East Coast Main Line

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East Coast Main Line
VTEC at Stanborough Park, Welwyn Garden City.jpg
An InterCity 225 train on the East Coast Main Line near Stanborough Park, Welwyn Garden City.
Type Commuter rail, Inter-city rail
Heavy rail
System National Rail
Status Operational
Locale Greater London
East of England
East Midlands
Yorkshire and the Humber
North East England
Scottish Borders
Central Scotland
Termini London King's Cross
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Edinburgh Waverley
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Stations 52
Opened 1850
Owner Network Rail
Operator(s) Virgin Trains East Coast
Great Northern
Hull Trains
East Midlands Trains
First TransPennine Express
Northern Rail
Abellio ScotRail
Grand Central
DB Schenker
GB Railfreight
Direct Rail Services
Character Primary[1]
Depot(s) Hornsey
Bounds Green
Neville Hill
Rolling stock Class 43 "HST"
Class 91 "InterCity 225"
Class 142 "Pacer"
Class 144 "Pacer"
Class 153 "Super Sprinter"
Class 156 "Super Sprinter"
Class 158 "Express Sprinter"
Class 170 "Turbostar"
Class 180 "Adelante"
Class 185 "Pennine"
Class 220 "Voyager"
Class 221 "Super Voyager"
Class 222 "Meridian"
Class 313
Class 317
Class 321
Class 325
Class 365 "Networker Express"
Line length 393 miles (632 km)
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge
Route availability RA 7-9, RA 10 in parts between Selby and York
Operating speed 125 mph (200 km/h) maximum
East Coast Main Line
Edinburgh Waverley
(Edinburgh Trams St Andrew Square)
North Berwick
Manors Tyne and Wear Metro
Tyne and Wear Metro Newcastle Central
Leeds City
Wakefield Westgate
Sandal & Agbrigg
South Elmsall
Newark North Gate
St Neots
Welwyn North
Hertford North
Welwyn Garden City
Welham Green
Crews Hill
Brookmans Park
Gordon Hill
Potters Bar
Enfield Chase
Grange Park
Hadley Wood
Winchmore Hill
New Barnet
Palmers Green
Oakleigh Park
Bowes Park
New Southgate
Alexandra Palace
Finsbury Park London Underground
King's Cross
London Underground
A detailed diagram of the ECML can be
found at East Coast Main Line diagram
A map of CrossCountry, Grand Central, Hull Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast services on the East Coast Main Line

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a 393-mile long (632 km)[2] railway[1] link between London and Edinburgh via Peterborough, Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds, York, Darlington and Newcastle, electrified along the whole route. Services north of Edinburgh to Aberdeen and Inverness use diesel trains. The main franchise on the line is operated by Virgin Trains East Coast.

The route forms a key artery on the eastern side of Great Britain and is broadly paralleled by the A1 trunk road. It links London, the South East and East Anglia, with Yorkshire, the North East Regions and Scotland. It also carries key commuter flows for the north side of London. It is important to the economic health of several areas of England and Scotland. It also handles cross-country, commuter and local passenger services, and carries heavy tonnages of freight traffic.

Route definition and description

The ECML forms part of Network Rail's Strategic Route G which comprises six separate lines:[3]

Overview of the ECML (in blue) and other north-south mainlines in the UK

The core part of the route is the main line between King's Cross and Edinburgh, with the Hertford Loop used for local and freight services and the Northern City Line only used on weekdays for inner suburban services.[3]

The route has ELRs ECM1 - ECM9.


The line was built by three railway companies, each serving their own area, but with the intention of linking up to form the through route that became the East Coast Main Line. From north to south they were

When first completed, the GNR made an end-on connection at Askern, famously described by the GNR's chairman as, "a ploughed field four miles north of Doncaster",[4] with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, a short section of which was used to reach the NER at Knottingley. In 1871, the route was shortened - NER opened a direct line which ran from an end-on junction with the GNR, at Shaftholme, just south of Askern to Selby and then (once over Selby bridge on the Leeds- Hull Line) direct to York[4]

Realising that through journeys were an important part of their business, the companies established special rolling stock in 1860 on a collaborative basis; it was called the "East Coast Joint Stock".

In 1923 the three companies were grouped into the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). This later became part of British Railways in 1948.

