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?