Destination Oldham

The woman in front of me at Deansgate does a double take. She has spotted the map above the ticket machine’s touchscreen now shows the newly opened Oldham extension. “Ooh, is the Oldham bit open?” she asks turning around to me. I dampen my anorak tendencies – there’s nothing a random stranger likes more than hearing detailed descriptions of every single stop on a line – and confirm that it has, indeed, opened and taking passengers up and down the line from the media studies magnet of Chorlton. “How exciting!” she beams. “Listen to me, ‘exciting’. Still, not much happens in Manchester, eh?”

I stop to consider what kind of Manchester she must inhabit for the opening of a new tram line to be the most exciting thing in her life. Then remember that I’ve made the trip especially to take the journey, so consider this is a score-draw.

Having closed in 2009, the Oldham loop-line disappeared from network maps, reappearing only as subject of approximately 1.4 million negative comments in the Manchester Evening News website. With Metrolink’s distinctive banana coloured trams prone to delay, spontaneously combusting or going to Altrincham in groups of 12, it’s little wonder that the delay in opening Oldham caused the Professional Newspaper Comment Section Corps. Given that most once-upon-an-age commuters have either moved house or died since Transport for Greater Manchester (yes, they aped Transport for London in the most obvious act of flirtation since Bonzo took a rabbit to the High School Disco to wave the thing by its ears in front of Celia Sprong.)

No section of the Metrolink ‘big bang’ expansions have yet opened on time, which one supposes is just another ape of big brother London Underground. This has opened up a shed load of criticism from just about anyone living with a Manchester postcode; even when lines are opened there’s always a failed tram somewhere, invariably at the MediaCity pokey-out-bit, causing back-ups in central Manchester that would cause the populace of most other cities to storm municipal halls seeking vengeance.

In anycase, excitable Deansgate woman boarded her tram to Piccadilly, leaving me alone on Deansgate(-Castlefield) with a return ticket and nobody to share it with.  The Oldham Mumps tram arrived a few minutes later, coming from what will eventually be the direct link through southern Manchester to the Airport. I was one of a number of passengers who stayed on at Victoria, though the crawl through the city centre (during which the tram runs at road level along side shops and shoppers) saw many people depart at Market Street or Shudehill. The greatest influx of passengers came at Manchester Victoria, and of these, I’d be generous to call the majority of them ‘enthusiasts’.  Dozens of men – and they were all men – with various shades of grey hair stood or sat with cameras and notepads close to hand. Six Metrolink uniformed men – and they were all men – stood in a clump on the platform, the least proportionate crowd control I’ve seen outside gigs.

Unlike the London Underground, Manchester’s trams are essentially silent. No constant roll-call of messages and warnings, or the over repetitive destination speeches (“This is a something line to somewhere, the next stop is someplace, change here for other lines and two arbitrarily selected tourist attractions.”). Metrolink’s delicately accented woman waits until a station is arrived at, says “This is an Oldham Mumps service, the next stop is somewhere”, and then keeps silent. Bliss. Joy be praised. She even says “Mumps” with a clipped Lancastrian accent, which is a bonus.

Whilst waiting for the first stop, I check Twitter for various related search terms. “Who the hell decided to call it Mumps?” asks someone. “As if a new line to Oldham is considered news!” sneered another. Tough crowd. “Freehold?!” said another tweet, stunned into just one word by   one of the newest stops on the newest line.

All Metrolink tram stops have been given cheery little posters from TfGM, saying things like “A Perk for Central Park!” and “Nice one Newton Heath”, “Fab for Failsworth!”. I wonder how long that could keep going. If there’s ever a station opening on a Queen Street, I’d pay the advertising department all the money I’ve got to see what they come up with.

As each stop approaches, it soon becomes clear that only two kinds of people are waiting on the platforms; enthusiasts with cameras and twice their number in Metrolink officials/ticket inspectors. I can’t say for certain if anyone leaves our tram at any of the intermediate stations. Other than the Clipped Accent Announcer Woman, the only other sound is the beep-whirr-click of cameras.

Central Park was opened in 2009, then left to gather rust and publicity posters for local music events, leaving the glass and chrome canopy roof resembling the entrance to an abandoned tourist attraction in a recession hit corner of Spain. It seems to be in the middle of a cross-fingers and hope regeneration park, which makes the poster’s slogan – “A Perk for Central Park!” – seem somewhat condescending.