Numerous alterations to short sections of the original route have taken place, the most notable being the opening of the King Edward VII Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1906 and the Selby Diversion, built to bypass anticipated mining subsidence from the Selby coalfield and a bottleneck at Selby station. The Selby Diversion was opened in 1983 and diverged from the original ECML at Temple Hirst Junction, north of Doncaster, and joined the Leeds to York Line at Colton Junction south west of York.

55012 "Crepello" enters King's Cross in May 1976. The Class 55 Deltic was the main express locomotive on the ECML between 1961 and 1981.

The ECML has been the backdrop for a number of famous rail journeys and locomotives. The line was worked for many years by Pacific locomotives designed by Gresley, including the famous steam locomotives "Flying Scotsman" and "Mallard". Mallard achieved a world record speed for a steam locomotive, at 126 miles per hour (203 km/h) and this record was never beaten. It made the run on the Grantham-to-Peterborough section, on the descent of Stoke Bank.

Steam locomotives were replaced by Diesel electrics in the early 1960s, when the purpose-built Deltic locomotive was developed by English Electric. The prototype was successful and a fleet of 22 locomotives was built, to handle all the important express traffic. The Class 55s were powered by two engines originally developed for fast torpedo boats, and the configuration of the engines led to the Deltic name. Their characteristic throaty exhaust roar and chubby body outline made them unmistakable. The Class 55 was for a time the most powerful diesel locomotive in service in Britain, at 3,300 hp (2,500 kW).

Just after the Deltics were introduced, the first sections of the East Coast Main Line were upgraded to allow 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) running. The first length to be cleared for the new higher speed was a 17 miles (27 km) stretch between Peterborough and Grantham on 15 June 1965, the second was 12 miles (19 km) between Grantham and Newark.[5]

As the demand for higher speed intensified, the Deltics were superseded by the High Speed Train (HST), introduced between 1976 and 1981, and still in service in 2015 (re-engined, with the original Paxman Valenta power units replaced by MTU engines).

A prototype of the HST, the Class 41 achieved 143 mph (230 km/h) on the line in 1973.[6][7] Current UK legislation requires in-cab signalling for speeds of over 125 mph which is the primary reason preventing the InterCity 225 train-sets from operating at their design speed of 140 mph (225 km/h) in normal service.

A secondary factor was that the signalling technology of the time was insufficient to allow detection of two broken rails on the line on which the train was operating.[8]

Before the present in-cab regulations came in, British Rail experimented with 140 mph running by introducing a fifth, flashing green signalling aspect on the Down Fast line (signals P487 to P615) and Up Fast line (signals P610 to P494) between New England North and Stoke Tunnel. The fifth aspect is still shown in normal service and appears when the next signal is showing a green (or another flashing green) aspect and the signal section is clear, which ensures that there is sufficient braking distance to bring a train to a stand from 140 mph.[6] Locomotives have operated on the ECML at speeds of up to 161.7 mph (260.2 km/h) in test runs. The capability to run special test trains in excess of 125 mph is listed as being maintained in the LNE Sectional Appendix[9]


The ECML was electrified using 25 kV AC overhead lines in two phases between 1976 and 1991: The first phase between London (Kings Cross) and Hitchin was carried out between 1976 and 1978 as part of the Great Northern Suburban Electrification Project using Mk.3A equipment. This included the Hertford Loop Line.[10] The second phase began in 1984, when authority was given to electrify to Edinburgh and Leeds using Mk.3B equipment. Construction began in 1985, and the section between Hitchin and Peterborough was completed in 1987, Doncaster and York were reached in 1989. By 1990 electrification had reached Newcastle, and in 1991 Edinburgh. At the peak of the electrification project during the late 1980s, it was claimed to be the "longest construction site in the world" at over 250 miles (400 km). The current InterCity 225 rolling stock was introduced in 1990 to work the electrified line.[11]


The line is mainly four tracks from London to Stoke Tunnel, south of Grantham. However, there are two major twin-track sections: the first of these is near Welwyn North Station as it crosses the Digswell Viaduct and passes through two tunnels; the second is a section around 'Stilton Fen', between Fletton Junction near Peterborough, and southwards towards Holme Junction; furthermore, the section between Holme Junction south to Huntingdon is mostly triple track. North of Grantham the route is twin track except for four-track sections at Retford around Doncaster, between Colton Junction (which is south of York), Thirsk and Northallerton, and another at Newcastle.[12]

The main route is electrified along the full route and only the line between Leeds and York (Neville Hill Depot to Colton Junction) is non-electrified.[12] This diversionary route will be electrified as part of the transpennine electrification scheme, to be completed by December 2018.

