I don’t write about exploring the London tube for a whole bunch of reasons. The first, and probably most potent, is that no matter what you do in, on or around the damn thing, someone is going to fucking moan about it. Whether its other explorers or sub-brit couch potatoes keyboard thrashing over your lack of historical rigour (how many ghost stations?!?), graffers threatening to cave your head in for daring to talk about, well, anything, or the obsessive and frankly humourless London BTP who would happily see you rot in a gulag for the rest of your life for being on track after service, it doesn’t leave much space for you to stick your oar in and not get it bitten off.
The pressure cooker of fear, paranoia and surveillance in London, post 7/7 and the Orwellian Olympic ‘legacy’ has distilled a visceral connection to this network harboured by the people employed to protect it and the people who use it as a nocturnal playground so concentrated, it boarders on the absurd. Whole lives are spent obsessively intertwined with this filthy labyrinth of tunnels, tracks, vents and layups with information relating to access and egress ferociously protected by those who have put the hours in to obtain it, and those unfortunate enough to get caught in the system even without causing damage can expect to find themselves on the no-fly-list after having their doors kicked in and all their electronic assets seized for months on end by the transport police.
Compare this to Paris, a city as close to London as Manchester, where a trespasser found on the tracks even mid-service can expect to get away with a measured bollocking, and you’d be forgiven for entertaining the idea that maybe someone, somewhere, has possibly lost a plot of two… This isn’t Paris though, and it’s not even England really is it?
London might as well be a different country, and I do treat this curious exception with at least some respect. I’ve had some unbelievable nights on the tracks of the capital, it’s the worlds’ best and there is nothing else like it, and those who are still down there night after night in the face of the harshest graffiti sentences and highest concentration of CCTV in the world are either nutters or heros, or both.
The thing that gets me though, and I know there are some that would refuse to admit it, is that there is a whole world outside the CCTV infested fortress of the city of paranoia that unlike the utterly battered LU has hardly been touched.
The UK has 3 other underground passenger rail networks: The Glasgow Subway, the Tyne and Wear metro and the Mersey Rail, and while each of these systems is nowhere near as extensive, iconic or as complex as the London underground, they all have their own unique and rather special little features that set them apart.
“Train spotter?! Fuck no! You’re worse than that.
You’re a train-track spotter. ”
The Mersey Rail
The Mersey Rail is the UKs premier tunnelling museum. The modern network is comprised of 3 separate lines, and while only a small portion of it is underground and therefore interesting to trackrunners, the origins of these tunnels go way back to the construction of the Mersey Railway in 1881, and it’s been organically built upon and added to almost continually since then. This effectively means we’ve ended up with a patchwork of ancient 1880s brickwork intersected with 1970s smoothbore concrete and re-enforced with 1950s style iron shield, all in the same set of tunnels. Pretty unique draw!
The initial public pasting the tube received was pretty much spurred on by the race to bag all the abandoned and disused stations. They were sites of strong historical merit, worthy technical challenges and easily defined benchmarks for success, not only for the explorers who were throwing the results of their exploits up online, but for Joe Public who were willing them all on.
The Mersey rail has none of these so-called ghost stations so the targets of interest weren’t initially so clear cut. A jog down scouse ballast isn’t going to net you the bragging rights of having dropped a turd in the same subterranean shitter as Winston Churchill, although this lack of urbex pinups does a decent job of keeping the riff raff out. It’s one for the geeks, and if junctions, step-plates and crossovers are you’re thing, you’re in for an absolute treat.
Rail trespass gets a pretty bad rep in the UK. In the rest of the world, walking the tracks is a romantic stand-by-me meets Tom Sawyer rite of passage or in some places, a necessary way of life. Pictures of Indians sunning themselves on the roof of over crowded passenger trains and Khazak goat herders walking the lines are a damn sight more likely to pop up in your favourite broadsheet chin strokey travel supplement than a load of us lot, masked up and covered in brake dust having just abseiled down a metro vent. Every time it seems to hit the papers or the anti-everything rail forums there are scores of various ‘experts’ and security representatives lining up to jump in and have a go. Scalding accusations of stupidity, reckless endangerment, aiding terrorists and christ knows what else, without any consideration given to the amount of experience or prep time the poor sods have put in before hand. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t actually want to die, and the amount of time I’ve spent looking out of train windows counting safety alcoves, reading engineering reports and deciphering track layouts go far, far, beyond that of even the saddest, loneliest, most pathetic train spotter in all of England. There are way more dangerous ‘accepted’ pass times kicking around that we could be doing, and they probably wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
Despite all the prep you do, and no matter how many times I’ve dropped into a system, it doesn’t really change much. The tar-thick fear of being caught, electrocuted or backhanded by a speeding service train drop your body into a sort of bullet time. As you tip-toe down the sleepers, you become hyper aware, and each sound plays out like a symphony, with every drop of water, every toppling ballast stone, every clunk of a relay and rattle of steel your imagination steps in to create approaching boots or the screeching wheels of a loco firing round the next bend. Walking the tracks of any metro system, especially in the UK is probably one of the most stressful experiences you can hope to craft for yourself if you’ve got a spare evening, but there really isn’t much like it.