My personal highlight of the journey is the approach to South Chadderton, built like the very best bits of London’s DLR or a low-budget rollercoaster, dipping down from height to reach the station, which has been built in the ‘bowl’. I can imagine – and experienced – drivers having a lot of fun with that.

 Arrival at Oldham was not exactly ‘low key’.  Whilst all local journos had by then gone home – first services arrived just after 6am – there was a large crowd of photographers and curious locals who seemed close to applauding everyone who alighted. My fellow passengers divided into three types – a number stayed on the platform ready to ride the same tram back to Manchester, others left by the southern entrance, and others still followed me into Oldham’s town centre.

The route to Mumps is only temporary, as all maps are at pains to remind locals. A new line will cut into the town centre itself, leaving the current Mumps station as a briefly existing blob on the network. For a temporary station, it’s looking very much the part, not least because it’s been given all the corporate yellow gloss that TfGM can throw at it. The predecessor station was notoriously grim, though both suffer from being located on the wrong side of a dual carriageway.

At the recommended watering hole of the Ashton Arms, the landlady was deep in conversation with locals and enthusiasts about the new line’s opening. “Two years late, more expensive, longer travelling times and no toilets!” she summarised before serving me. “But that’s progress, eh?” I offered.

The new line will eventually cross the front of her pub, one of the few decent drinking places in Oldham town centre that doesn’t resemble a possible location shoot for the new series of ‘Shameless’. What was Oldham’s grand Town Hall is to become a ‘family leisure facility with cinema complex’, a piece of news which triggered a burst of memory from one of the old boy regulars. “There used to be seven cinemas in Oldham, at one time. Seven.  They told us that closing them down would do us good in t’long term, but look around you to see that for what it was!”

The journey back into Manchester is noticeably slower, with the driver, an assistant in a hi-viz jackets and two ticket inspectors (and/or revenue protection assistants or whatever we’re calling them this week) enjoying the view from inside the cab.

Views of life outside the trams show a very mixed economic and social picture of this part of Greater Manchester. Freehold and South Chadderton give very resplendent shots of empty, decaying factoriesa, their chimneys the only element not crumbling around themselves, green-blocked windows staring out across terraces and far-flung suburbia. There may be amble opportunities for photographers to make mean and moody shots of northern England from the pristine white platforms of the Metrolink, but it’s not so good a selling point watching so much of England’s industrial past left to rot and ruin.

As much as I enjoyed my….three….pints (and a packet of Scampi Fries, of course), Oldham is in need of whatever economic boost the trams provide. The walk into town is quite an eye-opener, with more For Sale signs than I could count attached to long since abandoned stores. The open market was a great sign, with people milling about occasionally stopping at a butcher’s or what seemed to be a bathroom fitting salesman, though even this is tucked away in the background with all the signs of it being left to fend for itself.

All that said, at Failsworth a number of people boarded who looked positively normal (teenage girl with scowl, two teenage boys with hats at a jaunty angle) and Victoria, where I departed, was a success for people shopping over people taking photographs. It’s doubtlessly overdue, dripping with cynical doubts and occasionally just plain not reliable, but Metrolink is a success  and this new line was an interesting day out experience. I will not, however, use the excuse of one decent pub for having daily excursions to Oldham.

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City licking

Awarding city status to Preston has had the long term effects similar to giving the OBE to a dinnerlady; welcome recognition with no tangible improvement.

Preston is a great place, and I defend it whenever up against the usual insults (nobody gets within pen throwing distance of criticising the Bus Station when I’m in ear-shot, and don’t get me started on the Football Museum…).

However, most Prestonians with an ounce of realism to them knows the market town outside their walls has not made anything like the significant strides towards fitting the presumed look or feel of a “city”. And furthermore, these people welcome that fact. I certainly do. Preston is not Manchester, nor should our councillors and unelected “vision board consultants” pretend otherwise.

A new report suggests that Preston is “boring” before the neon strip kicks in at nine, and that the town…place…has not much to attract families.

There is quite a lot I agree with.

Preston has always had a great and vibrant nightlife. My memories of boozy college nights and similarly liquid weekends after work all go back to pubs and clubs around Preston. The Black Horse is one of the best pubs I’ve ever been to, and not just for the Double Hop. Pub Quiz anoraks must know why it is one of the only buildings of its kind, too…?

