West Coast Main Line

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The WCML running alongside the M1 motorway Watford Gap

The West Coast Main Line (WCML) is a major inter-city railway route in the United Kingdom. It is Britain's most important rail backbone in terms of population served. The route links London to Glasgow and Edinburgh via the west Midlands (map).

The WCML is the most important intercity rail passenger route in the United Kingdom, connecting the major cities of London, Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh which have a combined metropolitan population of over 24 million people. In addition, several sections of the WCML form part of the suburban railway systems in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, with many more smaller commuter stations, as well as providing a number of links to more rural towns. In 2008 the WCML handled 75 million passenger journeys.[1]

The WCML is also one of the busiest freight routes in Europe, carrying 43% of all UK rail freight traffic.[1] The line is the principal rail freight corridor linking the European mainland (via the Channel Tunnel) through London and south-east England to the west Midlands, north-west England and Scotland.[2]

Much of the line has a maximum speed of 125 mph, although only the Class 390 Pendolinos and Class 221 Super Voyagers are permitted to travel up to that speed, as they have tilting mechanisms and can travel through curves faster than conventional trains. Other traffic, including the Class 350s, are limited to 110 mph. The WCML has a significantly higher number of curves than most other main lines in Britain, hence the requirement for tilting operation for higher speeds.


Central to the WCML is its 399-mile-long core section between London Euston and Glasgow Central[3] with principal InterCity stations at Milton Keynes Central, Rugby, Stafford, Crewe, Warrington Bank Quay, Wigan North Western, Preston, Lancaster, Oxenholme, Penrith and Carlisle. The length of the WCML's main core section is nominally quoted as being 401¼ miles. The basis of this measurement is taken as being the distance between the midpoint of Platform 18 of London Euston to that of Platform 1 of Glasgow Central, and has historically been the distance used in official calculations during speed record attempts.

The northern WCML as it weaves through the Lune Gorge in Westmorland alongside the M6 motorway.

The central core[4] has expanded into a complex system of branches and divergences serving also the major towns and cities of Northampton, Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Macclesfield, Stockport, Manchester, Runcorn, and Liverpool; there is also a link to Edinburgh, but this is not the direct route between London and Edinburgh.[5]

The WCML is not a single railway; rather it can be thought of as a network of routes which diverge and rejoin the central core between London and Glasgow. The route between Rugby and Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Stafford was the original main line until the shorter line was built in 1847 via the Trent Valley. South of Rugby there is a loop that serves Northampton, and there is also a branch north of Crewe to Liverpool which is notable since Weaver Junction on this branch is the oldest flyover-type junction in use. Among the other diversions are loops that branch off to serve Manchester, one between Colwich Junction in the Trent Valley south of Stafford via Stoke-on-Trent, one north of Stafford also via Stoke-on-Trent, and one via Crewe and Wilmslow. A further branch at Carstairs links Edinburgh to the WCML, providing a direct connection between the WCML and the East Coast Main Line.

Because of opposition by landowners along the route, in places some railway lines were built so that they avoided large estates and rural towns, and to reduce construction costs the railways followed natural contours, resulting in many curves and bends. The WCML also passes through some hilly areas, such as the Chilterns (Tring cutting), the Watford Gap and Northampton uplands followed by the Trent Valley, the mountains of Westmorland with a summit at Shap, and Beattock Summit in Lanarkshire. This legacy of gradients and curves, and the fact that it was not originally conceived as a single trunk route, means the WCML was never ideal as a long-distance main line, with lower maximum speeds than the East Coast Main Line (ECML) route, the other major main line between London and Scotland.

In recent decades, the principal solution to the problem of the WCML's curvaceous line of route has been the adoption of tilting trains, formerly British Rail's Advanced Passenger Train, and latterly the Class 390 Pendolino trains.


