Treading the Bordes

BordesleyAh, Birmingham. England’s second city. Throbbing heart of the industrial Midlands. Hub of England’s canal network. Gateway to the Black Country. Punchline to a million jokes for lazy comedians; here are some: Spaghetti Junction, Bullring, New Street station.

Maybe that last one will no longer apply soon, as New Street station is in the throes of a massive regeneration. The first phase – the new ticket hall – is open, and impressed me with its attractiveness. Not that it would be hard to improve on the old New Street building. I proffered my London Midland Great Escape ticket to the barrier staff, and hurried to find an exit to start my latest Station Master quest.

New New Street

One downside, for occasional visitors to the city like me, is that the layout of the station has completely changed, and the main entrance on New Street is closed for the foreseeable future, presumably to allow the ugly 1960s forecourt to be replaced by something that people will walk into willingly.

I struggled to find the appropriate exit, but eventually emerged on the opposite side of the station to the one I needed. I had to walk right round the outside of the Bullring to get to Moor Street station, from where I followed the imaginatively named High Street out of the city centre.

High Street

Poor Birmingham. It sold its soul to the motor car in the 1960s, a mistake for which it is still paying. Massive dual carriageways radiate from the city in every direction, bringing cars right into the city, where they get snarled up in immense traffic jams. The powers-that-be have belatedly realised, and the last couple of decades have seen improvements to rail services and the creation of the Midland Metro, but the car still rules supreme, unfortunately.

My target was Bordesley, the first station beyond Moor Street on the Birmingham-Stratford line. This was my second attempt to visit the station – a previous visit last year had been thwarted by overhead wire problems on the journey down from Liverpool. On that occasion, I had to console myself with a trip to Moor Street station instead – not a bad station to visit, but something of a consolation prize. Almost a year on, and I was ready to try again.

Bordesley receives precisely one scheduled train per week – the 1255 from Stratford-upon-Avon to Great Malvern, which calls at Bordesley at 1337 on Saturdays only. I had approximately 45 minutes to walk from New Street to catch it.

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United We Stand

Manchester United Football GroundAh, football. The Beautiful Game. The Sport of Kings. The Gentleman’s Relish (I may have made that last one up).

Despite football being a national obsession, my personal interest in the game begins and ends with how well Gareth Bale fills a pair of shorts. However, for thousands of people up and down the country, Saturday means getting up at the crack of dawn to travel to the other end of the country for their team’s crucial (it’s always “crucial”) away game.

This always presents a challenge for the railways, who have to cope with an influx of passengers. British Rail – that lumbering, inefficient organisation which, we were told, never responded to passengers’ needs – ran scores of “footex” trains every week, conveying trainloads of scarf-waving football supporters to the four points of the compass.

These days, special trains for football matches are few and far between, and football fans usually travel on regular services, often under the watchful eye of the British Transport Police. If you’re lucky, the train company will stick an extra coach or two on, but that’s about it.

One vestige of the football special does linger on, however. The main line of the Cheshire Lines Committee from Liverpool to Manchester runs right past the south stand of Old Trafford, home of… (Googles) …Manchester United. In 1935, the enterprising CLC built a siding and platform to serve special trains from Manchester city centre. Nearly eighty years later, the platform is still there, and on match days a procession of Northern Rail trains shuttle to and from the station, dropping off the home team’s supporters right next to the stadium.

Northern Rail Map

Of course, being Manchester United supporters, they probably have to get a train from London first (I am assured, by football supporting friends of mine, that that is a funny joke).

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The Restaurants at the End of The Universe, Part 2

Corrour nameboardWondering where Part 1 is? It’s over on my personal blog.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and Ian and I were on the train to Corrour. This is one of those stations. When trainspotters gather, they speak of Corrour in hushed tones. In lists of superlatives, Corrour features heavily: the highest, the most remote, and so on…

Corrour was opened with the line in 1894, giving access to the Corrour Estate. The landed gentry would arrive for fun-packed holidays of deer stalking and grouse shooting – to this day, the Caledonian Sleeper makes special provision for people travelling with firearms.

More recently, it has become a popular station with walkers, who start and end their long rambles in the countryside here. In the 1990s it became famous for another reason. In Danny Boyle’s seminal film Trainspotting, the station was the starting point for the junkie protagonists’ day out in the country.

Disclaimer: I am not a heroin addict, and I’m fairly sure Ian isn’t either. I have also never seen Trainspotting, although visiting the station has persuaded me to finally watch it. The DVD hasn’t arrived from Amazon yet, but I have a feeling I will be impatiently sitting through grimy misery, waiting for the 60 seconds of railway footage. Sorry, Danny Boyle – good job on the Olympics thing, though.

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Come Rannoch on our Moor

If you haven’t already, you may want to read my account of the Caledonian Sleeper over on my main blog, which marks the start of my Scottish trip.