We began our exploration of the Mersey Rail on the Wirral Side, where most of the upper level lines run though the original 1880s Victorian brick tunnels with an occasional modern undercut or diversion.
Here on the right is the newish burrowing diversion to Hamilton Square which goes underneath the junction to the Chester connection after about 300 yards, meeting up with the other tunnel to go under the Mersey after the station.
The Liverpool side is a bit newer, and is the side we tended to spend the most time in. There are plenty of those new-fangled safety walkways, which are noisy as fucking anything but do a grand job at keeping you out of harms way. You can get all the insider info you like about what work is being done where, but that diesel-powered worker train is always there at the back of your mind. The walkways help a great deal.
The junction under Paradise street became a Mersey classic. 2 newer tunnels connecting the Northern Line to the old Mersey Railway brick tunnel, and a stock interchange line and reversing siding heading off to the left. You can see in this one how the newer tunnels have been bored into the old line with a good helping of cement and iron shield. Sexy.
That reversing siding was mostly empty, and only once did we find something in it…
The deep level in the Mersey Rail is pretty much an endless, smooth bore, basically a scouse RER. When you’ve been spoilt by the filthy mishmash of brick, iron and concrete shield in the main lines, this kind of gets a bit dull. Nice to see though.
The deep level is connected to the upper levels by a number of vents, although the only thing that tends to be allowed to pass is air, and we’ve not managed to find a way down to the loop from the vents yet, and have had to stick to the tracks. Boo hoo.
I’ve not been down there for a very long time now, although I’ll never forget the nights spent down there pacing those tunnels.
Tyne and Wear metro
The Tyne and Wear is a bit rubbish. Not really in the sense of its job of getting Geordies to and from work/the boozer and giving the homeless somewhere to hang out on cold days, which it does excellently, but in the sense that it’s a bit short on ‘features’. Its a very new system and kind of lacks that 100 years of filth vibe that you get from the other underground rail systems in the UK, but it’s not to be sniffed at.
We started top-side for this one, and had a good look-see round the town to see what the lay of the land was in terms of vents. There are quite a few, but are all as tight as you like. Eventually, we just nutted up and ran into a tunnel after service which had the desired effect.
The only thing we could find to write home about was a step plate cross over junction under Prudhoe street. Its a junction that allows trains to swap tunnels for whatever reason, and its not just us that got excited about this one, ‘Kryten2340’ of ‘railforums.co.uk’ was practically screaming from the rooftops about his ‘unique experience’ of traversing the cross over as a passenger….
Ok, it’s a dull, flat, grey tunnel with a junction in it.. But its home to the only tag I’ve seen in a UK train tunnel outside of London, presumably put there by the neerdowells who tore the system a new one on xmas day in 2011.
It’s got all the mod cons you’d expect from any self respecting modern metro system. They run the leccy overhead, there is tonnes of room and there are safety walkways for when you need to hop out the way. The only thing its missing, is lights…
It’s fucking well dark down there, although it helps a treat with working out where the next station is going to be..
I’ve since been informed that there is some sort of connection between the old coal tunnels and the newer metro, but I’m fucked if we could find it.
There are a few sort of interesting service areas and such like at the end of the platforms, but it all gets a bit samey after a while, and by the end, we were just looking forward to popping to maccys for a double cheese burger and coffee.
The Glasgow Subway
Now here’s a history piece. The third oldest subterranean metro network in the world and probably one of the most pain in the arse to access. The only point of after-hours ingress sits in the middle of the super secure metro depot in Govern, and with Glasgow’s tasty graff scene, the people who look after it’s tracks and tunnels have seemingly invested a small fortune in keeping it secure.
It seems to be working as well. The tunnels are spotless, and the razor wired 14ft double palisade fence surrounding the site is in excellent condition, so if you manage to beat all those infrared cameras and motion sensors, the rewards on offer are truly scrumptious.
The Glasgow subway was opened at the tail end of 1896, making it the third oldest in the world. Its a fancinating little piece, and one that was an utter joy to experience first hand. The cars were originally pulled round by cables, driven by a huge steam plant just south of the Clyde, and hauled out of the circular track for maintenance by a massive carriage hoist.
The hoist is now gone, the roof having been capped with concrete and the apparatus replaced by cable trays.
The trains now get to the depot via an incline just after Ibrox, which can be seen here on the right.
The tunnels themselves are teenytiny, a bit like a cross between the Mail Rail and the tube. Everything is damp, filthy and feels properly proper. In fact, the whole system is so small the trackies walk it every night looking for broken bits and pieces. We knew this before we set off, but what we didn’t bank on is them getting to us as quick as they did!
With the rush job we had to bungle, I didn’t really escape with all the photos I was after. Crying shame really but if I’ve not thought of going back now I’ll probably never get round to it. By the time this gets to the internet ill probably need a visa to get within 150 miles of it.
As you were.