet, clinging rain that was too weak to fight off the heat of the summer's day.  Instead it soaked through my layers of clothing and made me grumpy.  I began the crossing of the truly enormous car park.  Honestly, it was like traversing the Sahara, only not quite so pretty.  I expected to see caravans of camels strutting across it.  

Finally, off in the distance, I spotted a watering hole, or a Caffe Nero as it's more commonly known.  I went in and treated myself to a chai latte and a clean toilet while my coat dried.  I was also glad of the opportunity to spend one of those awful Scottish banknotes I had got out of the cash machine at Waverley.  I had a vague terror of still having some when I went back to England, so for my time in Scotland I paid for everything with a note.  Coffees, magazines, packets of gum - everything, no matter how small.  It meant that by the time I went home my pockets were dangling round my ankles because they were full of small change but it was worth it.

By the time I'd finished my drink the rain had stopped so I headed out.  Now I just had to find the exit.  This being a retail park, they hadn't really taken pedestrians into account - you only had to walk as far as your car - so I was constantly skipping across roads and dodging between parked vehicles.  Finally I found an exit, though I wasn't sure it was the exit I actually wanted.  At least it looked a little more civilised.

This seemed to be Edinburgh's retail district, a row of superstores lining a long straight road and stretching into the distance.  I passed under the A1 and saw my station further along, opposite a Premier Inn that I probably should've stayed at instead of the Travelodge in the city.  Yes, my hotel was just off Princes Street, but it was also accessed via the kind of dark alley that only shows up in crime scenes, and my view was of the back of a building.

Newcraighall opened at the same time as Brunstane.  Its position close to the A1 made it ideal for a Park and Ride and as a result it's a bland nothing of a station; a car park with a platform attached.  It did have an embankment with flowers on it, and a sign informing me that the flowers were maintained by the Rotary Club of Portobello, plus a steel artwork on a mound.

Apparently it commemorates "the 40th anniversary of local director Bill Douglas releasing his iconic film 'My Childhood'"I don't know what that is, but well done.  Newcraighall was the terminus of the line for a decade, with trains going straight through Edinburgh and out the other side.  When the Borders Railway proper opened, however, that ended.  I took a seat and waited for my train, a little excited.  I was about to travel on the new section.

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Infrastructure! Infrastructure! They've all got it Infrastructure!

When I bravely returned to the trains - still waiting for my OBE, folks - I spotted this at in the booking hall of Birkenhead Park station.

After decades of the only access to the platform being via a stepped ramp - lovely if you've got a pushchair or are in a wheelchair - they're finally going to put in a lift.  Sadly the design isn't anything to write home about, just a brick tower wedged on the side of the existing ramp.  It's a shame they didn't take the opportunity to redevelop the station itself.  Until the Luftwaffe intervened, Birkenhead Park looked like this:

Photo from The Wirral Railway and its Predecessors
by T B Maund FCILT

And now it looks like this:

Photo from Google Streetview

The area around the station is actually remarkably lively, with a varied parade of shops and new apartment blocks being constructed close by.  Plus of course you have the Park itself, which has become a real tourist attraction in recent years.  You could knock down that disappointing brick shed, build something modern and appealing, and stick three or four floors of flats over the top to pay for it.  Merseyrail gets a nice new station, the area gets a load of new homes, everyone's a winner.

Anyway it got me thinking that I haven't really passed my expert* (*not an expert) opinion on the various developments that are happening on my beat so I thought I'd do a little very late news round up.  I'm concentrating on stuff that's happening on Merseyside because I am, at heart, the Merseytart; there are also interesting developments happening across the North and West Midlands that I look forward to visiting someday.

Lift Me Up

So those Birkenhead Park lifts are part of a funding package that'll put new elevators in at five stations across Merseyrail.  Meols got their last year - eventually; it seemed to be the slowest construction project in history, and they didn't even have a pandemic in the way.  Hunts Cross will be next, with Birkenhead Park, Hillside and St Michaels to follow.  The graphics for the plans are all a bit "Grand Designs CGI in an episode from 2003 that isn't even widescreen" but you get the gist.

Combined with the new trains with their sliding footplates this should mean that Merseyrail is getting closer to being entirely step-free.  It's agonisingly slow though.

Lea Lands

Lea Green is mainly famous for being a massive series of ramps with a station attached.  That's not going to change, but St Helens Council recently approved plans for an all new building to improve the facilities there.

