Who will be the first mayor of Merseyside?

Labour's Steve Rotheram: let's be honest, it'll be this guy. Image: Getty.

All eyes are on Andy Burnham as Greater Manchester gears up for its inaugural mayoral election – but down the East Lancs Road, his home county is gearing up for its own contest.

The Liverpool City Region mayoralty encompasses Merseyside’s five local authorities – Liverpool, Knowsley, Sefton, Wirral, St Helens – as well as Halton in Cheshire. All six are firmly under Labour control and Steve Rotheram, the Corbynite MP for Liverpool Walton, is the hot favourite. So what’s going to happen?

Rotheram is likely to win the contest at a canter – it’s eminently possible, but not inevitable, that he’ll win in the first round. (The election will be conducted under the supplementary vote system.)

But he isn’t taking victory for granted. His is an ambitious and extensive manifesto that wrings every last bit of power from the comparatively measly settlement the City Region will get from central government.

The frontrunner

Among them is control over local transport – and, in what may well be a sop to the all important Scouse/CityMetric crossover demographic, Rotheram promises to add to Liverpool’s mini-underground network by re-opening St James’ station, in the up-and-coming Baltic Triangle. He’s pressing ahead with plans for a new station in the city’s burgeoning Knowledge Quarter, too.

An appallingly vandalised Merseyrail map, showing where the new stations would be. 

He also plans to fully integrate Merseyside’s bus services with its rail network if the Bus Services Bill is passed as expected later this year, and also wants to slash toll prices for regular users of the Mersey Tunnels (Liverpool – who knew? – is the only city in Europe without free cross-river travel).

His emphasis on travel is telling, and attests to the electoral wisdom of his “No Borough Left Behind” slogan: he is, at the risk of sounding reductive, Scouser than Scouse. For many voters, especially those in the outer boroughs, Liverpool only matters insofar as it’s the place where they work, study, or perhaps fly from; plenty in Southport and St Helens would take great offence at being branded Scouse. Improving his patch’s already respectable travel infrastructure is the easiest – and electorally lucrative – way for Rotheram to prove that the metro-mayoralty isn’t the Liverpool-centric project it risks being cast as.

A former bricklayer, Rotheram has also pledged to beef up the region’s apprenticeship and training offers, and promises concessionary travel rates for the youngsters who take them up. Which is nice. He’s also demanding Whitehall relocate government agencies – or indeed Channel 4 – to Liverpool. Policies aside, he’s also made much of his close relationship with Andy Burnham and makes the geographically questionable pledge to put Liverpool at the “centre of the Northern Powerhouse”.


The rest

Though Rotheram is likely to win in the first round of the contest, it’d be remiss of us to ignore Lib Dem Carl Cashman, the 25-year-old Knowsley borough councillor snapping at somewhere his heels might have been five minutes ago. Privately, local Lib Dems predict they’ll win somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of the vote and finish a strong second: their campaign is a predictably pro-EU one, with pledges to maintain the area’s strong economic links with the EU. Liverpool, Sefton, and the Wirral all voted to remain in the EU referendum, and the former two have historically been happy hunting grounds for the Lib Dems (they controlled Liverpool City Council until 2010, and have held Southport’s commons seat since 1997).

And while Rotheram is pledging to leave no borough behind, the Lib Dems hope to tap into a sense of disenchantment with both one-party politics in the region – and a suspicion of the metro mayor model itself. Don’t get too excited, though – he also wants to protect the green belt.

Like the Lib Dems, the Conservatives too boast only one MP across the whole patch – in Weaver Vale, Halton – but are much less hopeful. Their man, Liverpudlian cushion tycoon Tony Caldeira, is essentially a paper candidate, and finished sixth and seventh in the Liverpool mayoral elections in 2016 and 2012 respectively (suggestions that former Tory minister Esther McVey might run came to nothing, and the local party had a real struggle filling the role this time around).

While only two of the 17 MPs in the region are non-Labour, the psephological complexion of the area means this strategy is perhaps less wise than it might seem. As Stephen and I discuss in the latest CityMetric podcast, at least four of those 17 seats are marginals which the Tories could conceivably win at the next election (Southport, Sefton Central, Wirral West and Wirral South). A high-profile run from a big-name candidate might well have boosted their long-term prospects in those seats.

The Greens, meanwhile, are running Tom Crone, a Liverpool city councillor who, like the Lib Dems, is putting questions about democracy and accountability front and centre of his campaign (as well as, predictably, the environment). The party is the official opposition on the council – albeit by virtue of having a whopping four seats – but has a negligible presence in the other boroughs. Local businesswoman Tabitha Norton is standing for the Women’s Equality Party: hers is the only manifesto to prioritise the region’s looming care funding crisis.

What of Ukip in all of this? Despite the permanently audible Merseyside provenance of their leader, Paul Nuttall, it’s unlikely that he’ll run – not least due to the furore over his questionable Hillsborough recollections and the fact that he’d struggle to come fifth. So far, the party has not named a candidate.

 
 
 
 

Cats and dogs and Pokémon and ball pools: The eight joyful trains of Japan

Okay, it may not look like much, but... the exterior of the Genbi Shinkansen art experience. Image: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

If you’re on this website, you’ll likely agree with the statement: trains are good. We like trains. Trains are marvellous.