Early history

The WCML was not originally conceived as a single trunk route, but was a number of separate lines built by different companies between the 1830s and the 1880s. After the completion of the successful Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, schemes were mooted to build more inter-city lines. The business practice of the early railway era was for companies to promote individual lines between two destinations, rather than to plan grand networks of lines, as it was easier to obtain backing from investors. And so this is how the early stages of the WCML evolved.

The first stretch of what is now the WCML was the Grand Junction Railway connecting Liverpool and Manchester to Birmingham, via Crewe, Stafford and Wolverhampton opening in 1837. The following year the London and Birmingham Railway was completed, connecting to the capital via Coventry, Rugby and the Watford Gap. The Grand Junction and London and Birmingham railways shared a Birmingham terminus at Curzon Street station, so that it was now possible to travel by train between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool[6][7]

'3020 Cornwall', an early LNWR express locomotive (built 1847, as running circa 1890)

These lines, together with the Trent Valley Railway (between Rugby and Stafford, avoiding Birmingham), and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, (Crewe-Manchester), amalgamated operations in 1846 to form the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). Three other sections, the North Union Railway (Wigan-Preston), the Lancaster and Preston Junction Railway and the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway were later absorbed by the LNWR.

North of Carlisle, the Caledonian Railway remained independent, and opened its main line from Carlisle to Beattock on 10 September 1847, connecting to Edinburgh in February 1848, and to Glasgow in November 1849.[8]

Another important section, the North Staffordshire Railway (NSR), which opened its route in 1848 from Macclesfield (connecting with the LNWR from Manchester) to Stafford and Colwich via Stoke-on-Trent also remained independent. Poor relations between the LNWR and the NSR meant that through trains did not run until 1867.[9]

The route to Scotland was marketed by the LNWR as 'The Premier Line'. Because the trains ran over the LNWR and Caledonian Railway, through trains consisted of jointly owned "West Coast Joint Stock" to simplify operations.[10] The first direct London to Glasgow trains in the 1850s took 12½ hours to complete the 400-mile journey.[11]

The final sections of what is now the WCML were put in place over the following decades by the LNWR. A direct branch to Liverpool, bypassing the earlier Liverpool and Manchester line was opened in 1869, from Weaver Junction north of Crewe to Ditton Junction via the Runcorn Railway Bridge over the River Mersey.[12]

To expand capacity, the line between London and Rugby was widened to four tracks in the 1870s. As part of this work, a new line, the Northampton Loop was built, opening in 1881, connecting Northampton before rejoining the main line at Rugby.[7]

LMS era

The Coronation Scot in 1937. Hauled by a streamlined Coronation Class locomotive.

The whole of the present route came under the control of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) on 1 January 1923 when railway companies were grouped, under the Railways Act 1921.

During the grouping era the LMS competed fiercely with the rival London and North Eastern Railway's East Coast Main Line for London to Scotland traffic. Attempts were made to minimise end-to-end journey times for a small number of powerful lightweight trains that could be marketed as glamorous premium crack expresses, especially between London and Glasgow, such as the 1937–39 Coronation Scot, hauled by streamlined Princess Coronation Class locomotives, which made the journey in 6 hours 30 minutes,[13] making it competitive with the rival East Coast Flying Scotsman.

War-ravaged British Railways in the 1950s could not match this, but did achieve a London-Glasgow timing of 7 hours 15 minutes in the 1959–60 timetable by strictly limiting the number of coaches to eight and not stopping between London and Carlisle.[14]

British Rail era

In 1947, following nationalisation, the line came under the control of British Railways London Midland and Scottish Regions, when the term "West Coast Main Line" came into use officially, although it had been used informally since at least 1912.[15] However, it is something of a misnomer as the line only physically touches the coast on a brief section overlooking Morecambe Bay between Lancaster and Carnforth for barely half a mile.