Photo from Google Streetview

Let's be honest, the existing station is a public toilet with pretensions.  It's inadequate by most metrics, but more especially for a station whose usage has shot up in recent years.  The plan is for it to be swept away and replaced with something far more interesting.

In addition to a new multi-storey car park for better Park and Ride facilities, there'll be a much bigger station building, with waiting facilities and catering.  The area will be landscaped with a new station square constructed.

All this is great of course and I support it wholeheartedly.  My only slight complaint is that the platforms and station are separated by the new plaza; it seems a bit weird to turn left to buy a ticket, then turn round and leave the building again to reach the trains.  However, with new ticketing technology and a lot of season ticket holders using that Park and Ride I imagine the booking office won't be incredibly busy anyway.  Well done Merseytravel and St Helens; now how about starting work on Carr Mill station?

Quarter Measures

If you've ever used Runcorn station you'll know it's... not great.  It looks like a Portakabin and it's woefully inadequate considering it's the first stop for London trains outside Liverpool.  Things will only get worse as HS2-compatible trains call, not to mention any increase in services to North Wales.  Fortunately the construction of the new Mersey Gateway bridge has meant the council has been able to radically alter the road network around the station.  Previously it cowered under flyovers for the Silver Jubilee bridge; now they've been swept away, and the plans are to replace them with homes, offices and shops, plus a new station building.

That's more like it - glass and concrete creating a welcoming gateway to the town.  The only slight flaw in the plan is the council's application for funding from the Government was rejected.  They're still pushing ahead as best as they can.


The Borderlands Line continues its very slow progress towards being an actually useful part of the railway network.  There are the new trains, of course, with their hybrid engines to make the journey smoother and faster.  Faster, more reliable trains will mean that the service can go to two trains an hour, making it a lot handier.  And the Government recently awarded funds to progress the design of a new Deeside Parkway station, beside the industrial park between Neston and Hawarden Bridge.  Add in Merseytravel's own plans for a Park and Ride station at Woodchurch and the suggestion that the new 777 trains could run down the line from Liverpool city centre and the Mid-Wirral Railway suddenly looks like an extremely interesting prospect indeed.  

New Frontiers

Whenever new Merseyrail stations are floated, two are at the top of the list: Headbolt Lane in Kirkby and St James beneath Liverpool city centre.  (Give it up, Town Meadow, it's never going to happen).  

To briefly summarise St James: until the First World War there was a station in an open cutting just south of the city centre at Parliament Street.  It was never well used and when wartime cuts came in they closed it and never reopened it.  The cutting remains as an access point for Network Rail but it's never been a priority.  

Now the area around it is the fastest growing district in the city centre.  There are new apartment blocks springing up everywhere, Cains Brewery is a big tourist attraction with its bars and eateries, and there are loads of new businesses and hotels appearing in the Baltic area.  Add to that the fact that it's halfway along a mile and a half section of railway without a station and it'd open up investment opportunities in Toxteth and it's all a no brainer.  

The project is now progressing but at a depressingly glacial pace.  Last Autumn the City Region agreed to give Network Rail £1.2 million to progress with the design, while another £300,000 was paid out to buy the land adjoining the cutting, enabling the Council to safeguard it for a station building.  This is all great of course but I just want to scream get on with it!  I want my new glamorous Baltic station!  (St James is, obviously, an unacceptable name).

There's better news for Headbolt Lane station with funding finally in place and plans for work to start later this year, with a hopeful finishing date of 2023.  Headbolt Lane does have the advantage of being in a much more accessible part of the city region, with plenty of space for a station and a bus exchange, but it'll still involve extending the electrified lines another mile or so.  I'm not too impressed by the station building - at first glance I thought it was half-timbered, but instead it seems to be a direct copy of Maghull North - and it still seems to be one platform rather than two.  That'll have to come later, if and when the Skem extension is built, so it seems daft not to do it now.  I also hope, given recent events at Kirkby, that they're going to build a really big set of buffers.  But I'm glad it's finally happening.

In more speculative news, the new Everton stadium at Bramley Moore Dock recently got planning permission.  The dock is barely a quarter of a mile from the Northern Line, at a point which would interrupt the big gap between Sandhills and Moorfields.  Everyone seems to agree that a new station would be a great idea.  Nobody seems to agree who should pay for it.  We'll see.