With most of the line rated for 125 mph (200 km/h) operation, the ECML was the fastest main line in the UK until the opening of High Speed 1. These relatively high speeds are possible because much of the ECML travels on fairly straight track on the flatter, eastern regions of England, through Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, though there are significant speed restrictions (due to curvature) particularly north of Darlington and between Doncaster and Leeds. By contrast, the West Coast Main Line has to traverse the Trent Valley and the mountains of Cumbria, leading to many more curves and a lower general speed limit of 110 mph (180 km/h). Speeds on the WCML have been increased in recent years with the introduction of tilting Pendolino trains and now match the 125 mph speeds available on the ECML.

Rolling stock

Most express passenger services use the InterCity 225 rolling stock.

Some diesels still operate on line, including:


A train operated by the former main provider of services on the line, East Coast.

The line's current principal operator is Virgin Trains East Coast, whose services include regular trains between King's Cross, the East Midlands, Yorkshire, the North East of England and Scotland. Virgin Trains East Coast is jointly operated by Stagecoach Group and Virgin Group and took over from East Coast on 1 March 2015. Other operators of passenger trains on the line are:

Eurostar previously held the rights to run five trains a day on the line for services from continental Europe to cities north of London, as part of the Regional Eurostar plan, although such services have never been run.[13]

DB Schenker, FirstGBRf, Freightliner, Freightliner Heavy Haul and Direct Rail Services operate freight services.


Capacity problems

The ECML is one of the busiest lines on the British rail network and there is currently insufficient capacity on parts of the line to satisfy all the requirements of both passenger and freight operators.[14]

There are bottlenecks at the following locations:

  • The section of twin track within a four-line section at Welwyn North over the Digswell Viaduct and through the Welwyn tunnels[15]
  • The twin and triple track sections located between Huntingdon and Peterborough.[16]
  • Just north of Newark station at a flat crossing with the Nottingham to Lincoln Line.[17]
  • The section of double track between Stoke Tunnel and Doncaster.[16]
  • Doncaster station has limited facilities for terminating branch trains on the up side of the station. This is to be remedied with the opening of a new platform (platform 0) on the up side so that trains to and from the Thorne direction will be able to de-conflict their arrivals and departures with high speed trains.[18][19]
  • The north throat of York station including Skelton Bridge Junction.
  • South of Newcastle to Northallerton (which is also predominately double track), leading to proposals to reopen the Leamside line to passenger and freight traffic.[16][20]

Railway operations are vulnerable during high winds and there have been several de-wirements over the years due to the unusually wide spacing (up to 75m) between the supporting masts of the overhead lines. The other cost-reduction measure was the use of headspan catenary support systems over the quadruple track sections - as employed in the Weaver Junction to Glasgow Electrification on the WCML during the 1970s. Headspans do not have mechanically independent registration (MIR) of each electrified road and thus are more complex to setup, compared to TTC and portal style support structures[clarification needed], during installation. In the event of a de-wirement of a given road, headspans result in the need to correctly setup the OLE of adjacent roads before the line can reopen to electric traction. This was a result of extreme pressure from the Department for Transport to reduce avoidable costs when the line was originally electrified between 1985 and 1990.[21]