Modernisation by British Rail

Following the 1955 modernisation plan, the line was modernised and electrified in stages between 1959 and 1974. The first stretch to be electrified was Crewe to Manchester, completed on 12 September 1960. This was followed by Crewe to Liverpool, completed on 1 January 1962. Electrification was then extended southwards to London. The first electric trains from London ran on 12 November 1965, but full public service did not start until 18 April the following year. Electrification of the Birmingham line was completed on 6 March 1967. In March 1970 the government gave approval to electrification of the northern section between Weaver Junction (where the route to Liverpool diverges) and Glasgow, and this was completed on 6 May 1974.[4][16]

Once electrification was complete between London, the west Midlands and the north-west, a new set of high-speed long-distance services was introduced in 1966, launching British Rail's highly successful "Inter-City" brand[17] (the hyphen was later dropped) and offering such unprecedented journey times as London to Manchester or Liverpool in 2 hours 40 minutes (and even 2 hours 30 minutes for the twice-daily Manchester Pullman).[18] A significant new feature was that these fast trains were not just the occasional crack express but a regular-interval service throughout the day: hourly to Birmingham, two-hourly to Manchester, and so on.[19] With the completion of the northern electrification in 1974, London to Glasgow journey times were reduced to 5 hours.[4]

BR Class 87 electric locomotive, 87020 in BR blue livery with a train of Mark 2 coaches. These, along with the similar Class 86 formed the backbone of express passenger services on the WCML from the 1970s until the 2000s.

Along with electrification came the gradual introduction of modern coaches such as the Mark 2 and, following the northern electrification scheme's completion in 1974, the fully integral, air-conditioned Mark 3 design. These vehicles remained the mainstay of the WCML's express services until the early 2000s. Line speeds were raised to a maximum 110 mph, and these trains, hauled by powerful Class 86 and Class 87 electric locomotives, came to be seen as BR's flagship passenger product, immediately restoring the WCML to its premier position after a long period in the doldrums. Passenger traffic on the WCML doubled between 1962 and 1975.[20]

The modernisation also saw the demolition and redevelopment of several of the key stations on the line: BR was keen to symbolise the coming of the "electric age" by replacing the Victorian-era buildings with new structures built from glass and concrete. Notable examples were Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Stafford, Coventry and London Euston. To enable the latter, the famous Doric Arch portal into the original Philip Hardwick-designed terminus was demolished in 1962 amid much public outcry.[21] Recently, plans have been mooted to completely rebuild Euston station, with the reconstruction of Birmingham New Street nearing completion.

Electrification of the Edinburgh branch was carried out in the late 1980s as part of the East Coast Main Line electrification project in order to allow InterCity 225 sets to access Glasgow via Carstairs Junction.[22]

The Advanced Passenger Train British Rail's ill-fated tilting train

Modernisation brought great improvements, not least in speed and frequency, to many WCML services but there have been some losses over the years. Locations and lines served by through trains or through coaches from London but no longer so served are: Windermere; Barrow-in-Furness, Whitehaven and Workington; Huddersfield, Bradford Interchange, Leeds and Halifax (via Stockport); Blackpool South; Colne (via Stockport); Morecambe and Heysham; Southport (via Edge Hill); Blackburn and Stranraer Harbour. Notable also is the loss of through service between Liverpool and Scotland, although these will be reinstated in December 2018.[23]

British Rail's proposal in the 1970s and 80s to introduce a tilting train to the curvaceous West Coast Main Line, did not occur as had been originally envisaged. The Advanced Passenger Train (APT) project succumbed to an insufficient political will in the United Kingdom to persist in solving the teething difficulties experienced with the many immature technologies necessary for a ground breaking project of this nature. The decision not to proceed was made against a backdrop of negative public perceptions shaped by media coverage of the time. However this train proved that London-Glasgow WCML journey times of less than 4 hours were achievable and paved the way for the later tilting Pendolino trains.[24]

In the late 1980s, and in line with Japanese, French and German thinking of the time, British Rail put forward a track realignment scheme to raise speeds on the WCML; a proposed project called InterCity 250, which entailed realigning parts of the line in order to increase curve radii and smooth gradients in order to facilitate higher-speed running. The scheme which would have seen the introduction of new rolling stock derived from that developed for the East Coast electrification was scrapped in 1992, a victim of the recession of the period and the intervention of privatisation.