Rannoch stationScotland, I think I’m in love with you. It was Tuesday morning, and I was enjoying the first of three days exploring the Highlands in the company of my friend Ian. We had arrived in Fort William a few hours earlier on the Caledonian Sleeper. After the overnight journey from London, any other journey seems rather ordinary, but as the ScotRail Super Sprinter chugged its way south – back the way we had come earlier that morning – I really couldn’t have been happier.

The railways came late to this part of Britain. It wasn’t until 1894 that fearless navvies completed a route through some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the country. Despite the best efforts of Beeching, over a century later there is still a substantial network of routes criss-crossing the Highlands. The West Highland Line, linking Glasgow, Fort William and Mallaig, regularly features on lists of the greatest train journeys in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. The scenery is truly spectacular. The line twists and turns, following the contours of the landscape as well as it can. In places the train hugs the side of cliff faces on narrow ledges, in other parts it traces a curve round the shores of lochs. Sometimes, where the engineers could find no other alternative, you find yourself flying across valleys on majestic viaducts.

Top Rail Journey in the World poster

Every station on this route deserves to be visited for this blog, and one day I will come back and do just that. For now though, I had to make do with Rannoch, an isolated station located in the heart of the moor from which it takes its name.

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Sundown at Sandown

Brading stationBrading has two platforms, although only one has track these days. The passing loop here was removed in 1988. Ever since then, the positioning of the remaining double track sections has left the line with a lopsided service pattern of 2 trains per hour, separated by a gap of 20 or 40 minutes.

The disused platform and signal box have been reopened as a small visitor centre, although I arrived after it closed at 4pm, so had to content myself with photos taken from a distance. It took me a few minutes to work out that the man in the signal box was, in fact, a dummy. Dummy.

Brading Visitors CentreBrading Signalbox

The station is well looked after, and it was good to see the canopy still intact. Its ornate ironwork incorporates the monogram of the Isle of Wight Railway, the pre-Grouping company which operated this line.

isle-of-wight-railway-monogram

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Ryde-ing High

Welcome to LakeAs outlined in my previous post, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway had proved more taxing than expected. I was back on Island Line now, consulting the timetable to work out the best way to get all the stations. I barely noticed the schoolchildren who invaded the train at Sandown, boisterous in the way that schoolchildren generally are.

I was still feeling a bit miserable, and Lake, the next station I visited, did little to cheer me up. It’s a relatively new station, opened in 1987. Of course, that means it’s as perfunctory a structure as you can imagine, with just a single wooden platform and a tiny bus shelter to provide protection from the elements.

Lake station

In an attempt to cheer the place up, the South East Wight Rangers had painted a mural in the adjacent underpass. It was a valiant effort, but it’s a shame to see that it has been damaged by scorch marks and rust stains. It also couldn’t disguise that unique eau de latrine that pervades railway underpasses all over the country.

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Ashes to Ashey

Island MapThe Isle of Wight actually has two railways: the Island Line with its quaint 1930s electric trains, and the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, with quaint 1900s steam trains. Check out the map to the right, which looks like something from the Island of Sodor, but does in fact come from the South West Trains web site.

My aim was to visit every station on the line, steam and electric. Taking into account that Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin were ticked off the previous day, that left me nine stations to “do”. I thought that this would be easily achievable in one day. The Island Line is less than 30 minutes end to end, and for most of the day has two trains per hour (albeit at slightly awkward 20/40 minute intervals). The steam trains run less frequently, but with only four stations on this section to capture, I didn’t consider that a major obstacle. Even so, I decided to get to the steam section first, to get it out of the way.

On Thursday morning, I strolled to Shanklin station in glorious sunshine. The cloudless sky and warm temperatures would persist all day (I later discovered that the Isle of Wight had been the warmest place in the whole UK that day, with temperatures peaking just shy of 25 C). I don’t fully appreciate bright sunshine, thanks to my fair-skinned complexion. I don’t go nicely tanned like most people, instead simply skipping straight to the overcooked lobster phase. I ventured out in shorts and T-shirt, but also applied some factor 200 (I think) sunscreen. Well, it was either that or a beekeeper’s outfit.

Island Liner day ticketA joint “Island Liner” day ranger ticket is available for the princely sum of £15, allowing unlimited travel on both companies’ lines. I turned up at Shanklin station on Thursday morning to purchase it. Immediately in front of me in the queue was an elderly gent, who engaged the booking office clerk in some genial conversation:

“All right, mate, how are you this morning?”
“Fine, thank you. And yourself?”
“I didn’t sleep too well, I heard some strange noises during the night.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Strange banging sounds coming from the station.”
“Oh, that’s odd. I just need to serve this customer.” (he gestures to me)
“Yes, they were strange noises, you might want to check that out.”
“OK, I’ll check the CCTV. But I need to serve this gentleman.”
“Oh?” (turns around, notices me) “OHH! Well, I’ll let you get on then.”

