Tuesday 31 October 2023

Giving Headbolt

The novelty of the new trains hasn't worn off yet.  Admittedly, part of that is because there's still a very good chance that you'll end up on one of the old ones; the rollout hasn't exactly been speedy.  But still, it's cheering to be stood on a platform and see people's faces literally light up when that white M bursts out of the tunnel.  

I was finally heading out to Merseyrail's newest station, Headbolt Lane.  This was actually my second try at getting to it.  The first, with Robert, had been foiled by a broken down train on the Ormskirk line which caused ripples of uselessness throughout the network.  Our first train was cancelled, then our second vanished from the board, and we were told to simply get on the next train and change at Sandhills.  This was more of a measure to get us off the busy platform at Central as once we got to Sandhills there was no sign of a train and there was a vague muttering about bus replacements.  We managed to get a train back into town where we were forced to console ourselves.

Real suffering, I'm sure you'll agree.

I was in town with a little time to spare before I met someone so I decided it was an opportune time to go out to the new end of the line.  I hopped on board and found my new favourite seat.  One thing I was sad to lose with the retirement of the 507/508s was the little sideways seat, tucked behind the banks of four; as a frequent sole traveller I liked sitting somewhere I wouldn't be forced to be sociable or close to other human beings.  Fortunately the new 777s have a similar seat which I nipped straight into.

(Before someone pops up in the comments, no, this wasn't 777 007, as pictured above; I have no idea what number it was.  I was just pleased to see the 007 train, which Merseyrail are welcome to name after me any time).

The journey was smooth and unproblematic.  The wifi worked, which is the first time that's ever happened for me on one of the new trains.  We passed through Sandhills and Kirkdale, and then took the branch to Rice Lane.  One curiosity is that the automated announcement says "the next station stop" - "The next station stop is Rice Lane.  The next station stop is Fazakerley."  The scrolling displays, meanwhile, only say "stop".  I'd have gone with station, myself, what with them being actual stations.  

Kirkby was just another station now, though still with one platform.  Perhaps to keep costs down, perhaps because of the bridge over the M57, the extension hasn't also involved a doubling of the line.  The new track is double, but the old third rail remains as a single.  I listened out for any noises as we switched from electric to battery power, similar to when the pantograph is lowered and raised at City Thameslink, but there wasn't anything.  Instead we simply slid out of the station and on the last few hundred yards to the terminus.

Headbolt Lane was built for the future.  It's got plenty of space to circulate.  Its two platforms are carefully aligned with the Northern service to Wigan so that it can be extended if necessary, perhaps even to Skelmersdale now there's all that money swimming around after the cancellation of HS2 (lol not really).  If the battery trains are a success, perhaps they can go all the way to the end of the line, or at least as far as poor Rainford, which is technically under Merseytravel's jurisdiction but gets none of the advantages.  In the meantime, a fence has been put up between the Merseyrail and Northern sections of the station.

Note, by the way, the Metro rather than Merseyrail branding.  This has been slowly creeping out across the network but nobody seems to have acknowledged it.  I first spotted it outside Rice Lane station back in March, and the new trains also have the same logo.  I assume this is like when the Elizabeth Line wasn't finished, so the lines taken over by Crossrail were branded "TfL Rail" so they didn't tarnish the brand.  Presumably once it's all 777s, all the time, there will be a big comprehensive relaunch and Merseyrail will be retired.

Outside the station, it's still chaotic.  The main contractor went bust during the build (also jeopardising Anfield's new stand) so the car park is a mess of no tarmac and diggers.  The bus exchange is sort of finished, but I didn't see any buses actually using it.  

There's also a new station building.  Maghull North, the previous newest station, was a pretty dull affair, little more than a conservatory with a ticket office in it.  On the other hand Ainsdale, which got a comprehensive rebuild five years ago, is a triumph.  

Headbolt Lane is a compromise between the two.  It's a beast of a building.  It's open and welcoming, and it has plenty of space and light.

Inside there's seating and toilets and a ticket office with actual people in it, plus a machine for socially awkward losers like me who don't like talking to humans.  It's all very efficient, although it's not exactly inspiring.  The design is perfunctory but - elephant in the room - in this part of Merseyside, it's bound to be constructed for security above all else.  No point in building an elaborate glass chandelier if the local scallies are going to use it for target practice.

