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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Friends in Highgate Places

London’s Underground network teems with abandoned sections to tantalise the railway enthusiast. The Epping-Ongar line and the Aldwych branch are probably the two most well-known examples of routes which have closed after outliving their usefulness.

Even more interesting to me, however, are the lines which were planned but then abandoned. Most never even got off the drawing board, but some reached quite advanced stages, with construction work taking place before the eventual plans were dropped.

So, on a rainy Sunday morning, I was taking photographs of an abandoned station platform through a barbed wire fence.

Highgate High Level

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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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Less is Moor

In central Birmingham, on opposite sides of the Bullring Shopping Centre, you will find two stations.

One is New Street, a depressing hole of a station that epitomises all that is wrong with 1960s planning. It’s dark, confusing to navigate and filled with diesel fumes from idling Voyagers. It’s so bad that Arriva Cross Country’s winning franchise bid, in 2007, included a promise to encourage passengers to change trains elsewhere if possible. A long-overdue refurbishment is in progress, but it will be several more years before tangible results are delivered.

Birmingham Moor StreetFortunately, the railway landscape in Birmingham is not quite as bleak as it might appear. Just a short walk away from the hellish underworld of New Street is a shining example of how it should be done.

This is Moor Street, Birmingham’s second station in terms of importance, but definitely first in terms of architecture.

Moor Street has had a chequered history. It was singled out for for closure in the 1960s but ultimately reprieved when it was realised that there was insufficient capacity at New Street to handle all of the diverted trains. The station was therefore retained as a terminus for local services. However, the original station buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair and ultimately taken out of use in 1987.

Birmingham Moor Street EntranceFifteen years later, however, the station’s fortunes were somewhat reversed. Chiltern Railways was keen to develop its service from London Marylebone to Birmingham as a rival to Virgin’s services from New Street. However, the existing terminus for these services, at Snow Hill, was somewhat inadequate, lacking both capacity and ambience.

The solution? Redevelop Moor Street, bringing the original station buildings back into use and reinstating the disused terminal platforms.

The station is Grade II listed, so a modern redevelopment was thankfully out of the question. Instead, the powers-that-be went for an extreme retro look, returning the station to its 1930s appearance (albeit a slightly romanticised, Brief Encounter version of it). You’ll find a lot of replica embossed metal signs, pointing finger icons and GWR logos indiscriminately placed anywhere.

Birmingham Moor Street

I should emphasise that I’m not a fan of nostalgia for the sake of it. Railway stations are, above all, places to catch trains. Any steps to improve the ambience are welcome, but should not get in the way of the primary function. Moor Street gets the balance more or less right. It just about avoids the “1930s theme park” feel of many a preserved railway line, and works as a functioning 21st-century station. There are concessions to modernity, in the form of electronic information displays and ticket barriers, but they are tastefully incorporated into the station layout.

The “old-meets-new” feel is accentuated by the presence of an old GWR steam loco, standing as a static display in platform 5 (which is, at the moment, still disused). A few metres away, one of Chiltern’s modern trains sat waiting to depart for London Marylebone.

Chiltern DMU at Moor StreetGWR steam loco at Moor Street

I popped back outside to get my sign photo. Standing on a busy street trying to get a decent self-portrait while ignoring the strange looks from passers-by never gets any easier.

Hampo at Moor Street

If I look annoyed in this picture, that is accurate. My original plan for this trip had been to visit Bordesley, a desolate station in inner-city Birmingham, served by one weekly Parliamentary service and the occasional football special. However, a wires-down incident at Crewe put paid to that – I arrived in Birmingham 90 minutes later than planned, far too late to reach Bordesley.

Fortunately, I was able to salvage the rest of my itinerary, and Moor Street was a more than satisfactory consolation prize. I needed to catch a train towards Stourbridge, so I headed for the through platforms.

Birmingham Moor Street

I was somewhat cheered up by now, and the arrival of a brand-new Class 172 train to take me through the Snow Hill tunnel lifted my mood even further. To Stourbridge, then, and a chance to experience an odd little railway curiosity.

Weekend at Berney

Berney Arms station signA few times a day, the peace and tranquility of the Reedham Marshes is disturbed by the roar of diesel engines, as a Greater Anglia train chugs across the flat Norfolk countryside towards Great Yarmouth. The train is traversing an area largely devoid of human population, save for a few farms. Most of the time, the train will hurry across the landscape and be gone in an instant.

