The Trains in May Are Mainly Now Explained

Last year (at least six or seven blog posts ago) a massive timetable shakeup was announced on train services across the north of England, promising faster journeys, new connection opportunities and an all-round better experience.

To say the changeover didn’t go smoothly would be an understatement.

Passengers endured weeks of disruption before an emergency timetable was introduced, drastically thinning out the service on some lines. It was months before things got back to some semblance of normality, and the lasting damage to the railway’s reputation (and Northern in particular) will take some time to recover.

Now, one year later, the train companies are gearing up to try again, with a new timetable due to start on Sunday 19th May. It’s not the “big bang” of May 2018, but perhaps that’s just as well.

Sadly, for passengers travelling out of Lime Street, a lot of the promised improvements have been deferred yet again. But there are some big changes going ahead, so let’s look at what’s happening. As always, I focus on the Liverpool area, because… that’s where I live, and it’s boss.

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Ich bin ein… Hamburger

At the end of last month I headed to Hamburg for a second trip to Germany’s second city. Once again, it was at the invitation of my friend Boris, who lived in Hamburg for quite some time and knows the city well.

(I would link to the blog posts about my previous trip in 2016, but my old site is down after an unfortunate hacking attack – hopefully it will be back soon)

The good people of Hamburg were so happy to see us when we arrived on Friday, they organised a giant fireworks display to celebrate!

This is not true, of course. This fireworks display was part of the Hamburg DOM, a festival and funfair held in the St Pauli area three times a year.

Entrance to Hamburg Dom fair and Ferris Wheel, at night

I was surrounded by rides, neon lights and food stands offering German delicacies. No time to sample them, however – neon lights of a different kind were calling us, and we headed to the Reeperbahn for the first time that weekend.
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Brex-iety

I spent the weekend in Hamburg with some friends, enjoying all the sights and sounds that Germany’s second city has to offer. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll have got a flavour of my trip. I will try and get a longer blog post up at the weekend detailing the shenanigans.

In the meantime, I wanted to mention one thing. A change in my mood, for reasons that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When I got home, it hit me: for the 72 hours I was away, I didn’t hear anything about Brexit.

Maybe Brexit was being discussed on all of Germany’s news channels, but if it was, I didn’t see it. I was busy exploring the city so I wasn’t on Twitter as much as usual. And I was much happier.

I’ve always prided myself on keeping up with the issues, but when everything is just so grim, it’s wonderful to get away for a few days. I got back home at lunchtime on Monday. By that evening, all my anxieties and worries had returned.

And, whatever happens, the source of stress is going to go on for years. If the deal fails, we may leave without a deal, with severe long-term consequences that we will all experience. If May’s deal goes through, we have many years of wrangling about our future trading relationship which will dominate the agenda. There’s a tiny chance of a second referendum, which will probably be even more rancorous and unpleasant than the first. We will have a new Tory leader, probably a much more right-wing one (and given how right-wing May has been, that is a scary prospect). Frankly, I’m not sure I can cope.

Someone please write something in the comments to cheer me up.

Nowt so…

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Queer as Folk‘s premiere on Channel 4.

If you’re looking for some inspiring tale about how the show helped me to come out, you’ll be disappointed. In 1999 my family only had one TV and it would have been safely tuned to ITV, so I never saw any of Queer as Folk at the time.

I was certainly aware of the controversy, with the usual suspects in the Daily Mail and Express clutching their pearls over the series. I do remember a fellow passenger on my school bus making his displeasure clear at the giant billboard advertising the series every time we drove past it.

The BBC has a nice article about the anniversary, making the point that it was the first time gay mens’ lives had been depicted so frankly on screen. This was two years after Ellen announced she was gay to an entire airport, and EastEnders and Brookside had featured lesbian and gay characters too, but you rarely saw them indulge in anything more erotic than peck on the cheek. Queer as Folk broke many taboos, and for curious straight viewers who tuned in, it was probably their first exposure to things gay men enjoy, like Doctor Who and rimming.

A few years later BBC Choice (remember them?) showed the US version, so this was the one I saw first. By this time I did have a TV in my room, but I was still deeply closeted, so it was with the sound turned way down and with one hand on the remote at all times, in case mum or dad entered without knocking with a cup of tea. And it was only in 2009, when E4 repeated the series for the 10th anniversary, that I actually saw the original UK version in full.

