Tuesday 25 January 2022

The Baltic State

When I moved to the northwest in 1995, I would get the train from Ormskirk into Liverpool.  The Merseyrail map had, down near the bottom of the Wirral Line: Eastham Rake - Under Construction.

A couple of years later, the map was updated again, and there were two new Merseyrail stations stations marked as Under Construction: Conway Park and Brunswick, plus Wavertree Technology Park on the City Lines.

It meant that I got the impression that Liverpool's railway network was a constantly developing hotbed of excitement.  It turned out this wasn't true.  However, we do seem to be in the middle of another purple patch of new station thrills.  Maghull North opened a couple of years ago, Headbolt Lane is under construction, and the Skem and Borderlands extensions are glacially progressing.  And then we got some news about the new city station, on the site of the long closed St James.  A consultation about the name, plus a whizzy fly through video.

My first impression?  Wow.  A station fan in the United Kingdom has a certain in-built sense of disappointment.  We're used to being promised a fancy new line with beautiful architecture then getting a single stub with a bus shelter on a platform.  We're used to getting promised a massive high speed railway that will transform the nation then getting one branch lopped off and a new station in Manchester that is badly designed.  

Now all this is caveated with the design is not yet finalised and this video is indicative but that's a proper station.  I had been afraid that we would get a repeat of the rather disappointing glasshouses that have shown up at Maghull North and Headbolt Lane.  They're little triangular sheds that house the ticket hall and nothing more.  Here, Merseytravel and the Liverpool City Region authority have made a large, spacious building.

This is, after all, a city centre station.  More than that, it's probably the first station to be proposed that will encourage travel within the centre.  At the moment, few people would get a Merseyrail train from, say, Moorfields to Central; by the time you work your way from the surface to the platform, ride the train, then come back up, you may as well have walked.  

The new station, however, is in a spot that is just that bit too far to walk.  There's a reason why the Baltic has been slow to develop along with the rest of the city - it's too isolated away from the rest of the city centre.  It's almost a mile from Central on foot, and that's a walking route along busy roads and dodgy backstreets.  Putting a new station in this spot would open up travel for just one or two stops in a way that doesn't currently exist.  

The inclusion of a cycle hub adds real value to the site, making it a public transport interchange on a few levels.  Presumably they'll also stick in a spot to hire those whizzy e-scooters that are constantly being driven on the pavement all over Liverpool.  With any luck they'll also tame the roads around the station - Parliament Street is six lanes here; not exactly a pedestrian and cycle friendly environment.  

Head inside and you can buy tickets for CalTrain, San Francisco's commuter rail network, which is very handy I'm sure you'll agree.  Of course I'm joking; the CGI used is rudimentary but does the job, and you just have to ignore the blank unstaring faces of the commuters.  There's also a cafe in the ticket hall, with some tables set outside, which I'm sure will definitely happen.

It was when the flythrough went through the ticket barriers that I realised Merseyrail were taking this station seriously.  The station has escalators.  Escalators are expensive to install and maintain and so often get value engineered away - Conway Park lost its escalators before it was built and ended up with lifts only.  A station in a city centre should absolutely have escalators.  You want to whizz people to and from the platform as quickly as possible.  

At platform level, there's a pleasing mix of old and new, the 150 year old cutting walls complemented by new steel and glass inserts.  It's a bit like Liverpool South Parkway, the last really big project Merseytravel dealt with, right down to the over-track waiting area.  

The final piece of the puzzle is what to call it.  There are three options:
  • Liverpool Baltic
  • Liverpool Parliament Street
  • Liverpool Riverside
Leaving aside the pointless "Liverpool" prefix (which will probably only be used in official documents, like how the underground station is Lime Street on the trackside signs and maps but Liverpool Lime Street everywhere else), it's clear that these names aren't equal.  We can rule out "Riverside" right now, because it's a daft suggestion, and the station's nowhere near the river.  Both James Street and Brunswick are much closer to the Mersey and you don't want tourists getting off at Riverside station looking for the Albert Dock.  "Parliament Street" is geographically accurate, but incredibly dull - naming a station after the road it's on is the laziest possible solution.  Also, Parliament Street becomes Upper Parliament Street at this junction, and Upper Parliament Street is a mile long; if you didn't know too much about Liverpool and wanted to get to the Women's Hospital you might get off at Parliament Street station and then face a very long walk.

