East Coast Main Line

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An InterCity 225 train on the East Coast Main Line approaching King's Cross

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a 393-mile-long railway link between London and Edinburgh via Peterborough, Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds, York, Darlington and Newcastle, electrified along the whole route (map). Services north of Edinburgh to Aberdeen and Inverness use diesel trains.

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 and the North. It also carries key commuter flows for the north side of London. 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:[1]

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.[1]

The route has Engineers' line reference 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",[2] 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[2]

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.

LNER Class A3 No. 2547 Doncaster hauls the daily Flying Scotsman in 1928.
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 mph 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.

Just after the Deltics were introduced, the first sections of the East Coast Main Line were upgraded to allow 100 mph running. The first length to be cleared for the new higher speed was a 17-mile stretch between Peterborough and Grantham on 15 June 1965, the second was 12 miles between Grantham and Newark.[3]

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 on the line in 1973.[4][5] 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 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.[6]

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.[4] Locomotives have operated on the ECML at speeds of up to 161.7 mph 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[7]


The ECML was electrified using 25 kV AC overhead lines by British Rail 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.[8] 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. The current InterCity 225 rolling stock was introduced in 1990 to work the electrified line.[9]


East Coast train at London King's Cross railway station

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.

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. 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 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 Great Britain, through Lincolnshire and Huntingdonshire, 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 Cumberland and Westmorland, leading to many more curves and a lower general speed limit of 110 mph. 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.

Stations served

From north to south:

Note that although the line passes through Rutland and Berwickshire there are no stops in either county.

Outside links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Network Rail (31 March 2010). "Route Plans 2010: Route Plan G East Coast & North East" (PDF). p.5. http://www.networkrail.co.uk/RoutePlans/PDF/RouteG-EastCoastandNorthEast.pdf. Retrieved 1 August 2012. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Joy, David (1978). A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain - Volume 8: South and West Yorkshire. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 304. ISBN 0 7153 7783 3. 
  3. Railway Magazine. November 1965. p. 858. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Barnett, Roger (June 1992) (PDF). British Rail's InterCity 125 and 225. UCTC Working Paper No. 114. University of California Transportation Center; University of California, Berkeley. p. 32. http://www.uctc.net/papers/114.pdf. Retrieved 27 May 2008. 
  5. Testing the prototype HST in 1973 - Welcome to my testing site. Retrieved 22 September 2012.
  6. Heath, Don (August 1994). Electrification of British Rail's East Coast Main Line. Paper No. 105. Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers (Transportation). p. 232. 
  7. Keating, Oliver. "The Inter-city 225". High Speed Rail. http://www.o-keating.com/hsr/ic225.htm. Retrieved 29 May 2008. 
  8. "Your NEW Electric Railway, The Great Northern Suburban Electrification". British Railways. 1973. http://www.railwaysarchive.co.uk/documents/BRE_GNElectric1973.pdf. Retrieved 18 March 2014. 
  9. Semmens, P.W.B. (March 1991). Electrifying the East Coast Route: Making of Britain's First 140m.p.h. Railway. Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 978-0850599299. 
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Inter-city railway lines in Great Britain

High Speed 1  • Cross Country Route  • East Coast Main Line  • Great Eastern Main Line  • Great Western Main Line  • Midland Main Line  • West Coast Main Line