Modernisation by Network Rail

A tilting Class 390 Pendolino on the WCML (introduced since 2002)

By the dawn of the 1990s, it was clear that further modernisation was required. Initially this took the form of the InterCity 250 project. After privatisation, modernisation involved the upgrade and renewal of the line to allow the use of tilting Pendolino trains with a maximum line speed of 140 mph, in place of the previous maximum of 110 mph. Railtrack estimated that this upgrade would cost £2 billion, be ready by 2005, and cut journey times to 1 hour for London to Birmingham and 1 hr 45 mins for London to Manchester.

However, these plans proved too ambitious and were subsequently aborted. Central to the implementation of the plan was the adoption of moving block signalling, which had never been proven on anything more than simple metro lines and light rail systems – not on a complex high-speed heavy-rail network such as the WCML. Despite this, Railtrack made what would prove to be the fatal mistake of not properly assessing the technical viability and cost of implementing moving block prior to promising the speed increase. By 1999, with little headway on the modernisation project made, it became apparent to engineers that the technology was not mature enough to be used on the line.[25] In 2001 the plans were scaled down, with a maximum speed for tilting trains of a more modest 125 mph – equalling the speeds available on the East Coast route, but some way short of the original target, and even further behind BR's original vision of 155 mph speeds planned and achieved with the APT.

A Class 390 Pendolino and Class 66 freight train on the WCML

The first phase of the upgrade, south of Manchester, opened on 27 September 2004 with journey times of 1 hour 21 minutes for London to Birmingham and 2 hours 6 minutes for London to Manchester. The final phase, introducing 125-mph running along most of the line, was announced as opening on 12 December 2005, bringing the fastest journey between London and Glasgow to 4 hours 25 mins (down from 5 hours 10 minutes).[26] However, considerable work remained, such as the quadrupling of the track in the Trent Valley, upgrading the slow lines, the second phase of remodelling Nuneaton, and the remodelling of Stafford, Rugby, Milton Keynes and Coventry stations, and these were completed in late 2008. The upgrading of the Crewe-Manchester line via Wilmslow was completed in summer 2006.

In September 2006, a new speed record was set on the WCML – a Pendolino train completed the 401-mile Glasgow Central – London Euston run in a record 3 hours 55 minutes, beating the APT's record of 4 hours 15 minutes, although the APT still holds the overall record on the northbound run.

The decade-long modernisation project was finally completed in December 2008.[27] This allowed a three-trains-per-hour service to both Birmingham and Manchester during off-peak periods, and nearly all London-Glasgow timings brought under the 4 hours 30 minutes barrier – with one service (calling only at Preston) achieving a time of 4 hours 8 minutes.

Stations served

From south to north:

Note that short sections of track pass through Worcestershire (North Yardley) and Renfrewshire (Polmadie) but there are no inter-city stops.