So it's Baltic, really, the name that the station has been informally referred to for years, the name that describes the area it's in, the name that has fashionable cachet.  Even if the public voted for Riverside I suspect there'd be a Blue Peter-style fudging of the results to get the name the authority wants.

To summarise: this is a great proposal that could transform the city centre completely.  Please build it right now.  Thanks.

You can vote for the new station name here.  Please vote Baltic.  

Tuesday 11 January 2022

Heading Out

This blog has, right from the start, included photographs.  Back then they were taken on my Sony Ericsson phone (sidebar: I bloody loved my Sony Ericsson phones, until they suddenly went very shit indeed).  Today they're taken with an actual camera, meaning you have come to expect a certain level of quality from the photography here.

Those standards will not be met in this blog post.  I apologise in advance.

I'd gone out to Kirkby because I'd heard that work had started on the newest addition to the Merseyrail network, Headbolt Lane.  At the moment it's mainly enabling works - there's no actual steel or anything coming out of the ground - but still, a significant moment.  The first new station since Maghull North in 2018 and the first extension to the Merseyrail network since the Ellesmere Port line was electrified in 1994.  

I had to go out there in a car because of, variously, Omicron, Kirkby's reputation, and laziness, so I enlisted the BF to drive.  I do have a driving licence, and even used to have my own car, but when I had my breakdown it knocked all the confidence out of me and filled me with anxiety.  I once moved the car from the drive to the road outside and ended up sweaty and panicky with my Fitbit basically registering my heartbeat as "coronary" so that was the end of that.

He drove us out to Kirkby, a town which will never be mistaken for Venice.  It was built as overflow for Liverpool with an accompanying mass of industry for employment and like many towns of its ilk it's suffered from unemployment, crime and poverty ever since.  In recent years, Knowsley Council has made an effort to regenerate the place; some of the more regrettable housing estates have been knocked down, the town centre has been rebuilt, but this is still the place where every Hallowe'en the bus drivers go on strike because of the very real problem of kids chucking cement blocks at their windscreens.  

Hence the need for Headbolt Lane.  A lot of new housing has been built in an attempt to woo new residents to the town, and a fast efficient link into Liverpool would be a major catalyst for development.  It helps that Kirkby station itself has always been a bit rubbish - two single tracks meeting at buffers as the electrified Northern Line gives way to the diesel Wigan line - and that the branch has always had a lot of slack, timetable wise, meaning it's easy to slot another stop in.

We cruised the streets of the town until we encountered Headbolt Lane itself and there it was: the worksite.  Like many new towns, the planners had decided that what people really want is lots of long looping roads with no pavements, meaning there was nowhere to stop and get out and walk.  As a result, all the pictures are taken from a moving car, and a car that could do with a wash as well, so the dark foreboding skies may also be crud on the windscreen.  

The station will, eventually, occupy the curve between the road and the railway (as someone has nicely marked up on Google Maps) with a park and ride, cycle stands, and a station building.  For now, they're simply levelling the ground and getting movers and diggers on site.

At this point the workmen spotted me snapping photos from the dashboard like a very bad private detective and started giving me funny looks, probably thinking I was from Network Rail checking they weren't slacking, so I took one more photo then we headed off.

Further down the line was a pedestrian footbridge over the railway and I thought this might be a good place to get some more shots.  Kirkby's reputation for, let's say "mischief", put paid to that.  The entire bridge was encased in a metal cage with only the narrowest of gaps between the bars; I managed to stick my telephoto lens through a bit but there are still shadows at the top and bottom.

Someday there will be two platforms for Merseyrail, a third for Northern trains, and a proper commuter station around those tracks.  A few years after that - with any luck - it'll be a through line to take you all the way to Skelmersdale.  Next year we'll be able to come here on one of those brand new trains they keep teasing us with.  Then we can get on the next train back because you don't really want to hang around.

