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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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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Town and Around

Stourbridge Junction signI don’t like the Network West Midlands signage font. There, I said it.

It would be perfectly acceptable on the wall of a children’s playgroup, but in railway stations that see thousands of commuters per day (most of whom are over 5 years old)? No thanks.

Besides, everyone knows that Rail Alphabet or Gill Sans are the only acceptable fonts for railway use.

Ahem. I was at Stourbridge Junction for the final leg of my truncated West Midlands trip. Stourbridge is famous for its glass industry and as the home of that well known band Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. For rail enthusiasts, however, it has a different significance. Stourbridge Junction is the starting point for the UK’s shortest branch line, the three-quarters of a mile long link to Stourbridge Town.

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