Elsewhere, the new Paddington development behind the new Royal is right over the tracks into Lime Street, leading to suggestions of a new station there (nice idea, but won't happen); the Mayor is looking into a spot for a brand new HS2 station (will probably open after I die so you know, whatever) and Network Rail continues to scratch its head and try to work out what to do with the hopelessly overcrowded and almost dangerous Liverpool Central.  New platform?  Lots of new platforms?  A new station entirely?  Who knows what will happen?  (Probably nothing until someone literally falls off the packed platform and dies but until then we'll keep our fingers crossed).

Tuesday 13 April 2021

Return Trip

I was in West Kirby, paying a socially distant visit to a person in my bubble, because those are all phrases that make sense in 2021.  The BF had dropped me off earlier that day but now it was time to go home and, rather than calling him for a return trip, I did something wild.  I took the train.

It's over a year since I last took a train.  The pandemic ruled out any non-essential journeys, and "going to Birmingham to take pictures of stations" is the very definition of non-essential.  On top of that, the BF has a number of underlying conditions, so he's been shielding since about last February.  I've been shielding with him too, because I'm nice like that and I don't particularly want him to die, but it does mean I've barely left the house.  So here I was, on a train platform.

I was anxious, of course.  I was wearing a mask.  I didn't really know what to expect.  I boarded the train and found a seat.  My first surprise was that there weren't any taped off; I'd seen pictures on social media of other train companies' efforts to encourage a 2 metre gap.  Merseyrail doesn't bother with any of that.  I wedged myself in a corner.

The only other person on the train was a man reading a book.  Later in the journey he'd take advantage of the light passenger numbers to rest his feet on the seat in front; it's good to know the pandemic bringing the nation together hasn't stopped people from being massive arseholes.

Just before we departed a third person boarded, a young, tall man.  He was not wearing a mask.  Now it's possible he was under 16, even though he was about six foot seven.  It's also possible he was another of those massive arseholes.  He disembarked at Hoylake with a smirk, as though he'd beaten the system.

We took off.  The guard ran through her usual announcements, but now there was a new one about wearing masks "unless you are exempt."  I always love the grudging way announcements add that, a kind of yeah, we totally believe you're exempt, honest undercurrent.  In my limited experience out and about I've observed that an awful lot of people who are "exempt" are middle aged men with miserable faces, the kind of men who'd ask you what you was staring at in a pub.  Funny that.

The familiar stations rolled by - Hoylake, Manor Road, Meols, Moreton.  There was a cyclist at Manor Road, but that was it.  It was so soothing to be back on the trains.  To sit quietly and watch the view.  To think about nothing except the gentle grind of the wheels, the whirr of the engine, that clicking noise that I'm really going to miss when the 777s come in.

At Leasowe a girl in a natty green gingham jacket boarded.  She reached into her handbag and checked her make up with a small compact.  There was something surreal about her inspection, giving such attention to the two inch wide strip visible between her fringe and her mask.  She gently fluffed at her eyelashes, the only part of her visible, then pulled out a hairbrush and ran it through her blonde hair.

My anxiety had largely subsided.  The train was quiet and almost empty.  Everyone was civilised.  I didn't feel like someone was about to barrel on, hacking up virus all over the place, like the man at the start of The Thing.  It felt normal.

At Birkenhead North depot, there were a couple of Transport for Wales trains, those converted Tube trains destined for use on the Borderlands Line and which I'd never before seen in the flesh.  There was a pause at the station, enough time for me to watch British Transport Police officers on the bridge enforcing ticket and mask checks.

Birkenhead Park.  Home.  I got off the train, thrilled with the familiarity, the ordinariness of it.  I had worried that going so long without travelling would mean I would find the return stressful.  It wasn't.  It was normal.  I'm not sure when I'll get up the courage for a longer journey - maybe after my second dose - but it's been done.  That period of time without taking a train trip has finally ended.

You can't tell, but I'm smiling.

Friday 2 April 2021

Norfolkin' About

Here's the links to the entire Wherry Lines trip from start to finish, so you can read it in the right order.  If you care about that kind of thing.  And judging by the blog stats, not many of you do!

Day One - 23rd June 2016

A train of thought

Day Two - 24th June 2016

Misery, depression and a rabbit - Norwich, Brundall, Brundall Gardens, Lingwood, Acle

Oh I don't like to be beside the seaside - Great Yarmouth

A famously obscure station and a much needed pint - Berney Arms, Reedham

Day Three - 25th June 2016

Ferries and the far east - Reedham again, Haddiscoe, Lowestoft

Day Four - 26th June 2016

Muddying the waters - Buckenham, Cantley, Somerleyton, Oulton Broad North