Things have moved on in the last two decades. We have LGBT politicians and LGBT sports stars, and taboos around the subject are disappearing – when Tom Daley came out in 2013, it was freely discussed on Children’s BBC. But it still feels unusual and daring to have LGBT characters front and centre on a TV show, rather than in a supporting role. And while you will find lots of shows willing to drop in the odd sly reference to Grindr, depictions of gay sex on screen are still very rare, at least in mainstream film and TV.

QaF remains a seminal series, well worth watching if you’ve never seen it. I can even forgive it for introducing the world to Antony Cotton.

If you’re in the UK, every episode of Queer as Folk is available on All4.

TwitTen

10 years ago, I joined Twitter. Like most of my bad decisions, it happened around midnight.

2009 seems to be the moment where Twitter (launched in 2006) reached the tipping point, and stopped being a service for geeks and started becoming truly mainstream (not that I’m claiming to be anything other than a geek). It was in February of that year that Stephen Fry live-tweeted from a stuck lift, bringing much media attention to the fledgling service. Annoyingly, when I got stuck in a lift last year, I had no phone signal so couldn’t tweet anything.

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Future Shocked

Back in February, my younger sister gave birth to her first child. Lucy is the fifth grandchild for my parents, but the first girl, and I suspect she is getting extra special treatment as a result.

Already, at the age of ten months, she is full of insatiable curiosity about the world around her. We visited the Palm House in Sefton Park a few weeks ago, and she was captivated by the colours and smells of the exotic plants, looking around the Victorian structure with wide-eyed wonder.

She has known only love and affection since the moment she took her first breath, and she repays that love to everyone she meets. She is an absolute joy to be around – full of happy noises and laughter, rarely crying unless she is sick or tired, always greeting people with a smile when they walk into the room.

Of course, we are all looking forward to sharing in her first Christmas, as she experiences the magic of the festive season for the first time.

And yet, as I gaze at that innocent face, I feel a tinge of sadness, knowing that the future she is facing is far from rosy.

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Berlin: The Long-Awaited Third Part

Yes, I know, it’s been a long time coming. Apologies for the delay. Also, despite this walking tour lasting almost four hours, I took precisely two photos, both of which are included here.

FRIDAY

Logo of Original Berlin Walks

I’m terrible at planning my holidays (and writing about them, it seems), and the trip to Berlin was no exception. One thing I did manage to organise, however, was booking myself onto a walking tour of Berlin. I never used to be a fan of these types of tours but on recent jaunts abroad I’ve found them to be an excellent way of seeing a lot of city in a short time. I found the BerlinWalks Queer Berlin tour, which promised a whistle-stop tour of the city’s LGBT history.

I turned up at the meeting point outside Hackescher Markt station in a slightly discombobulated state. I had walked from my hotel to the U-Bahn station before realising that I had forgotten to put on any sun cream, so I had to dash back to slap some on. I didn’t regret this decision – Berlin was in the grip of a heatwave, and even by 10.30am the sun was very hot. However it did mean I arrived only just in time, and in a sweaty, flustered state.

There were several tours setting off at the same time, and while most people were here for the generic city tour or a cheerful trip out to Sachsenhausen, I was the only person here for the queer tour. My guide was a cheerful American (whose name, unfortunately, I have forgotten). He said that if I needed the toilet, I could use the facilities in an adjacent restaurant. Unfortunately his directions were not too clear, so I wandered into the kitchen by mistake and got chased out by an angry chef.

When I returned to the meeting point, two other people had turned up to join our tour. I’m not actually sure which is worse – a tiny tour group, or just one person. If it were just me and the tour guide, it might have been a bit easier. But a small group requires smalltalk. The other two were a couple, and I felt a little bit like I was interrupting a date. I felt a bit awkward, but I did my best and didn’t embarrass myself too much.

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Bare-lin, Bear-lin

THURSDAY

Sightseeing time! Time to look at some of the key locations in central Berlin. Places such as Potsdamer Platz – for years a No Man’s Land bisected by the Berlin Wall, now a thriving centre of crass commercialism with skyscrapers all around. What would Walter Ulbricht have thought?

Potsdamer Platz in Berlin on a sunny day, with the DB tower in the foreground

A short walk away, the imposing Brandenburg Gate still stands as a symbol of Berlin, as well as a magnet for tourists.