Recent developments

  • The Allington Chord was constructed near Grantham in 2006, allowing services between Nottingham and Skegness to call at Grantham without having to use the ECML, trains now passing under the line. This provided sufficient extra capacity for 12 additional services between Leeds and London each day.[22][23]
  • A new platform at London Kings Cross was opened on 20 May 2010. This was originally to be called "Platform Y".[24] Instead it has been named Platform 0 to avoid confusion of lettered and numbered platforms.
  • At the southern end of York station a short length of fourth track was installed in early 2011 at Holgate Junction with accompanying OLE and signalling systems. This work helped to remove one of the bottlenecks on the East Coast Main Line. Previously, trains from Leeds would sometimes have to wait before entering the station. The improvement allows for better flow of trains in and out of the station.[24][25][26]
  • Provision of a grade-separated junction to the north of Hitchin (the Hitchin flyover) enabling down Cambridge trains to cross the main line[24][27][28] The work was completed by 26 June 2013[29]
  • Major remodelling of Peterborough station was completed during early 2014 providing three platform faces for services in the up direction towards London and two for ECML services travelling north on the down lines. An additional two platform faces are also available for Cross Country services to and from stations to the east of Peterborough.[24]
  • A new flyover just south of Joan Croft level crossing in South Yorkshire to allow freight trains from Immingham to pass over the line on their way to Eggborough and Drax power stations, was completed in very early 2014. The project, known as the North Doncaster Chord, also replaced the level crossing on a minor road with a new overbridge just to the north of the original crossing point.[24][26]
  • Renewal and gauge enhancement of the Great Northern and Great Eastern Line which runs parallel to the ECML between Peterborough and Doncaster. This removes freight traffic from a heavily congested section of the ECML.
  • A new Rail Operating Centre (ROC), with training facilities, opened in early 2014 at the "Engineer's Triangle" in York. The ROC will enable signalling and day-to-day operations of the route to be undertaken in a single location. Signalling control/traffic management using ERTMS is scheduled to be introduced from 2020 on the ECML between London Kings Cross and Doncaster - managed from the York ROC.
  • An £8.6 million redevelopment of Newcastle Central Station was completed in 2014 enhancing the existing station and provide a state-of-the-art station for thousands of passengers.[30]

Planned or proposed developments

Over the years successive infrastructure managers have developed schemes for route improvements.[12] The most recent of which is the £240 million "ECML Connectivity Fund" included in the 2012 HLOS[31] with the objective of increasing capacity and reducing journey times. Current plans include the following:

  • Connection of the ECML to Thameslink as part of the Thameslink Programme (for Thameslink and Great Northern commuter services to be extended to south London).
  • Full reversible signalling over the Stilton Fen section
  • Power supply upgrades (PSU) between Wood Green and Bawtry (Phase 1) and Bawtry to Edinburgh (Phase 2), including some overhead lines (OLE) support improvements, rewiring of the contact and catenary wires, and headspan to portal conversions (HS2P).
  • Re-quadrupling of the route between Huntingdon and Woodwalton which was rationalised in the 1980s (part of the ECML Connectivity programme)
  • Power supply enhancement on the diversionary Hertford Loop route
  • Level crossing closures between Kings Cross and Doncaster: As of July 2015 this will no longer be conducted as a single closure of 73 level crossings - but conducted on a case-by case basis.[32]
  • Additional down platform and turnback facility at Stevenage (part of the ECML Connectivity programme) - now delayed from CP5 to CP6.
  • Additional turnback facility at Gordon Hill (part of the ECML Connectivity programme).
  • Provision of a new Up bay platform (Platform 0) at Doncaster station (part of the ECML Connectivity programme). This is currently under construction.
  • Enhanced passenger access to the platforms at Peterborough and Stevenage
  • Further remodelling at Peterborough and linespeed enhancements on the down slow line in the Fletton area
  • Modified north throat at York Station to reduce congestion for services calling at Platforms 9 - 11 (part of the ECML Connectivity programme)
  • Increasing maximum speeds on the fast lines between Woolmer Green and Dalton-on-Tees up to 140 mph (225 km/h) in conjunction with the introduction of the Intercity Express Programme, level crossing closures, ETRMS fitments, OLE rewiring and the OLE PSU - est. to cost £1.3 billion. This project is referred to as "L2E4" or London to Edinburgh (in) 4 Hours and is currently (November 2015) under development. L2E4 examines the operation of the IEP at 140 mph on the ECML and the sections of track which can be upgraded to permit this, together with the engineering and operational costs.[33]
  • Remodelling north of Peterborough to provide a new grade separated junction at Werrington to allow freight services to join or be diverted off the ECML to/from the GNGE without crossing all four tracks at level. Network Rail's preferred option is for a dive-under.
  • Upgrading of the fast lines at Shaftholme Junction from 100 mph to 125 mph.
  • Replacement of the Flat Crossing at Newark with a flyover (scheme developed currently to GRIP Stage 2 by Jacobs)[34]
  • The line between London King's Cross to the approach of Doncaster will be signalled with Level 2 ERTMS. The target date for operational ERTMS services is December 2018 with completion in 2020[35]
  • Darlington station up fast line platform
  • Fitment of TASS Balises and Gauging/Structure works proposed by the open operator GNER (Alliance Rail) to support its aspirations for express 3hr43min London to Edinburgh Services. Tilt would be required north of Darlington for Pendolino trains.


