Ampersands

Stanlow & Thornton station nameboard Ince & Elton station nameboard

On a sunny day, there are few better places to wait for a train than Helsby station, a proper old-school country station. It is awash with colour and flowers, thanks to the efforts of the North Cheshire Rail Users Group, who keep the place looking spick and span. Network Rail contractors in orange overalls were busy repointing the stonework on the station buildings. The sound of chirping birds mixed with the bells and clunking levers from the old -fashioned mechanical signal box on the platform.

Helsby station platform 4 Helsby station signalbox

I was waiting on platform 4 for the 1517 to Ellesmere Port, via Ince & Elton and Stanlow & Thornton. Seeing the latter station on the scrolling electronic display triggered old memories, sending a shiver down my spine.

Helsby Customer Information System showing Ellesmere Port train

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Three-side Airport

Teesside Airport sign

If Coach B on East Coast Trains is the Quiet Coach, then Coach C must be the annoying children coach.

The fun began when I boarded at Newcastle and found a toddler in my reserved seat. His mother eventually managed to persuade him to move, but he then proceeded to climb all over other seats, lie down in the aisle and run around pulling the reservation tickets out of the seat backs (which caused enormous fun at Durham when several people boarded and found their reserved seats occupied). His mother managed a half-hearted “don’t do that, darling” before returning to her paperback.

I’m not (honest) a “children should be seen and not heard” type, but really, there are limits. As Humphrey Lyttelton was fond of saying on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue: Come back Herod, all is forgiven!

Worse was the family at a nearby table seat who produced a portable DVD player and started to watch Doctor Who. WITHOUT HEADPHONES. Honestly, I’m not in favour of capital punishment, but I would make an exception for people who do that.

Of course, I didn’t object publicly to any of this, instead preferring to passive-aggressively whine on Twitter. I’m British through and through.

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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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Strictly Coombe Dancing

Signpost pointing to the Looe Valley Line stationTuesday morning, the first proper day of my holiday. After a peaceful night’s sleep in a comfortable Premier Inn bedroom, I was ready and raring to go.

It’s very easy to get up at 7am when I know I don’t have to go to work. I was showered, dressed and scoffing a Cornish breakfast in the hotel dining room within 30 minutes of my alarm going off. Then it was into a taxi which carried me through the narrow streets of Liskeard, nearly coming a cropper when the driver decided to take a shortcut, only to find his road completely blocked by a bin lorry which showed no signs of moving. One hasty reversal later and we were soon at Liskeard station.

I went to the ticket office where the clerk was flustered by an elderly couple wanting to book Advance tickets with Disabled Railcard discount for a future journey to Paddington. She was equally bewildered by my request for a Looe Valley Explorer ticket, but eventually found it on her computer. She admitted that she was new to the job. Happy to provide the baptism of fire.

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Making a Denton it

Stockport to Stalybridge timetable posterDr Beeching made it look easy, but in fact closing a railway line or station is a long and involved procedure. First, a closure notice has to be posted at the affected stations. Then a consultation period takes place where members of the public can lodge their objections. It then falls to the Department for Transport to consider those objections and give the final go-ahead for closure. All things considered, it’s a tedious and expensive process, and one which train operators prefer to avoid.

While it is difficult for a train service to be withdrawn entirely, there are dozens of lines where the service has been run down to the bare minimum required to avoid the closure procedure. They are often called “Parliamentary trains” in reference to the 19th century laws which required railway companies to operate a minimum level of service (although this term now has no official standing, as far as I can see).

Map showing line from Stockport to Stalybridge, with stations at Reddish South, Denton and Guide Bridge

Most of these lines are short stretches of track or junctions which go unnoticed in the grand scheme of things, but the Stockport to Stalybridge service is different. This route, running through the outskirts of Manchester, receives a bare minimum service of one train a week, which runs in one direction only. At two of the stations on the route – Reddish South and Denton – this is the only passenger train they see.

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