I hope they won't.  A big part of building this station out here on the fringe of the network is bringing opportunity to an area that didn't have so much before.  Headbolt Lane to Liverpool Central is now a twenty minute direct journey; the number 20 bus, which goes from County Road nearby, takes roughly fifty minutes to reach Whitechapel in the city centre.  That'll help the residents of an area where car ownership is incredibly low get new job prospects and travel options.  

I think I'll have to come back again when the station is properly finished.  See it in its glory; find that totem sign out front.  In the meantime, I've once again completed the Merseyrail map.  Now crack on with Baltic, will you?

Thursday 12 October 2023

How To Name A Railway Station

For reasons far too boring to go into here, I am currently sat in a Starbucks trying to find a way to kill a few hours.  I have a chai latte, a laptop, and nothing else to do.  So why not write a blog post based on a WhatsApp message?  Everything is #content.  

A few days ago, one of my group chats was ablaze with the opening of Headbolt Lane.  This is a small chat for homosexual train fans, and one of its members queried the name "Headbolt Lane".  "Why not, for example, Kirkby East?" he asked.  It's a valid point.  Headbolt Lane, after all, doesn't mean anything outside of its very specific location.  

That's not the point though, and this is why I launched into my Official Ranking Of Station Name Categories.  This is a list that all planners should work their way down to ensure that their brand new station is named interestingly and well.  As always, it is my opinion and mine alone, and is therefore absolutely correct and should be a law.  

Here's the hierarchy, anyway, starting with the best and working your way down:

1.  Named after the town/district/area

This is the ideal, of course.  Formby.  Meols.  West Kirby.  This is the station serving a particular area and so the name of the town is front and centre.  This might seem like the most obvious option but you'd be surprised how many times people swerve it.  This also applies to sub-areas of larger towns - so Birkdale, even though it's just a suburb of Southport, or Aughton Park as a part of Ormskirk, and it's why Baltic is an excellent name for the proposed station in Liverpool city centre.

2.  Named after the street it's on

This is where Headbolt Lane comes in and it's useful for stations that are not quite central enough.  Headbolt Lane, for example, is located at the crossover point between the Tower Hill and Northwood areas of Kirkby; the railway line is the division point.  Naming it after one or the other would ignore the other so, there you go, Headbolt Lane.  Neutral, yet descriptive.  Similarly, Manor Road is a simpler descriptor than That Weird No Man's Land Between Meols And Hoylake Which Is Technically Hoylake But Is Similarly A Little Bit Too Common To Be Hoylake.  

3.  A compass point.

It's a town, but it's not necessarily the middle of the town, so it gets a geographic descriptor to let you know it's not where the shops and the town hall are.  Birkenhead Central is right opposite the Pyramids shopping centre; Birkenhead North is an estate a couple of miles away where you probably don't want to alight unless you're not particularly attached to your handbag.  Maghull North is a park and ride on the edge of town, while Maghull - well, actually, neither station is very convenient for Maghull's centre, but the older station has history on its side at least.  A compass point is a bit of a boring option to be honest, unimaginative, a photocopy of what's already there.  

4. _____ Parkway

Parkways are tedious in the extreme.  You are announcing "Here is where you can park your car! (Also there's a railway station)".  It makes the public transport part subservient to the car part, and that should never happen.  Does Maghull North suffer from not having "Parkway" in its name to let everyone know they can park there?  The lack of available spaces on an average weekday would seem to indicate not.  This does mean that Liverpool South Parkway, by combining both points 3 and 4, actually comes out as a 7 and therefore has one of the dullest names you can possibly have.  I stand by that.

5.  After a person, battle, or historic event

This one doesn't come up much in the UK - Waterloo besides - but it often happens abroad so I'm putting it in here.  The Paris Metro, in particular, are mad for it, with stations named after people rather than the districts they're like Marx Dormoy or Jaures, though sadly Blanche isn't a tribute to Deirdre's mum in Coronation Street.  Kings and Queens aside, us Brits don't tend to bother with this, though the recent renaming of the Pier Head as Liverpool Gerry Marsden Ferry Terminal makes me slightly afraid that any future expansions of the Merseyrail network could go to Cilla Black, Paul McCartney, or Aveline Boswell.

