I didn’t really visit New Street Station very much as a kid. For a start we didn’t go into town that often, and when we did the train was very much more expensive than the bus. The buses, at least for a time, were 2p to anywhere*. There were lots of muggings on the trains in those days and they were very much grottier than the buses. I can still smell the mixture of piss and ripped seat foam that permeated the Walsall to Birmingham line. I don’t think many of my generation have ever got back into using the local trains. New Street Station became a place for longer trips—one I’d still get the bus to get to from Great Barr.
The odd day trip, most memorably to an all-but closed Llandudno—”Change at Crewe” the guard bellowed as we got on the wrong train back—and then as I got older travel to gigs, friends and festivals all over the country. The staff were always helpful, even if the place was dark and the WH Smith’s was expensive. On my first visit to the Glastonbury festival, my two mates and I queued up at the ticket office with not a single clue between us where the place was, nor the train station we’d need to get to. They found out, gave us tickets, and charged us about 30 quid. A lot for the pleasure of standing up all the way there and back but some things don’t change. Except of course all the money now goes to Richard Branson.
For a while I’d feel a lift of spirits as I descended the escalators from the Bull Ring. And along with that a desire to touch the advert for whatever local radio station was pushing its dire breakfast show as footballers do leaving the tunnel at Anfield. Now I live in another town it’s just a point on route. But let me tell you about the time I kipped overnight at New Street.
When you’re doing one of those route planning things on Google Maps checking for the last bus or train home quite often you’ll get a brief blast of exhilaration ‘yes, I can leave after closing time’, only to drop when you see that that route arrives at about 6:25 the next morning with a 6 hour ‘change’ at Didcot Parkway. Before the Internet that sort of thing happened a lot more easily, and it was for that reason I ended up sleeping on New Street Station one cold November evening in the early ’90s.
We’d been down to Camden to a gig—Lydia Lunch doing spoken word, don’t judge me it was the early ’90s like I said—and my mate had to get back up North for a frighteningly early lecture the next day, at 11am or something stupid. Arriving back in town at about five to the last bus on Sunday we hadn’t got the money for taxis and hadn’t the urge to walk to anywhere we could sleep. A five hour wait it was.
It turns out that sleep on New Street Station isn’t easy to come by. It’s cold, the wind rushes through the tunnels at a speed far exceeding that of any Inter City and the waiting rooms are not quite out of the tunnel effect. The seats and benches are not conducive to shut-eye either: not only are they hard, cold metal, and fixed into a position that bolt you upright, but the arms are designed almost perfectly to offer as little support as possible. You can’t sleep across more than one seat, you can’t even prop yourself up in the corner of one—if you can’t sleep sitting up, and you’ll need velcro on the arse of your trousers, then you may have to lie on the floor.
The light isn’t helpful either. Yes, New Street’s platforms might be regarded as one of the dingiest places on earth, but it’s obviously important to keep a low level of buzzing sodium at all hours. It just isn’t fair. But that’s not the worst thing: just as you’re about to drop off there’s a ‘chuff, chuff’ and chorus of bleeding whistles.
Yes, the bastards keep moving bloody trains through all night. Take ear plugs.
At least they don’t chuck you out of the waiting room like they do at Coventry at 1am, but that’s another sorry tale of vagrancy.