Photo of the Brandenburg Gate

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Berlin, I Love You

I first visited Berlin in 2012. To say I fell in love with the place instantly would be an exaggeration – it took an hour, maybe two. I’ve been back several times, most recently in September 2016. It has to be my favourite place in the world to visit.

My last visit was nearly 18 months ago. Far too long to wait – I was itching to go back. Luckily Brexit hasn’t yet grounded every flight between the UK and Europe, so I was still able to hop on an easyJet plane (no long-distance trains this time, alas).

Photos of planes on the tarmac seen from inside Liverpool Airport

Fully embracing the gay experience this time, I checked into the wonderful ArtHotel Connection, a small boutique hotel located on Fuggerstraße in the heart of Berlin’s gay district. I was surrounded by gay bars, gay cafés, gay shops and gay people.

I think it’s fair to say that the hotel caters to a certain specific demographic. The paintings on the walls clued me in to this, and any lingering doubt was removed the next morning when I arrived for breakfast and found a man in full leather gear eating at a table in the opposite corner.

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The train times, they are a-changin’

Northern Rail Class 319 at Lime Street station

It may have passed some people by, but there are sweeping changes coming next week to train services across the Northern and Transpennine rail franchises. If you travel on either of those train companies, your train is almost certainly changing from next week. Some trains are retimed, some are rerouted, some will disappear entirely and there will be some new services too.

Cover of Northern Rail timetable Liverpool-Blackpool

The new timetable depended on Network Rail completing electrification works between Wigan and Bolton, allowing electric trains to take over from diesels. With depressing predictability, the works have overrun massively and will not be completed in time, which has forced the timetable planners to go back to square one. The resulting May 2018 timetable is a bodge job compromise, with some of the planned changes deferred until December 2018, and other services amended temporarily which will change again in six months’ time.

I’ve pored over the new timetables, available on the Transpennine Express and Northern websites, and found the biggest changes. Services across the whole north of England will change, but I have focused on Merseyside and the surrounding areas. Other areas will also see big changes, particularly in central Manchester where the new Ordsall Chord link will see several new journey opportunities opened up. As always with major changes of this kind, some people will benefit and others will find their journeys now take longer than before.

THE WINNERS

Liverpool-Blackpool becomes a through service once more. The service was split at Preston several years ago to free up diesel trains for use elsewhere. However, the Blackpool North line has now been electrified, allowing the service to be operated throughout with electric trains. Prospective passengers beware: the Blackpool line is somewhat chaotic at the moment, as driver shortages have been causing cancellations on a daily basis. Check before you travel, as they say.

Ormskirk-Preston sees an increase in frequency from a train every 90 minutes to a roughly hourly service. Still no Sunday service on this line, but every little helps.

Transpennine Class 185 at Liverpool Lime Street

Transpennine Express services from Liverpool to Leeds and beyond will see a speed increase, as all services are now routed via the faster Chat Moss route, rather than the slower Cheshire Lines route via Warrington Central. Liverpool to Manchester Victoria will get two express trains an hour for most of the day, taking around 35 minutes with stops at Newton-le-Willows or – controversially – Lea Green.

THE LOSERS

St Helens Junction and Wavertree Technology Park lose their fast train service to Manchester. These stations will be served only by slower stopping services. The downgrade of St Helens Junction is controversial, especially as a lot of money has recently been spent expanding the car park. However, Lea Green supposedly has better road links to the surrounding area and was chosen over St Helens to receive a call by the new Transpennine Express service.

Southport loses its direct trains to Manchester Airport and most of its services to Manchester Piccadilly – the main service now runs to and from Manchester Victoria. It should still be possible to reach Piccadilly and the Airport by changing trains at Manchester Victoria and travelling via the Ordsall Chord, but many Southport commuters are understandably unhappy.

Warrington Central, Liverpool South Parkway and Birchwood are disconnected from the Transpennine Express network, as the Liverpool-Scarborough service is diverted to run via Manchester Victoria. The TPE service is replaced by a new express service to Manchester Airport, operated by Northern and running at roughly the same times between Liverpool and Manchester. In theory that’s fine, but Northern is currently being blighted by industrial action which has caused severe disruption to services. There is also a distinct possibility, of course, that a Pacer will turn up one morning – a bit of a step down from a Class 185.

There’s a further complication for Liverpool passengers. Only a week after this new timetable starts, Lime Street station closes for eight weeks of upgrade work. Don’t get caught out – head to the National Rail journey planner and look up your new train times now!