- since 2011 -

Railroad blues

Monday, 5 September 2011

Or: going loco just past Watford Costco

Detail from Paul Day's Meeting Place sculpture at St Pancras

Detail from Paul Day's Meeting Place sculpture at St Pancras

TICKETS FOR FUTURE TRAVEL says the sign at Euston Station, but when I ask for a return to Mars on a hydroshuttle I'm met with short shrift.

The 19.07 to Liverpool pulls away, creeping along a North London siding colonised by Triffids and dappled with late sunshine, and for once there's no mad round of musical chairs. I've even got a table to myself. The only other passenger in my line of vision is a kid across the aisle wearing a skewed baseball cap and baggy T-shirt with a basketball on the front and the slogan No Blood No Foul. He's wearing headphones and the music sounds like trays being bashed together in a faraway buffet car.

Today's Tannoyman does it by the book. Please familiarise yourselves with the safety notices which can be found at the end of each carriage. Or alternatively just read them.

Could the modern entrance to Euston Station be more drab and unromantic - compared to, say, the breathtaking facade of St Pancras or indeed Lime Street now that they've given back its grandeur by lopping down that grotty Concourse Tower and revealing the original stone-arched gable end?

Here we go again along the Euston Throat, out of urban jungle and into opaque hinterland. Chalk Farm and Primrose Hill. Kilburn and Kensal Rise. Willesden, Wembley, Wealdstone, Watford. 'To observe the urban outskirts is to observe the amphibian," wrote Victor Hugo when possibly pissed as a newt. Along a railway line it's even more equivocal: points, sleepers, sheds and stock strangled by monstrous weeds and decorated with indecipherable graffiti, before the remarkably beautiful English countryside presents a curved earth of fields, hedgerows, trees and church spires. Ridley Scott to Laurie Lee with pylons. See it while it lasts: Draft National Planning Policy Framework coming to an idyll near you soon.

Possibly the dullest photograph I've ever taken

Possibly the dullest photograph I've ever taken

Nuneaton. If you're leaving the train here, make sure you have all your belongings with you. If you're not, make sure you lash them out the door and pound your fists against the window till they bleed.

An owlfella gets on. Baseball cap battered soft and very much unskewed, NHS glasses, shrink-wrapped anorak and creased slacks. Just needs a Tesco bag stuffed with yesterday's newspapers. "Back to Liv'pool," he proclaims proudly in Old Scouse. "Bloody dead this place." Through the far window a ball of tumbleweed bounces across the opposite platform.

The owlfella sits in front of the kid, turns to me and checks. "Is this the Liv'pool train?" It is mate yes. "Yeah? Great." He cranes his neck back at the kid. "Open this for us pal." The kid takes off his phones, unscrews the bottle of pop and hands it back. "Thanks la. D'you wanna wine gum?" "Nah yer alright mate," replies the kid in Liverpool 8 Scouse, sinking marginally lower into his seat. "I was on this train last week," says the owlfella to no one in particular. "Yeah. We ended up in Warrington. Hour-and-a-half late. I'm not jokin'."

No laughing matter, was it, the old West Coast line, for the countless souls traveling back and forth by train between Liverpool and the capital in the final decades of the last century (and to a lesser extent the Noughties): we who through good cheer and gritted teeth endured standing-room only on the kind of circuitous routes not seen since Odysseus told Penelope he was just popping out for a pint of semi-skimmed; who tolerated engine failures and air-con faults, cold water in the buffet car and coffee so hot it could remove fingerprints, with charisma-bypass conductors alert to our every bunk and scam.

Having said that…

Having said that…

Euston, we had a problem. Not like today's tilting, two-hour-ten-minute Virgin Stupendolinos with their skinny lattes and sushi bars and heated swimming pools. Are you allowed onboard without a laptop these days? Are one in three passengers legally obliged to peruse pointless spreadsheets while conducting one-way conversations down iPhones with office-bound saps for the benefit of the entire carriage?

"Science isn't all progress, is it?" says Frankie Boyle in one of his stand-up routines. "What was wrong with train toilet doors that just locked? Remember that, instead of this multiple-choice system? See now, if anything goes wrong, you're going to be sitting there while the whole toilet wall slowly slides away and you're unveiled like a f*****g prize on a quiz show."

At Crewe, two middle-aged women and a 20-something girl claim the table behind me for Old Swan. The girl is Liverpool pretty with long blonde hair. She's wearing a white shawl top, jeans and electric-blue stilettos. The women, in Lily Savage Scouse, tell her that she should "call the station to find out who the arresting officers were…that way you can go to collect his phone…the one you lent the soft ******* in the first place."

Annoyman announces that there'll be a 20-minute delay while the engine is changed. "This happened last week," says the owlfella. "Yeah. I'm not kiddin'." We pull away, eventually, picking up speed then shuddering to a halt on a bridge above a placid river somewhere near the Shropshire Union Canal. The terrain is unfamiliar. "Can you believe this?" says the girl nervously. One of the women explains: "She hates the water. We went the Mathew Street Festival the other day and she wouldn't go near the Pier Head."

Annoyman reports that the driver is currently rectifying a technical problem. Ten minutes crawl by. "Anyone fancy a sing-song?" says the owlfella. "Show Me The Way To Go Home," replies one of the women. "Shall we gerrout and push?" suggests the other. "Eh we'd be quicker on Shanks's Pony," observes the owlfella. We pull away, eventually, and Annoyman apologises for the fault. "Ah sod off!" shouts the owlfella. Me and the kid grin. We get to Warrington and have to change. This happened last week. Yeah.

Lime Street: what a difference a decent flight of steps can make

Lime Street: what a difference a decent flight of steps can make

Funny how the Stygian approach to Lime Street - that dark cutting through steep, mossy sandstone to the sudden heart of Liverpool - always warms the cockles. I was apprehended once for taking a photograph of the station's historic roof (which for a brief period was the world's largest arched span) before managing to convince the security guards, after I'd been escorted to their rookery, that I wasn't off to a room above Ma Egertons to pore over maps of Copperas Hill with Rosa Klebb and Martin Bormann.

Twenty to ten and in the taxi rank by Lord Nelson Street the kid goes first. See ya mate. In the next cab I wind down the window and let the Liverpool night in. Home.

"Are you allowed onboard without a laptop these days? Are one in three passengers legally obliged to peruse pointless spreadsheets while conducting one-way conversations down iPhones with office-bound saps for the benefit of the entire carriage?"


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Love for sail

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The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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