But in Britain our idea of a good train is “runs on time, doesn’t smell of wee, possibly has a spare seat”. Our national rail ambition has been battered by years of this crap: the most exciting we can hope for is to catch sight of the Orient Express as it flashes through a station, or a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Yet in Japan, there are trains dedicated to art and sake and Pokemon. There’s a train with a ball pool, for Christ’s sake.

These trains aren’t usually part of the ‘real’ timetable (that is, they don’t show up in the regular searches), and sometimes only run on specific days, they do still run proper routes. The Tohoku Emotion, for instance (all about dining; one car is an open kitchen) runs between Hachinohe and Kuji, adding a direct train between those cities in an otherwise annoying two hour gap.


Cost is, of course, another issue. It’s not possible to book many of these trains outside Japan so prices are tricky to come by, and some of the dining packages on offer will obviously involve laying down some hefty yen.

That said, the Kawasemi Yamasemi, an exquisitely decorated train that runs three times every day direct between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi in central Kyushu, costs about the same as travelling between the two on the bullet train (it’s faster too, because it’s direct). And I’m happy to bet the farm that any of these trains will cost a damn sight less than Japan’s newest, shiniest novelty train – and probably be more fun.

So without further ado, here are some of the best – and this really is what they’re called – Joyful Trains in Japan.

Pokémon with YOU

Yes, there really is a Pokémon train. Introduced in Tohoku to cheer up – and raise money for – the region’s children after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the service runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma stations, and if Niantic hasn’t worked out a way to put special Pokémon Go characters at each station, it’s missing a trick. There’s a playroom with big Snorlax cushions, the Drilbur Tunnel and real life Poké balls. And, as far as we can tell, a seat costs less than a fiver.

Oh, and because it’s run by JR East, you can do a Google Street View walkthrough of the whole train, which are available for many of the company’s Joyful Trains. Japan. Is. Awesome.

Image: Google Street View.

Tama-Den

If cute character-themed trains are your thing, then you should also check out the Tama-Den which runs on the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa line. Tama, you may recall, was a calico cat who became feted as a stationmaster, and elevated into a goddess when she died in 2015. (Her replacement, Tama II, works a five day week at Kishi station.) The Tama-Den is covered in drawings of her. And you thought your cat was spoiled.

Meow? Image: as365n2/Flickr/creative commons.

The same company also runs the Omo-den, which is all about toys and has cash-guzzling capsule toy vending machines on board.

Aso Boy!

Where there’s a cat train, there must also be a dog. Aso Boy! usually takes you past the caldera of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, but since the Kumamoto earthquake the route is altered.

 But even with the lack of its main scenic draw, this is still a top train because it features the cutest of all Japan’s regional mascots. Kuro is JR Kyushu’s yuru-chara and the damnably adorable dog gets everywhere. It’s one-up on the Tama-Den because you can buy Kuro-themed food and souvenirs, and this is the train with the ball pool.

The balls are wooden though. Ouch.

On board Aso Boy! Image: Jill Chen/Flickr/creative commons.

Genbi Shinkansen

The bullet train is cool enough, but this one is decorated inside and out with the work of eight modern artists. Running between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa, the Genbi Shinkansen reckons it’s the world’s fastest art experience. With a journey time of just under an hour, works range from standard wall-mounted paintings to art that’s literally part of the furniture.

Images: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

SL Ginga

Not only is this train hauled by a steam locomotive, it has a freaking planetarium on board. It’s inspired by children’s author Kenji Miyazawa’s book Night on the Galactic Railroad which is set in the early 20th century, and the decor is meant to echo that era. There are galleries devoted to Miyazawa’s life, and the train runs between Hanamaki – where he was from – and Kamaishi.

Image: Google Street View.

FruiTea Fukushima

The whole of Fukushima province has been tainted by association with its namesake nuclear power plant, which is deeply unfair as it’s a gorgeous part of the country.

To drum up tourism, the FruiTea train went into service a couple of years ago on the standard line connecting Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle-and-samurai town. There are several Joyful Trains dedicated to eating and drinking, but this one deserves a mention because its locally produced fruit snacks and drinks deserve wider recognition. As does the area.

Here’s your Google Street View walkthrough:

Image: Google Street View.

Shu*Kura

There are three Shu*Kura trains, all departing from Joetsumyoko but with different destinations. This is another train dedicated to eating and, well... drinking.

Niigata Prefecture claims to brew the finest sake in the world, and this three car service showcases the best of them. It also has live music and snacks, but the point here is that you can stand at a sake cask-themed bar and get tiddly without anyone judging you, like they would for that M&S prosecco.

And check out the lights on that thing.

Image: Google Street View.

Toreiyu Tsubasa

This is the train to catch if you want to go full Japan. Most of the cars don’t have seats, they have tatami mats and low tables instead, billed as a ‘conversation space’.

There’s another tatami car designed as more of a lounge for people after they’ve used the footbath. Yes, you did read that correctly. A footbath. You’re not going to want your shoes with all this tatami anyway, and it’s a unique way to view the scenery between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Image: Google Street View.

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