6.  After a nearby property development

This is the actual worst one because it's incredibly artificial.  During its planning stages, there was going to be a station called Birkenhead Market on the Wirral Line; presumably someone noticed that having four stations with Birkenhead in the name was a bit much so it was renamed Conway Park after the new development in the area.  This is a name that means absolutely nothing to anyone beyond that one strip of offices and even now, twenty odd years after it opened, still nobody calls the area Conway Park.  Similarly, Wavertree Technology Park does a real disservice to the historic district of Wavertree.  That's the real attraction here, not a load of sheds wedged in the gap between the railway line and a retail park.  It's a horrible name that already feels very dated.  Even if the developer is slipping you a massive wodge of money you should resist this - look at the mess of three Canary Wharf stations in London to see why you should politely say "no thank you" and name your station after something relevant and nice.

So there you go: an answer to a question you never thought to ask.  I hope this list will be printed out and pinned up in Network Rail HQ for future reference.  Feel free to tell me I'm wrong in the comments, but know this - I'm not.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Dumb Witness

I miss Poirot on the telly.  Proper Poirot, I mean, with David Suchet, and an hour long, and that incredible title sequence on a Sunday night.  Not Kenneth Branagh or John Malkovich or even the later Suchet movies based on one of Agatha Christie's more bonkers novels even though it is basically unfilmable (seriously, full marks to Mark Gatiss for even trying to adapt The Big Four).  It was a luxurious slip into a charming universe where people in very posh frocks indulged in a little light bludgeoning.  It didn't take itself to seriously, it wasn't trying to say something deep about the human psyche, there was nobody stepping on someone's back in a pair of high heels.  It was good clean murdery fun.

Part of Poirot's charm was that it was forever set in a nebulous "Jazz Age".  The actual Christie novels spanned a period of nearly fifty years, but the TV show relocated them all to an era of flappers and cigarette holders, rightly recognising that nobody really wanted to see Miss Lemon doing the frug or Inspector Japp tripping on LSD.  It submerged itself in a world of clean lines, elegant white facades, and stainless steel lamps.  It embodied Art Deco.  

Leamington Spa station was rebuilt in the late thirties to an Art Deco design and for a while I could pretend I was in a Poirot.  I wouldn't be a murderer, of course, being a working class oik; I'd be one of the porters at the station carrying the bags of some pencil thin heiress, or, if I was lucky, a red herring victim, one of those uppity plebs who tries to blackmail a few shillings out of the killer and ends up stabbed in the throat.  It's a station that's been beautifully preserved and restored.  The refreshment rooms might offer lattes and Diet Cokes, but they embody an era of tea urns and chippy women behind the counter.  The larger of the two has been turned into a full bar, which I wholeheartedly support.

The only thing that let the whole affair down was the 21st century.  The people on the platforms absolutely refused to wear suit and ties and listened to music on their smartphones through Bluetooth headphones.  The trains chugged in with diesel engines rattling the light fixtures.  The staff waited by automated ticket gates and not one of them doffed their cap to me as I passed.  How dare they fail to indulge me.

Outside, I immediately fell for the white symmetrical station frontage, even if cars have come along and ruined the forecourt.  A humped crossing for pedestrians was regarded as somewhere convenient to stop for an Uber driver, while another roared away at a speed entirely unsuitable for the narrow car park.  Fortunately the station sign was away from the main run.  It is there, honest, behind that tree.

There was a small underpass to one side and I ducked down it for a look.  Leamington Spa had two stations for a long time, literally backing onto one another: the current station was the Great Western one, while across the tracks was Avenue, run by the London and North Western.

This was a ridiculous arrangement after nationalisation, of course, doubling up services for no good reason, so Avenue was closed in 1965 and is now blocks of flats - though the street name, Station Approach, lingers on.  

The underpass, meanwhile, has been decorated with an artwork, The Royal Leamington Spa Colour Palette, by Stacey Barnfield.  It's part of a series of schemes where local features are represented by colours, and though there are similar works for Birmingham, Brighton, even Liverpool, it feels right somehow that Royal Leamington Spa has one.  It feels very Laura Ashley, very middle class, very aspirational.  Much like the town.

I went from the station into the Old Town.  Before the spas were built in the 18th century, this was simply another small Warwickshire settlement.  The discovery of the springs, however, as part of the trend of taking "medicinal" waters, meant it was suddenly a top tourist spot.  The population ramped up considerably and to accommodate them and the visitors a new town was built across the river.