Outside links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Network Rail media centre, December 2008.
  2. West Coast Main Line, Network Rail, October 2007.
  3. "West Coast Main Line Pendolino Tilting Trains, United Kingdom". railway-technology.com. http://www.railway-technology.com/projects/virgin/. Retrieved 1 December 2010. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 British Railways Board (1974).Electric All The Way. Information booklet.
  5. History of the West Coast Main Line, Virgin Trains, July 2004.
  6. Grand Junction Railway: History of the West Coast Main line, Virgin Trains 2004.
  7. 7.0 7.1 London and Birmingham Railway: History of the West Coast Main line, Virgin Trains 2004.
  8. Awdry, Christopher (1990). Encyclopaedia of British Railway Companies. Sparkford: Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 1-85260-049-7. OCLC 19514063.
  9. The Manchester Lines: History of the West Coast Main line. Virgin Trains (2004).
  10. "Carriages of LNWR Photographs". lnwrs.org.uk. http://www.lnwrs.org.uk/Carriages/Wcjs01.php. 
  11. Thomas, John (1971). A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain. Volume VI Scotland: The Lowlands and the Borders (1st ed.). Newton Abbot: David & Charles. OCLC 650446341. 
  12. Lines in Lancashire: History of the West Coast Main line. Virgin Trains (2004).
  13. "Rail Album – LMS Steam Locos – Streamlined Princess Coronation Class Pacifics – Part 1". railalbum.co.uk. http://www.railalbum.co.uk/steam-locomotives/lms-coronation-streamlined-1.htm. 
  14. "The winter timetables of British Railways: The West Coast speed-up". Trains Illustrated (Hampton Court: Ian Allan): p. 584. December 1959. 
  15. "Auction Announcements of Messrs. Knight, Frank, and Rutley". The Times (London): p. 22. 27 April 1912. ""The Abington and Crawford Estates ... extending as they do for some 12 miles either side of the main road and the West Coast Main Line to the North, with Abington and Crawford Stations on the Estate." 
  16. Marshall, John (1979). The Guinness Book Of Rail Facts & Feats. Enfield: Guinness Superlatives. ISBN 0-900424-56-7. 
  17. Wolmar, Christian (2007). Fire and Steam, A New History of the Railways in Britain. London: Atlantic. ISBN 978-1-84354-629-0. 
  18. Passenger Timetable 1 May 1972 to 6 May 1973. British Railways Board, London Midland Region. pp. 83, 06. 
  19. British Railways Board (April 1966).Your New Railway: London Midland Electrification. Information booklet.
  20. Potter, Stephen; Roy, Robin (1986). Research and development: British Rail's fast trains. Design and Innovation, Block 3. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-335-17273-3. 
  21. Gavin Stamp (1 October 2007). "Steam ahead: the proposed rebuilding of London's Euston station is an opportunity to atone for a great architectural crime". Apollo: the international magazine of art and antiques. http://www.apollo-magazine.com/189416/steam-ahead.thtml. Retrieved 9 November 2007. 
  22. Semmens, Peter (1991). Electrifying the East Coast Route. ISBN 0-85059-929-6.
  23. http://www.tpexpress.co.uk/news/2016/04/new-transpennine-express-franchise-launches/
  24. 'Queasy Rider:' The Failure of the Advanced Passenger Train.
  25. Meek, James (1 April 2004). "The £10bn Rail Crash". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/apr/01/transport.politics1. 
  26. "High-speed tilting train on track", BBC News Online, 12 December 2005.
  27. "West Coast rail works completed". BBC News Online. 14 December 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7782085.stm. 


Further reading

  • Ballantyne, Hugh (1989). The Colour of British Rail: West Coast Main Line. 2. Atlantic Transport Publishers. ISBN 9780906899328. OCLC 21600017. 
  • Beecroft, Don; Pirt, Keith (2008). Steam memories: 1950's - 1960's. No. 21, West coast main line & branches in Lancashire : including Wigan, Preston, Lancaster, Morecambe, Carnforth and Blackpool. Challenger Publications. ISBN 9781899624997. OCLC 528374617. 
  • Joy, David (1967). Main Line Over Shap. Dalesman Publishing Co. Ltd.. ISBN 9780852060636. OCLC 12273695. 
  • Longhurst, Roly (1979). Electric Locomotives of the West Coast Main Line. Bardford Barton. ISBN 9780851533551. OCLC 16491712. 
  • McCutcheon, Campbell; Christopher, John (2014). Bradshaw's Guide: West Coast Main Line, Manchester to Glasgow. 10. Amberley Publishing. ISBN 9781445640419. OCLC 902726172. 
  • Allen, David (29 January – 11 February 1997). West Coast Signalling. EMAP Apex Publications. 34-38. OCLC 49953699. 

Outside links

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about West Coast Main Line)
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