Occasionally, however, the driver will shut off power here, and the train will begin to slow down. The brakes will be applied and the train will squeal to a halt next to a tiny wooden platform. A single door will pop open and someone will emerge. Then the train’s engine will rev up and it will continue on its way, leaving its former passenger seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Train at Berney Arms station

Welcome to Berney Arms railway station, serving a local population of zero. Its main users are birdwatchers, ramblers, cyclists and – of course – the occasional mad trainspotter just visiting for the hell of it.

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Morecambe and… just Morecambe

Morecambe StationI had a week’s holiday in Morecambe in 1993 with my family. We stayed at Middleton Towers holiday camp, just outside the town. Even then, the signs of decline were there. The camp had been stripped of Pontins branding, as the owners were preparing to sell or close it. Instead of Captain Croc we got Percy Parrot – boo.

Indeed, the camp did close after that season. I later saw a news article suggesting that it could be turned into a prison. Having stayed there, I knew how appropriate this was.

Morecambe StationThat was nearly 20 years ago – what had changed in the intervening decades? Morecambe is rarely mentioned these days as a vital holiday destination; what does it have to offer the discerning holidaymaker? These were questions I hoped to answer, as the train doors swished open and I emerged onto the platform at Morecambe.

Aficionados of Victoria Wood may be surprised to find a station here at all. Wood took part in the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys series, where she did a grand tour of the North of England and Scotland by train. One place she didn’t visit was Morecambe. “They’ve made it into the museum of comedy,” she observed, “they’ve taken the platform away.”

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Any Port in a Storm

Heysham Port signI’m baaaack.

Did you miss me? A combination of work, study and shortage of finances has conspired to keep me off the rails since my epic trip to Cornwall in the Spring. However, I was back out on the line today for what will be (I hope) one of several trips between now and the end of the year.

I clattered out of Lime Street aboard a Northern Rail diesel, swapping it at Wigan North Western for a Pendolino with a distractingly cute train manager. He can punch my ticket any day…

Northern Rail network mapAhem. My goal was the Lancashire coast and Heysham Port railway station. This tiny station is at the end of a line from Morecambe, which is itself at the end of a short stub of track from Lancaster. It’s a branch from a branch. Just one train a day makes the short run from Morecambe to Heysham Port and back, to connect with the ferry to the Isle of Man.

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The End at St Erth

St Erth station nameboardAfter a short journey back up the St Ives branch, my train came to a stand in the bay platform at St Erth.

No through journey to Penzance this time – this train, like most of the St Ives branch trains, finishes here. To get back to Penzance, I needed to wait for a main line service. This suited me just fine, as it gave me about 20 minutes to get some pictures of the station.

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Wall to Wall Carbis

Carbis Bay nameboardThe penultimate station on my Cornish trip was the penultimate station on the St Ives Bay Line, namely Carbis Bay, a pleasant little station tucked away on a cliff side.

Some trains skip Carbis Bay, so I had to be careful to catch the right train from St Ives. My precise timetabling was not a problem, as the trains were punctual all day. In fact, reliability was generally excellent throughout my stay. The only severe delay had been when leaving Liskeard towards Truro on my second day, and even this had been caused by circumstances outside the railway’s control. It’s hard to believe that this is the same First Great Western which regularly attracts the ire of Slough commuters.

Carbis Bay station

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St Ives and Kicking

St Ives beaches seen from the trainAs I already mentioned, the weather was not particularly brilliant. Cool, overcast conditions gave way to rain as I departed Lelant Saltings. However, as we trundled along the branch line, I caught sight of some of St Ives’ famous beaches, which even grey skies could not spoil. Soon enough we were gently braking to a halt at St Ives station.

As an aside, if you buy a ticket to here, it will say ST IVES CORNWALL on it, to avoid confusion with St Ives in Cambridgeshire… which closed in 1970. Hmm.

St Ives Station

St Ives, like most branch termini these days, is a basic but adequate station. There’s a single platform, a waiting shelter, and a basic vending machine which sells tickets for stations on the branch only. Bizarrely, it appeared to be a modified car park pay & display machine. Again, this is not the original station. A larger structure once existed closer to the town centre but, like Looe, the line was cut back slightly and the site of the original station is now – you guessed it – a car park.

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