“Preston Junction”

Early maps of the railways around Preston appear to borrow from primitive drawings of the human circulatory system.Connecting nearby towns with the Industrial powerhouse of the Red Rose County was achieved by way of covering almost every available strip of land with track, ostensibly a result of the numerous rival rail companies battling for the right to serve Preston on their own.

The twisting turning trails of that early map have largely disappeared. Preston was to suffer from consolidation many years before the “Beeching Axe”, with financial pressures crippling early ventures from the start. One such line to suffer from economic hardship decades before Beeching’s report was the direct line to Southport, one I have walked in a two part series elsewhere on this blog. You can find the walk to Walmer Bridge here and the attempted walk from Southport here. (I say “attempted”, it was pretty much successful, just not ending where or when it should.)

Anyhoo, by far the most distinctive part of that early map is the two “pinches” allowing for fairly easy interchange between tracks to the south of the River Ribble. Those form part of the “Preston Junction”, a largely important but now quite forgotten piece of rail infrastructure. Forgive me if any of the images in this post look familiar – every last square inch of the former “Preston Junction” line and its connecting off-shoots have been all but obliterated. What’s left behind – mile after mile of cycle routes and pathways – resemble copy-and-paste levels in cheap computer games, each stretch of tree/weed/mud lined route looking just like the other.

It wouldn’t be in character for me not to try make senseof it all, though, so here goes.

How "Preston Junction" should be advertised....

How “Preston Junction” should be advertised….

And how it really looks...

And how it really looks…

There is no single place at which to start the “Preston Junction ” walk, so maybe I should start in the middle. The complex network of lines can be traced back to just one – the Blackburn-Preston-Farington (Leyland) route constructed in 1846. This would ultimately be consumed into the East Lancashire Railway network that incorporated every route from Liverpool and Ormskirk in the south to the Bury, Burnley and Rawtenstall in the east.

Very little of the Preston elements of this railway remains, as can be seen from the aerial shots on Google Maps, showing the distinctive curves and junctions as tree-lined pathways. The middle of all this for my purposes is the intersection of the railway with the Lancaster Canal Tramroad, remnants of which can be seen in the City Centre itself [anyone who has used the underground subway to the Fishergate Car Park should notice the distinctive brickwork around them; that’ll be Tram Road history,that be.)

Old Tram Road looking towards the 'intersection'

Old Tram Road looking towards the ‘intersection’

Leaving the Tram Route to take its way through the Carrwood Road estate, the right-hand path is the former rail route to Bamber Bridge, with clues to the former use of the path now reduced to rare curiosities such as this. A further three or so minutes along takes you to the Wateringpool Lane “Gas Works Bridge”, which remains in very good nick.

Under the Bridge...

Under the Bridge…

From here it’s another yomp along the path, bordered on both sides by bushes and over-grown greenery. The “Nature Reserve” element of the “Preston Junction Nature Reserve” really is advertising speak for “we’ve not cut back anything leafy or green for twenty-odd years”

It’s certainly the case that this is not so much picturesque as functional

Really, really functional.

Todd Lane/Preston Junction


This National Cycle Network marker (sounds much better than “National cycle-path”, as I though it was, suggesting a country-wide network of lunatics roaming the streets) is the only plaque/sign/monument to Todd Lane railway station. On the approach to the road itself there are no clues to the former platforms, sidings, track alignment, nothing. Just lots of overgrown “nature reserve” plants and weeds.

To break up the mass/mesh of nature gone back to…nature…there’s a brook of some sort hidden underneath more overgrown plantation.

That word “junction” in “Preston Junction” indicates that something other than a direct route to Bamber Bridge must have been offered by Todd Lane. That something is the curved line through to Lostock Hall, visible on Google Maps. That line can be walked from a small, barely visible, off-shoot to the endless run of pathway-through-greenery. And there’s at least one thing of curiosity to be found along here…

Lostock Hall curve

From the Brownedge Lane bridge, the spur to Todd Lane looks impassable. Not so. The route is clearly underused (if indeed it’s used at all, even with a few clues of human/teenage use as a ground to dump bottles and cans, there was very scant evidence of it being popular). 20130718_145857 20130718_145949

I’m not going to claim knowledge about what exactly this is – a boundary marker of some sort? Or remains of original track? Answers please.

This route takes only a few minutes, is very uneven underfoot – no bland tarmac here, or indeed for that matter anything, just ballast and stones and weeds and mysterious parallel lines.

The walk from this curve to Bamber Bridge is unremarkable, and not just because the destination itself is, well, just that. The route comes to a sudden stop because of the A6 London Way, with the original alignment of the railway surviving as the B5257 roundabout slip-road. Don’t say things get boring around here, folks.

The view from Bamber Bridge station, had I taken it, would have shown where the two parts joined together. The Google Maps friend is back again, as it shows how the Brownedge Road part meets the scrapped railway lines overlooking Irongate, home to Bamber Bridge FC.

In summary then, the route from Preston to Bamber Bridge along Todd Lane has almost no indications of its former route, other than the tucked-away Lostock Hall pathway.

West Lancashire

Now for some cross-blog pollination. The West Lancashire line from Preston to Southport is one I’ve walked and written about before. Here’s how to get from there (ish) to Preston Junction (more or less).

