Railway renaissance

RAIL photography: PAUL BIGLAND

Day 6

The penultimate day of my trip begins at the magnificent Grade 1 listed station at Huddersfield. There are few stations of its size that can boast two excellent pubs, a great station cafe, and host an artisan baker’s stall every Wednesday. It’s a reflection of the way that stations have reinvented themselves to become part of the community again, and not just a place to catch a train.

I have arrived to catch the 1011 to Manchester Piccadilly, but it is running several minutes late - a frequent occurrence nowadays as the new TransPennine Express timetable is testing the resilience of the railway. The geographical spread of the franchise, allied to pinch points at Leeds and Manchester Piccadilly, makes timekeeping difficult.

Six minutes late a packed 185109 arrives, leading to a scrum of passengers embarking and disembarking. I manage to find standing space in a vestibule, and ponder on why the UK still insists on running a Sunday service, even though the evidence suggests that passenger numbers are buoyant seven days a week on many lines.

It is a shame that I have to stand, as the trans-Pennine routes are beautiful lines to travel over. They encompass glorious scenery, plus a fascinating architectural and historical landscape. They are the industrial North at its best.

Sadly, stuck in a vestibule you don’t really get to appreciate the views! But in a few years’ time the electrified railway will have extended its wiry tentacles across the route, bringing with it longer and faster trains, so hopefully fewer of us will be stuck in doorways.

All too quickly (for me at least) we have penetrated the Manchester suburbs, and pass Ashburys, where Network Rail has built one of its massive Rail Operating Centres (ROCs). Most passengers won’t appreciate their significance, but 12 of these centres will eventually replace 800 old signalboxes in a huge investment that promises to improve the performance of the network (even if it deprives us of some lovely architectural gems).

Shortly after, the modern Siemens depot that maintains the Class 185 fleet comes into view. Neither train nor depot existed a decade ago. Back then, I used tired Class 158s with dodgy air-conditioning. How times have changed!

Entering Manchester Piccadilly, we crawl past a group of Network Rail workers, busy maintaining the complicated trackwork on the approach to a bustling station that contains a diverse range of trains. From the humble BR-built Pacer to the mighty Alstom Pendolino, few stations boast such a mix of fleets or range of ages.

My next steed is an ex-BR Class 150 on the 1133 to Southport (operated by Northern). I am disappointed that the operator has only provided a two-car train to the seaside on a summer Sunday, and it is packed. A blessing in disguise is that the front compartment has had all its seats stripped out, allowing more room for people to stand.

Our route is along along the congested double-track section through Oxford Road, but relief is on the way, as the Northern Hub project will tackle this bottleneck.

I just hope Northern will then be able to run better trains through it. After picking up more passengers at Salford Crescent and Bolton, we are doing a very passable impression of a sardine can, one flavoured by a mixture of stale tobacco, cheap perfume and BO.

At Wigan Wallgate we swap one heaving mass of humanity for another. The seatless compartment fills up with prams and bikes, re-creating the luggage area of the old first-generation DMUs. Perhaps that was Northern’s cunning ‘missing seats’ plan after all.

Passing the stabling sidings, insult is added to injury as nearly a dozen DMUs sit idle. Try explaining that one to your average passenger, forced to stand! I am not sad to see this journey end, and am grateful when the outskirts of Southport hove into view and we can bid goodbye to what has not been Northern’s finest hour.

I am in Southport to sample the town’s other operator, Merseyrail. Both Network Rail and Merseyrail have invested in the past decade, and the station boasts a refurbished roof, ticket gates and redeveloped entrance, where the old ticket office has been replaced with an Mtogo combined retail outlet. It’s a great improvement.

The trains have also been refurbished, and the Class 507 that takes me to Liverpool is a very different beast to when they first arrived on the line in 1978.

In a decade, Merseyrail has transformed Liverpool’s network of DC lines. There’s not a station left untouched - all have received a makeover of varying degree, from massive refurbishments/rebuilding at Bootle Oriel Road to restoration of Art Deco buildings at Hoylake.

And that’s not all. Merseyrail has tackled anti-social behaviour as well, banning alcohol on trains and famously prosecuting people for putting their feet on train seats.

My trip ends at Liverpool Central, another huge refurbishment project costing £20 million with a greatly improved upper concourse. My eye is caught by the table football machines, in an area dedicated to the football World Cup.

Walking across to Lime Street, I find yet another refurbished station. It used to be hidden behind an awful 1960s office development, but that has been swept away, and the station now proudly takes its place in the pantheon of impressive public buildings that Liverpool has in abundance.

There’s a nice touch on the concourse, too, where statues of two famous Scousers (MP Bessie Braddock and comedian Ken Dodd) pay tribute to the city’s cultural and political influence. And passenger facilities haven’t been neglected either. Virgin Trains has invested in new passenger lounges that have taken over the old taxi rank between Platforms 7-8.

The only retrograde step that I can find is the former Head of Steam pub. Once it was a glorious place full of railway memorabilia and boasting an impressive range of real ales - you could enjoy a pint and spend ages browsing all the knick-knacks. Today all that’s gone. The memorabilia has vanished, along with the real ale… and all the customers.

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