One suggested improvement is a “late and live” style initiative to attract people into the city. I shudder at the management speak used, but agree with the sentiment. Preston used to have far more live music venues for people with only a couple of bank-notes in the backpocket; they have almost all closed or had a change of management. The Guild Hall should not be the only place in the city to see live theatre. The Frog and Bucket has been a surprise hit – I admit to suggesting it would close down without much notice within weeks – although its future is somewhat compromised by the mythical Tithebarn rejuvenation project.

Preston has a lot going for it; from the Continental pub’s theatre and music, to 53º with is superstar roll call of live acts, the easily accessible green bits including (just, boundary fans!) Beacon Fell, the Millennium Canal Link, and apparently a Championship level football club….

There is an elephant in the room, of course. Improvements to one part of the town cannot be made without looking at the wider picture. Tithebarn – the multi-million pound fairy story cooked up by “development agencies” – would be a disaster for those on low and middle incomes living in the immediate surrounding areas for whom John Lewis and high-end restaurant eating comes pretty low on the list of priorities. Demolishing 1,100 car parking places in addition to the 80-gate bus station would do nothing to encourage families to visit. All these “improvements” remain high on the list of Preston Council’s vision for the future; all of them are completely blinkered, short-termist nonsense.

Preston needs far more than shiny buildings if it truly wants to fit into the new city clothes. A transport system fit for the last century would be a start. Acknowledging that thousands of people would prefer money spent outside the city centre wouldn’t go amiss either.

Preston is a great place to live and work and drink, but years of political short-termism has dragged progress to a complete standstill. Like Mavis Dinnerlady OBE with her daily routine, Preston seems satisfied and comfortable without any major cosmetic changes. I would much prefer to bring a new sense of renewal to Preston in stages, bit by bit, sector by sector. Mavis would not serve Masterchef dishes the day after meeting the Queen; Preston should not start swinging the demolition ball the day after this “boring” report.

Supermarket Creep

Within the boundaries of Preston, the phrase “Tithebarn Project” is something of a shibboleth. Not sure how many thousands will fall at the banks of the Ribble, although if any further delay is suffered by the scheme I dare suggest there will be a queue lining up to voluntarily plunge off the Old Tram Bridge.

At the centre of the on-going regeneration plans, now juddering into their seventh or eighth year of troubled growing pains, is the destruction of Preston Bus Station and its replacement by department store John Lewis. The argument against the former, and for that matter very much against the latter, has been repeated so often I think my fingers would break themselves rather than repeat the points made so many times; I will only say that such a move would be one of the least progressive steps in local government since the dawn of time. Or even before that.

Something resembling a curveball hit the Town Hall collection of 3D models and computer diagrams of “Prestanchester” yesterday with the £230 plan to finally do something about the dire transport system here. Okay, it’s an aspiration (like most things in Preston, there is many a “vision” for the future), and how sad to think it’s matching pretty much what everyone has considered good for the place for generations. In 1972 journalists filled the LEP with “visions” of the subsequent 1992 Guild being opened by monorails and skywalks. We’re barely one step closer to that in the second decade of the 21st century. It’s almost enough to be quite depressing.

Preston should not be forced into changing into a mini-Manchester over night. The new flashy apartments thrown up since city status show all the signs of hasty profit chasing. Their balconies resemble old chip-pan baskets.

Our Town Hall luminaries – elected and otherwise – ignore long-term needs for short-term headlines. Commuters in northern Preston are forced to leave for work at half-6 to attempt avoiding the logjams on the main routes, all of which could have been resolved had small railway stations or tram lines been installed twenty or thirty years ago. We’re playing catch-up because Preston has been strangled by politics and politicians for too long.

Instead of progress, we’re having to chase profit. John Lewis will be the great consumerist icon for the City Councillors who prefer to hear the ringing of tills over the pinging of bus bells. And who would have it any other way? A wise old Councillor reminded me with a heavy sigh, “Railway stations don’t pay council tax”

I hope – beyond all reason – that the tram system proposal is successful. I am also crossing my fingers in hope – beyond all sense – that the 20th Century Society is able to preserve Preston Bus Station for the benefit of all Prestonians.

I realise – with Lancastrian realism – that all this hope will come to nothing. Our Councillors want regeneration to mean more shops, cafes, expensive apartments and “visions”. For the city with its Ring Road built right through the middle of the main shopping street, it all seems pretty appropriate.