The ECML has been witness to a number of incidents resulting in death and serious injury:

Title Date Killed Injured Note
Welwyn Tunnel rail crash 9 June 1866 2 2 Three-train collision in tunnel, caused by guard's failure to protect train and signalling communications error
Hatfield rail crash (1870) 26 December 1870 8 3 Wheel disintegrated causing derailment killing six passengers and two bystanders
Abbots Ripton rail disaster 21 January 1876 13 59 Flying Scotsman crashed during a blizzard.
Morpeth rail crash (1877) 25 March 1877 5 17 Derailment caused by faulty track.
Thirsk rail crash (1892) 2 November 1892 10 43 Signalman forgot about a goods train standing at his box and accepted the Scotch Express onto his line with inevitable consequences.
Grantham rail accident 19 August 1906 14 17 Runaway or overspeed on junction curve causing derailment - no definite cause established.
Welwyn Garden City rail crash 15 June 1935 14 29 Two trains collided due to a signaller's error.
King's Cross railway accident 4 February 1945 2 26 Train slipped on gradient and slid back into station.
Potters Bar rail crash 10 February 1946 2 17 Local train hit buffers fouling main line with wreckage hit by two further trains.
Goswick rail crash 26 October 1947 28 65 Edinburgh-London Flying Scotsman failed to slow down for a diversion and derailed. Signal passed at danger
Doncaster rail crash 16 March 1951 14 12 Train derailed south the station and struck a bridge pier.
Goswick Goods train derailment 28 October 1953 1 'Glasgow to Colchester' Goods train was derailed at Goswick.[36][37]
Connington South rail crash 5 March 1967 5 18 Express train was derailed.
Thirsk rail crash 31 July 1967 7 45 Cement train derailed and hit by North bound express hauled by prototype locomotive. DP2
Morpeth rail crash (1969) 7 May 1969 6 46 Excessive speed on curve.
Penmanshiel Tunnel collapse 17 March 1979 2 Two workers killed when the tunnel collapsed during engineering works.
Morpeth rail crash (1984) 24 June 1984 35 Excessive speed on curve.
Newcastle Central railway station collision 30 November 1989 15 Two InterCity expresses collided.[38]
Morpeth rail crash (1992) 13 November 1992 1 Collision between two freight trains.
Morpeth rail crash (1994) 27 June 1994 1 Excessive speed led to the locomotive and the majority of carriages overturning.
Hatfield rail crash 17 October 2000 4 70 InterCity 225 derailed due to a failure to replace a fractured rail. The accident highlighted poor management at Railtrack and led to its partial re-nationalisation.
Great Heck rail crash 28 February 2001 10 82 A Land Rover Defender swerved down an embankment off the M62 motorway into the path of a southbound GNER Intercity 225, which then was struck by a freight train lead by a Class 66
Potters Bar rail crash (2002) 10 May 2002 7 70 Derailment caused by a badly maintained set of points. Resulted in the end of the use of external contractors for routine maintenance.

Passenger volume

East Coast train at London King's Cross railway station

Popular culture

The cuttings and tunnel entrances just north of King's Cross make a memorable smoky appearance in the 1955 Ealing comedy film The Ladykillers. Also during the 1950s, the line featured in the 1954 documentary short Elizabethan Express. Later, the 1971 British gangster film Get Carter features a journey from London Kings Cross to Newcastle in the opening credits. The motoring show Top Gear featured a race including LNER A1 60163 Tornado running up this line from London to Edinburgh.

The route has been featured in several train simulator games. Trainz Simulator 2010 features the route between London and York, Trainz Simulator 12 extends the route to Newcastle, and Trainz: A New Era brings it all the way to Edinburgh, allowing the entire 393-mile route to be driven. All three routes take place during the 1970s, around the time the InterCity 125 was introduced. This is reinforced by instructions in the "HST Southbound Express" session not to move until the guard has locked the doors, since the trains did not have pneumatic locks initially; doing so will lead to an automatic failure. Other rolling stock includes Class 37s, Class 47s, and Class 105s, plus Mark 2 coaches. TS12's version added Class 55 Deltics and Class 313s, as well as additional pre-made, pre-scripted sessions.

King's Cross is also known as the starting point of the Hogwarts Express from the books and films in the Harry Potter series. Within the station concourse there is a tourist attraction of the Platform 9¾ sign and a luggage trolley partially embedded in the station wall with an owl cage and suitcases on it.


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Route map: Bing / Google