This side of the river was still where the smaller, less well-regarded businesses hung out.  There were Polish shops and kebab houses, vape stores and an Iceland, while a decent looking pub had its entrance blocked by three men having a very intense and possibly violent conversation.  Leamington Spa is popular with students from Warwick University and this really felt like the part of town they rolled through, drunk.

I crossed the river Leam and reached the elegant, Regency side of the town.  Immediately on my left was the town's pump rooms, now repurposed as the museum and art gallery.  Disappointingly, there doesn't seem to be an opportunity to actually take the waters any more.  I'd have thought Gwyneth Paltrow would've been all over that.  It apparently had a sulphurous tang, and was a mild laxative, but Goop could soon package that as a positive.  A natural cleanse to restore your auras and chakras or something.  You could bathe in it - suitably warmed for modern sensibilities - and then spend the afternoon emptying out your interiors to give you a pallid glow.

"But wait!" locals are shouting at their screen.  "You can taste the water in Leamington!  There's a fountain outside!"  And yes, there is a stone column, inscribed with artistic fonts, and with a tap wedged in the front, constructed for the Millennium.  

It is, however, dry.  I was there with my empty bottle, hoping to fill it with this medicinal goodness, and I got nothing.  Like so much in this country, it promises a lot and delivers very little.  I'm sure the Council would love to get it working again but budgets and cuts and prioritisation of services and so on - the constant drumbeat of neglect and sadness you get wherever you go in the country now.

Still, the Parade - or rather Parade, as it's technically called, much like Carpenters - is very impressive.  It's a long straight avenue lined with white fronted Georgian shops and restaurants and it was gleaming in the sunshine.  It was broken up by the terracotta Town Hall, fronted by a statue of Queen Victoria looking her usual happy self, but mostly it was a stretch of extreme elegance.

The people of Royal Leamington Spa came in two flavours.  There were the young, lairy types, bouncing around noisily, making too much noise.  Then there were the ladies in wax jackets and neckerchiefs, wafting along the pavement, neat tote bags tucked under their arm.  The two did not interact or crossover.  The shops, meanwhile, had been coerced by the town council into having only the classiest of signs - no neon or internally lit or, heaven forbid, laser printed gaucheness here, just neat lettering spaced along the frontage of the building.  It made everything look so much better.

I mean, imagine if Planet Bong hadn't got this classy font.  It would totally lower the tone.  Still, I'd rather go to Planet Bong than the frigging Edinburgh Woollen Mills, which had a store opposite.  Boo!

Parade - it feels very odd writing that - ends in Christchurch Gardens, a large expanse of grass and trees.  I turned right and disappeared into the smaller streets behind.  I fancied a pint, but I was still too close to the town centre; the pubs here were very much gastro, boasting of their fine grass fed steaks or Wing Wednesdays (40p a wing!) and then in tiny letters underneath or you could just have a drink I guess, we're ok with that, you take up a table with a single glass of wine when we could have a family of four filling their faces in that spot, no, it's totally fine, we don't mind at all.

Where there's Regency architecture, there's bound to be a crescent, and Royal Leamington's example is Lansdowne Crescent.  It's not the biggest curve of houses, and the doorbells indicated all the mansions had long since been sliced up into flats, but it was still aesthetically pleasing.  If this was a Poirot it would house the London home of some absolute cad who was poodlefaking with the gorgeous young wife of the victim.  He'd be completely unrepentant about it, of course, until Hercule pointed out that the Colonel Sir Henry Twissel had been found drowned in his ornamental pond, at which point the man would visibly pale and guiltily confess that he was at the cricket the whole time and couldn't possibly have pushed him in.  Or did he?

I turned onto a long avenue, tall trees accompanying the pavement, with a swathe of green down the centre.  I decided to walk that way, with the road either side as though I were a dandy on a perambulation, but I was in the minority.  Everyone else in the town stuck to the roadside.  The only person on the grassy part was a man talking to himself, clearly very agitated, and possibly associated with the hideous brutalist Job Centre over the road.  