The clerk gave me a weary look. I suspect he speaks to this man quite a lot.

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It’ll be Isle of Wight on the Night

Ticket to ShanklinExams. They suck, don’t they? You study like crazy for weeks beforehand, spending long evenings cramming as much knowledge into your brain as possible. Then you get to the exam hall and find, on opening the paper, that the one subject area you’re not too confident on is responsible for about 10% of the total mark. Gahhh.

That happened to me last week, but the horrible experience is behind me now. What better way to reward myself for all my “hard” “work” over the past few months, than a trip to a far-flung part of the UK for a Station Master trip? Well, it was either that or run naked through Liverpool city centre, screaming primally at the top of my voice. On reflection, I think I made the right decision.

So it came to pass that, on the morning of Wednesday 5th June, I found myself setting off on a long journey via London to Portsmouth, to reach the Isle of Wight and its eight-and-a-half mile railway: the Island Line.

Isle of Wight Historic Rail Map

The Isle of Wight had a comprehensive network of railway lines until the mid-1960s, as seen in the map above. The Beeching cuts hit the island hard, however, and by the end of that decade only a single line survived down the east coast, linking the seaside towns of Ryde and Shanklin.

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A Harrow-ing Experience

Sudbury & Harrow Road SignDon’t let the punny title fool you, there was nothing harrowing about Sudbury & Harrow Road station. The only stressful bit was planning my journey: I had to get to the station, then back to Ian’s flat to get my stuff, then on to Euston for my train home. On paper, it looked eminently do-able; TfL’s journey planner was less optimistic, until we came up with a convoluted plan involving buses.

We are on Chiltern Railways territory, so we headed to the terminus at Marylebone, mingling with office workers enjoying an early dart as we boarded the 1630 to West Ruislip. Sudbury & Harrow Road was the first stop.

sudbury-and-harrow-road-1If I were to describe Sudbury & Harrow Road in one word, it would be “unremarkable”. It’s a tiny halt, just long enough for a short train, with very narrow platforms (and an odd gap between them, as seen in the picture to the left).

The only striking thing about it is the passenger numbers – barely 18,000 people used this station in 2011/12, according to the official statistics. The station gets a very limited service – a few trains to Marylebone in the morning, and some return journeys in the evening. That’s it.

Sudbury & Harrow Road ExitThis station is right on a high street and would seem a strange candidate for a peak hours only service. However, the truth is that the area already has a generous supply of stations. Less than 5 minutes walk from the station is the Piccadilly Line’s Sudbury Town station, while not too far away is Sudbury Hill Harrow, not to be confused with Sudbury & Harrow Road, nor with the area’s 4th station, Sudbury Hill. Got that? Good.

There was little of interest to see in the station itself. It was raining and I was conscious of our tight time limit, so we quickly left the station via the subway to take care of business. It was school chucking out time and I was very conscious of a nearby gang of teenagers as Ian took the pic of me under the sign. We fled towards the bus stop as quickly as possible afterwards.

sudbury-and-harrow-road-4

So that was Sudbury & Harrow Road. Not particularly exciting, but it’s another box ticked off the list.

Angels in Dirty Places

My travelling companion, Angel RoadIan, was worried. Our Northern Line train was not progressing at the speed it should have been. It paused at several stations, doors wide open, for no apparent reason. Between stops, it was content to trundle at a sedate pace rather than the roaring, bouncy rate that I’m more accustomed to. For one short but irritating moment, we came to a complete stop between stations.

It was Monday morning and we were travelling at the tail end of the rush hour. Our fellow passengers were commuters: stragglers, probably on flexi-time, for whom an arrival a few minutes after 9 o’clock would not be a major inconvenience. They shrugged and enveloped themselves in the safe bubbles offered by the Metro or iPod earbuds.

On the other hand, Ian and I had a definite need to proceed as quickly as possible. We needed to be at Tottenham Hale station by 0943 at the latest, in order to catch a Greater Anglia train northwards to yet another Station Master target. Miss that train, and there wouldn’t be another one along for six-and-a-half hours.

We could have got an earlier train, of course… but that would have meant getting up earlier, and I’m cranky if I don’t get my beauty sleep.

Door buttonsI put on a brave face, but as the driver announced again that we were being held at a red signal, I did start glancing at my watch anxiously. Fortunately, once we transferred to the Victoria Line, with its computer-controlled trains that go like a bat out of hell (technical term), we found ourselves whizzing along, and we reached Tottenham Hale with time to spare.

We transferred to the National Rail station to continue our journey to Angel Road, a small station in the London Borough of Enfield, which receives a sparse, peak-hours only service.

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