Sinking underground with Merseyrail

Readers in other cities (or even other countries) might be surprised to learn Liverpool has an underground rail network. The oldest part (the tunnel running under the Mersey, linking James Street to Birkenhead) dates back to 1886 – which is roughly contemporaneous with the London’s first deep-level tube line between the City and Stockwell in 1890.

Today, however, they’re worlds apart. While the London Underground is a sprawling network of 270 stations and 11 lines, Merseyrail has a quarter as many stations and only 3 lines – most of which run overground. London Underground passengers make almost 1.2 billion journeys a year – roughly 40 times the number that take place on Merseyrail.

Map of the Merseyrail network

When I first approached Liverpool, almost 3 years ago, it was via Merseyrail. I’d taken an Arriva trains service from Hereford to Chester, and then a Merseyrail service to Liverpool Central. My enduring memory of the journey is one of poor lighting, grubby brown and cream walls, brutal rubberised flooring, and—worst of all—inherently poor graphic design.

Maybe it only seemed worse because I’d come from three years of public transport in London, where every square inch of the customer experience is hewn from blocks of TfL house-style. It’s one of the beauties of the network, and probably the only thing I actually like about the city. The transport layer is exquisitely designed.

Merseyrail, by contrast, is a hodge-podge. And it’s a real shame. It’s almost an admission of defeat. In theory, all rail, bus, and ferry transport across the region is controlled by MerseyTravel. But unlike Transport for London, where the reassuring glow of block colours and FF New Johnston lead the way home after a night out you’d rather forget, in Liverpool you get crap like this:

A Merseyrail sign warning customers to keep their feet off seats and refrain from smoking

This isn’t bad design, it’s just really unfortunate. 27 words, in five different point sizes of Helvetica Bold, some in SHOUTY CAPS, some not, and all of it with little to no breathing space. There’s brackets and exclamation marks! And then crammed in at the bottom, the Merseyrail logo—y’know—just in case you forgot whose train you were on. Maybe there are legal reasons all that crap needs to be on there. But that doesn’t mean anybody’s going to read it. If this were London, you’d have something more like:

My version of a sign containing all the same information, but in a simpler, clearer form

Like I said, it’s not bad, but it’s unfortunate. You can put up with a bunch of crappy looking no-smoking signs. But when I saw this next poster on a journey between Liverpool city centre and St Michaels, it so perfectly epitomised Merseyrail’s stance on public information signage, that I had to take a photo and write this blog post about it:

A Merseyrail poster advertising the Railpass discount scheme

Okay, elephant in the room: Why is there a big purple hand picking that guy’s nose? This ain’t no hidden FedEx arrow – it’s smack-bang in the middle of the poster. How can you not see it?

Maybe you might miss the arrow if you were instead reeling in horror at the heinous apostrophe in “gift’s”. Or at the hyphen pretending to be an en-dash after the word “passes.”

How do these things slip through? Surely this isn’t the sort of poster that gets put up all over the network without at least half a dozen designers, copywriters, and managers seeing it first. Do they all care so little about Merseyrail that fixing these mistakes just isn’t worth the effort? Or did they just not notice?

There’s literally no way I can imagine the same shoddy attention to detail being put into a Transport for London poster. And when I sat there on the 18:07 to St Michaels, photographing the posters on the train like a crazy person, I realised why: Transport for London has a reputation to uphold. It serves billions of passengers a year. It’s the oil that keeps Europe’s busiest capital running smoothly. There’s no way they’d let an errant apostrophe or nose-picking graphic onto their publicity.

But Merseyrail, a back-water train operator in some back-water city, has no such fear. Its customers have come to expect the mediocre, so why bother impressing them?

Problem is, Liverpool’s not just some back-water city. Liverpool is, by a long way, the greatest, friendliest, most culturally vibrant city I’ve ever seen in the UK. The city’s reputation is already bad enough. The last thing visitors need is for incoherent branding and shoddy copywriting to confirm it.

Up your game, Merseyrail – you may not care about your own reputation, but I’ll be damned if you drag the whole city down with you.