I was a little anxious at passing him, but he took the decision out of my hands, lurching into the traffic without looking either way and marching across the road.  Meanwhile, I followed a sign for the Royal Spa Centre.  I thought there must be at least one spa in the town I could poke my nose into.  By now I was feeling a little hot from all the walking, and I quite fancied the idea of relaxing in an elegant pool.  I didn't have any swimming trunks of course, and also I can't actually swim, but the fantasy was there.  I was basically picturing that bit in GoldenEye before Xenia turns up.

The Royal Spa Centre turned out to be the town's theatre.  At one side, a truck was unloading the equipment for That'll Be The Day, "the number one rock 'n' roll show in the UK", and the rest of the bill was very much along that line - stand ups, tribute shows, An Evening With Anton du Beke And Friends.  I turned onto a road alongside a park, where I could see in to families enjoying the last gasp of summer, and passed the town's large new Justice Centre, a combination courthouse/police station that demonstrated being "in keeping" doesn't have to mean boring.

I realised that I'd managed to walk in a complete loop without even noticing and was now back at the Pump Rooms.  I took that as a sign that Leamington Spa had shown me everything it had to offer and returned to the station.  The customer information board had its own hashtag and (dormant) Instagram account but fortunately it was being used to share dad jokes rather than the nauseatingly inspirational quotes you seem to get on the viral Tube boards.  I went up to the platform and sat by the station's garden - yes, it has its own garden, that's how middle class it is - and ate a sandwich while I waited for my train.

For more than fifty years, there was no station in Kenilworth.  There had been one, since 1844 in fact, but Beeching (shakes fist) came along and closed the line for passenger traffic.  This was a marvellous decision that everyone agreed was brilliant for about eight minutes, when the campaign to reopen it started.  The town finally returned to the railway map in 2018 although, as is sadly the norm when you travel across the country, all traces of the old station had been demolished so they had to build a new one.

It's... not great.  I mean, it's perfectly ok, don't get me wrong.  It's got a ticket office that doubles as a cafe.  It's got a waiting area.  There's a bus exchange outside.  It's perfectly adequate.  I just feel like it could be a bit more.  I also hate that a building constructed in the 21st century doesn't look like it; that they've gone for a pastiche rather than building something for today.

The feeling of "adequate" runs to the rail side, too.  The line here was singled decades ago, so there's only one platform.  However, they've planned ahead and built the station with bridges and lifts so, if the line is ever doubled, they can slot in a second platform without any bother.

So the question is: why didn't they just build the second track and platform?  Maybe not all the way from Leamington to Coventry - let's not shoot for the moon - but there used to be a passing loop at Kenilworth.  You could put that back and then there could be increased capacity on the line, plus, you could build that second platform while you're building the station and not have to come back at a later date with all the hassle and expense involved.  Oh, I forgot, this is England, nothing gets built here, ever.  (Yes I am writing this as the news of HS2's cancellation breaks and yes I am fucking furious and also depressed).

We used to be able to build nice bits of infrastructure, and there's a great example of this further along Station Road.  When they demolished Kenilworth's first station to build a larger, improved one in 1884, the frontage was preserved and used for a pub.  It's now a swanky wine bar but still, isn't that a much nicer building than that little brick shed?

Kenilworth's High Street was busy and well stocked with shops.  You could tell that we were in the neutral zone between The South and The Midlands because there was a Robert Dyas.  For some reason, these stores are all over the bottom of England, but the furthest North they get is Solihull.  I went in for a poke around because I'd never been in one, and was a little befuddled.  It was basically a Rightway, or perhaps a slightly posher Wilko (RIP) - practical housewares, a bit of garden furniture, electrical and decorating supplies.  I'm not sure why they think us poor Northerners would be unable to cope with access to reasonably priced drills and pergolas.  

If I'm honest, I wasn't really in the mood for Kenilworth.  I'd taken four trains to get here, leaving Birkenhead at half eight that morning, and unless I was presented with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or a twenty foot high statue of Paul Rudd it would've been hard to capture my imagination.  It has a castle of course, but that's a mile out of town and I couldn't be bothered.  Perhaps I should've gone to Kenilworth before Leamington Spa because it all seemed a bit inadequate by comparison.  I certainly couldn't see David Suchet utilising his little grey cells here.  Really, there was only one thing to do.

Five pound seventy five that cost me.  It's very expensive being an alcoholic these days.  I might switch to meths.  Send me back to the Twenties, when I could get roaring drunk on gin and it would cost thruppence ha'penny.  It's almost worth getting stabbed for.