Monday 3 January 2022

Tickets Please!

I had to go to West Kirby yesterday.  It was a Sunday, and who even knows what the timetables are these days with Covid, so I went to the journey planner on the Merseyrail app to find out when the trains were.  It came up with the times, and also the fares for the journey:

For some reason, it is 25p cheaper for me to get a Wirral-only Day Saver ticket - which allows me as many journeys over Merseyrail on the peninsula as I want - than to get a simple Birkenhead Park-West Kirby return.  This is obviously illogical and is probably down to some nefarious corporate shenanigans I am not privy to.  All I know is, as a customer, I could save myself an entire quarter of a pound by getting a Day Saver.  So I decided to do that.

I also remembered seeing Merseyrail's Twitter feed, and its website, and how it said you could buy the Day Saver online.  Handy!

You can't buy a Day Saver from within the app.  That would seem like the logical place to buy it - I was sat there with my phone in my hand, Apple Pay at the ready.  But no.  Instead I had to open the Merseyrail website on my phone and go to Buy Tickets Online there.

I went onto the page and there was another problem.  The only Day Saver on offer was one for the whole of the network - £5.50.  Which, if you've been paying attention, is more than the £4.35 return to West Kirby, and more than the £4.10 Day Saver I'd been promised by the app.

By this time I was getting a little disgruntled.  The logical thing to do would be to stop, go to the station and buy the cheap Day Saver in person.  I did not do this.  I'd put time into this purchase, dammit, and besides, I thought this might be some prime CONTENT for the blog.  Look, I'm not going out on the trains, I've got to put something up here to justify that Ko-Fi money (by the way, thank you to the anonymous person who is paying £3 a month, even when there's no posts at all; you're a treasure and a king/queen).  I therefore decided to use that Ko-Fi cash to buy the more expensive ticket, just because I'd not done it before, and I was curious.  I ticked the boxes to say I wanted an adult ticket for today.

This took me to another page where I had to fill in my e-mail address... and my name... and my phone number.  It seemed like a lot - isn't my e-mail address enough? - but I did it anyway.

Finally, proceed to payment.  Once again, I was going to have to type.  I had a device in my hand where a tap of my fingerprint (yes, I'm on an iPhone 8, I'm old-skool) could authorise a payment from my account.  This option was not available.  Instead I had to find my wallet and type in all my card details.

After a couple of redirects, and a wait that started to prickle at my anxieties, success!  I had purchased a Day Saver and now I could access the PDF with my ticket on it.  Yes, you read that right; I was e-mailed a PDF so I could print it out if I wanted.

This is, let's be honest, nonsense.  In 2022 there is no need for any of this.  I have various apps for various different train companies; I've been buying e-tickets for years.  Most of the time it goes something like this:
  • Pick a journey
  • Pick a ticket
  • Press my finger to the Home button to pay
  • Put it in my iPhone Wallet, or in the train company app, and activate it on the day
There's a QR code that I can use if I'm stopped by a ticket inspector, or on ticket gates.  It sits in my phone and is easily accessible and simple to use.  Why are Merseyrail persisting with this system?

As with everything else to do with ticketing on Merseyside, it's archaic and over-complicated.  The ability to pick up pre-booked tickets at stations was only added late last year, even though, as a network with 100% fully staffed ticket offices, this should have been a service for years.  The MetroCard continues to struggle to exist, much as its predecessor the Walrus did, with weird quirks for no reason (why can't I order a card online?  Why do I have to go to a PayPoint store?).  It's 2022; I have a device in my hand that has more processing power than every NASA computer that sent men to the moon.  I should be able to simply buy a ticket online.  Leaving everything else aside, the easier it is to buy a ticket, the more likely people are to do it.  

I'm sure there are plans to improve all this; I'm sure there is one very overworked young programmer sweating over his PC trying to wrangle the future.  As a customer, however, it all feels a bit last century.

(Obviously, after all this wrangling, my ticket wasn't checked once, so I could've quite easily not bothered and saved myself the money).