0654 Manchester Piccadilly – Birmingham New Street

31 Jan

Where's my train?

A strange sight awaits on platform five – where is the train? Usually it is sat there, diesel engines thrumming as I race down the steps from the walkway, but today there is an empty track and no sign of delay on the departure screen. The train pulls in on the dot, but this is a terminus station, so by the time the train crew is ready to depart we’ll be running late. A rare treat today – a five-car tilting Super Voyager instead of a plain old four-car Voyager. The tilt won’t be of much use, but the extra coach will be handy later on in the journey.

I board the train at the departure end of the platform, where there is less competition for seats. This is a trick I picked up from my early forays on the trip down to Birmingham, when National Rail advised the later 0724 departure as being the first connecting service. It still remains as a back-up plan, but only as a last resort: there will be standing room only from Macclesfield onwards, as well as the danger of being turfed out of a reserved seat. The unreserved seats are most likely to be at the very end of standard class, and there’s a good chance that you’ll be in a priority seat with extra legroom.

First stop Congleton

We depart Piccadilly seven minutes late, returning in the tracks of the previous train but staying on the main line at Slade Lane. The train slows as we pass over the viaduct in Stockport, but speed picks up again after passing through the station. If there really are any provisions that all trains over the viaduct must stop at the station, they’re being flouted already, never mind the whizzy new December 2008 timetable. Not that I’m complaining – as things stand there are lots of seats for Mancunians as far as Stoke-on-Trent, without the North Cheshire set spoiling the party.

Lately I’ve been grabbing a cup of tea before leaving the house, but this morning I didn’t leave myself enough time. The buffet Shop announces its readiness to serve just after we pass through Prestbury, so I take a walk down the train. Voyagers don’t seem to have many friends amongst the rail enthusiast fraternity, but I think they’re better than what came before, having been subjected to the old trains during my university days. The one major problem I have with them are the internal doors. They’re forever closing on people, and it is a long trek down the length of the train, having to pass through more than eight doors on this Super Voyager. Throughout the train there are scattered pockets of people: on laptops, looking over papers, or even catching some shuteye. One girl appears to be watching DVDs – isn’t it a bit early in the morning to be doing that?

Norton Bridge at speed

The first stop is Congleton, and as we’re still late there’s no messing about. Normally about fifteen people board here, with a few regulars travelling as far as Birmingham. If new franchisee Cross Country and the civil servants at DfT get their way, these poor commuters will end up having to jostle for position at Stoke out of an earlier connecting service – the December 2008 timetable will see this service run non-stop to Stoke-on-Trent. It’ll give me a much better connection in Manchester, but I feel for the regulars from Congleton. I wrote to Cross Country to let them know my feelings about the matter, but received the usual asinine reply that counts for consultation these days: my comments had been “noted”. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Congleton retains its direct Birmingham commuter service.

Stoke appears, and with it the large number of season-ticket holders. One must give up the adjoining seat to the new arrivals, unless one is a rude business person with an inflated sense of self-importance who remains sitting on an aisle seat. Several season-ticket holders are chatting away to each other as we pass the stricken station at Stone. Are they co-workers? Friends from “real life”? Or have they simply made new friends through the shared connection of the 0733 to Birmingham? Stafford heralds yet more commuters for the big West Midlands connurbation. We may have pulled back a couple of minutes, but the most recovery time will come at Wolverhampton, where we glide straight to the platform as opposed to spending several minutes outside the station as can happen when we are bang on time.

Wolverhampton art

I remember Wolverhampton from my teens, passing through on the train. It was grim – what seemed like a big scrap metal/smelting monstrosity immediately south of the station didn’t give a very good impression of the place. It was demolished recently, and over the past two years of travelling this route I have watched as graffiti has sprung up on a former interior wall. Like a bad stop-motion film over a period of several months, one particular image grew from the faint workings of a skull into a fully formed goth-like face. A lot of time and effort probably went into it, unlike another long-lasting piece of scribbling further down the line: “TOJO THE DWARF” proclaimed from a canal bridge.

We are now on the final approach to Birmingham New Street, that gloomy subterranean concrete box, and I know in my heart that I won’t make yet another unauthorised connection, the 0833 local stopper to Birmingham International: I shall have to await the 0848 instead. We don’t seem to be making our normal crisscrossing path across the station throat – we’re coming in on Platform 2 today. Very unusual – I grin wryly as I overhear two other commuters thinking exactly the same thing out loud. We all know the routine, and we all know when things aren’t sticking to it.

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