The two junctions at east and west – I suppose “Lancashire Bra Straps” is a bit tasteless but you get the idea – represent the connections needed to link towns to the south of Preston without going over the Ribble and into the town’s central station. Looking at traffic congestion on the roads, let alone the WCML today, it’s sad that these lines were disposed of so easily.

The walk along these curves and junctions begins with a walk towards the grand (if now sadly tumble-down) railway bridge over the Ribble. Lancashire County Council has undertaken a massive regeneration scheme around this bridge, converting the overgrown and abandoned trackbed into a cyclepath, bringing to an end Vicar’s Bridge in the process. Not only has this opened up the path (and removed in situ track), it’s reduced by a factor of hypergazillion the number of dodgy men rubbing themselves against oak trees. Win-win.

This shouldn’t shock you, but crossing the bridge takes you to another nondescript tarmac’d path. At least along this part of the walk, there’s a couple of historic artifacts still in place.

20130719_102431 20130719_102609

And that’s it, because to follow the curve around towards Penwortham, it’s back to nondescript tarmac. The “Penwortham Spur”, if that’s the formal name is marked by these bizarre pieces of public art. I’ve no idea what they represent.

20130719_102717 20130719_102731

These bendy-metal-eye stalks turn up at the end of the junction, which is otherwise just another stretch of…you guessed it..

The walk to Penwortham uncovers a piece of railway infrastructure – or so I think – on the track which leads onto Middleforth Green, a piece of suburbia on the way to Lostock Hall. (All roads lead to Lostock Hall, you notice). As you can see from the map, the two junctions/interchanges have bridges ‘in situ’, both of which do their best to appear bleak and imposing even at noon.

I honestly don't know.

I honestly don’t know.

There are two final jigsaw pieces to the “Preston Junction” puzzle; the part which connects these two sweeping and swirling rail-lines to the West Lancashire line to Southport (which I followed), and the line attaching Croston to Lostock Hall just south of Longton (which I did not).

The missing segment through Penwortham is now a housing development, and a typical example of the bland rabbit warren estate which is squeezed into any available space. The street doesn’t even have a name related to the former use of the alignment on which it now rests, which seems an opportunity lost.

Mmm, just reach out and touch it

Mmm, just reach out and touch it

Can't get enough of bland paths

Can’t get enough of bland paths

So this is where the railway would have taken passengers to or from Southport/Blackburn, with its bland new build development name.

The road looks out onto very familiar looking brickwork which also provides a great clue to just how substantial the railway infrastructure was before it was closed down. That’s one heck of a size.

The Park Road estate rests in the middle of the “Penwortham Triangle”, where my previous walk began on the opposite side.  The name “Penwortham Triangle” has an echo where the bland pathways are marked by bendy-freaky-metal-glass-alien-art, namely “Whitehouse Triangle” on the maps of the time. You should be able to see that map on the Google image above.

With numerous generations passed since any trains did, it’s little surprise that the conversion of rail to dog walker paradise has stripped so much land of so much history. The lack of many clues to the past beyond aerial photographs reflects the extent to which the past has been truly left behind, leaving only bridges and brick-work as hints to the history and heritage of Lancashire. I would recommend having a mooch around these parts whilst the weather stays good – maybe you could tell me what the modern art things are supposed to represent?

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.

Nationalisation won’t get us back on track.

£1.8bn is the most recent figure for central Government spending on the railways. With the next Conservative government likely to have this as the very maximum they’d be willing to spend – and even that is a stretch – the future has not been this bleak for Britain’s rail infrastructure for generations.

In Scotland, the link to Glasgow Airport has been sacrificed by the SNP administration attempting to balance its books; Manchester’s Metrolink extension to its Airport is likely to be mothballed too. London’s Crossrail is a reality likely to remain, not least because of the Olympic Games in 2012, with the rest of the nation sitting on so many promises and long-ago given up dreams of being linked to the rail network.

I am not against long-term projects such as the High Speed project linking the North of England with London so quickly office workers could commute on a daily basis without losing sleep. Nor am I naive enough to demand massive expansion without consequence, although how many people must realise that the Beeching Axe did for economic and environmental policy long before many of today’s MPs were born? How different this country would be – how closer to our climate change ambitions – had the crisscross of railway lines slaughtered by Beeching allowed to remain.

Nationalisation is not the answer to our railway woes. Those on the Left who demand the return to public ownership are blinded by ideology. Some private companies may have bailed out – Connex, National Express – but the expansion of the network which has occurred, improvements to stations which has happened, the vast improvement in punctuality across all regions, would be unthinkable and grossly over-costed in the hands of Government. I do not want to return to slow, shoddy, slam-door British Rail trains, even though my daily commute often means 1980s Merseyrail brain-shakers into Bamber Bridge. Northern Rail is showing far more ambition than Regional Railways ever did.

The £1bn kitty for railways after 2010 will not be used with much abandon. It will have to be centred on what will be guaranteed to return the best value. But the railways are showing all the signs of short-term politics from both Labour and Conservative governments. Neither saw beyond each election day in terms of ambition for the rail network. More stations, more lines – all needed for the long-term good in addition to such massive projects as “High Speed II”.

We show the scars on our little island of our reliance on road expansion at the expense of railway funding. The future should have started years ago on making the trains run on time. From 2010 the question of railway investment may be too important to avoid.