Railway renaissance

Wandering back across the concourse to Platform 6, I board a TPE diesel Desiro to head back to Yorkshire. This is a busy train, and I end up sharing a table with a family who are fully provisioned for the trip. Along with the rest of the group on the table opposite, they have laid out a picnic of tempting snacks and drinks purchased from the station’s Marks & Spencer’s.

The matriarch of the family soon strikes up a conversation with me (my professional camera is always an ice-breaker and talking point), and by the time we pass Edge Hill I have been offered a glass of wine.

Such convivial company makes the trip to Manchester a pleasure. When they find out why I am travelling and what I am doing, they are both fascinated and incredulous that someone would attempt such a trip. In return, I find out they are a Newcastle family who had travelled to Liverpool to celebrate the son’s 40th birthday. They are lovely company, and I am sad to leave them at Stalybridge, but I have other places to explore.

After waving them goodbye I turn my attention to the expanded station, which has sprouted two extra platforms in the past couple of years. Northern Hub funding has made the place an important boundary for services around Manchester and the North West, and the two new platforms allow Northern to run more services through Manchester Victoria rather than terminating them, freeing up capacity at the shrunken station.

Of course, there’s another reason to visit - the sublime station bar. Landlady Sylvia recently retired, but there is still a warm welcome and a great range of real ales and bottled beers. It’s Sunday, so the ‘Rail Ale’ crowds are absent, and I have space to enjoy a quick pint and a chat with some of the regulars whom I know, before a Northern service arrives to carry me on to Huddersfield.

The Manchester-Huddersfield train is an important cross-Pennine service that really does need to be expanded to half-hourly, but paths are scarce. Sadly, the service will be disrupted from 2016 when a skip pattern will be introduced, disrupting the extremely popular ‘Rail Ale Trail’.

Some may see this as a blessing in disguise, however, as it has become a victim of its own success. After James May and Oz Clarke showcased it on TV, the Rail Ale Trail has been inundated by stag and hen parties who have no interest in real ale, and who have turned it into a bit of a nightmare for both villagers and train crew. In response, many pubs have banned people in fancy dress and refuse to sell lager at weekends.

On Saturdays, the platforms at Marsden can resemble a Bacchanalian revel with drunks spread out onto the tracks, seriously risking life and limb on what is a high-speed blind bend for the poor train drivers (who must dread it). Luckily, my trip is trouble-free, with only a handful of merry middle-aged men joining us for the trip.

Back at Huddersfield, I opt to explore one of the station’s two pubs, and pop into the lesser known of the two - the Kings Head. It is Sunday, so a live band is playing, and the bar echoes to the sounds of local band ‘JB Goode’ belting out rock and roll classics to an appreciative audience. I wonder how many other Grade 1 listed stations regularly feature live music?

Moving on again, I catch Northern’s colourful Tour de France-livered 158849 to Leeds. The fabric of the station has changed little in a decade, but now it’s much, much busier. Footfall has increased from 14.7 million in 2004 to 26.2 million in 2013. To cope with the flow of people, and to accommodate local redevelopment, a new Southern entrance is under construction.

After a brief exploration and a chance to take some pictures, I leave the hustle and bustle of Leeds on my final train of the day, one of Northern’s much-maligned Pacers (142087).

At this point, I have a confession to make. I really don’t mind Pacers. They have served the railways well. OK, they’re not much fun on jointed track, hence the sobriquet ‘Nodding Donkeys’, but I can’t help thinking they will be around in some form or another for a good few years yet.

My ‘Donkey’ nods its way to Bradford Interchange, where we reverse before it deposits me back in Halifax and the end of my day’s travels. Just one day left to go...

Day 7

My final day (as Day 1 did) begins aboard a Grand Central service, but this one only takes me a few miles down the road to visit what I had once voted Britain’s worst railway station - Wakefield Kirkgate.

A decade ago, it would have made a great location for a war movie. The rotting and abandoned main building and surrounding dereliction was a depressing sight, while the subway connecting the skeletal remains of the island platform was notoriously unsafe.

And now? Dereliction has been replaced by industry, with a £4.6m redevelopment scheme under way. The station is a hive of activity, as builders swarm over the scaffolding enveloping the main building.

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