An upgrading programme for the 393-mile (632km) East Coast Main Line (ECML) route between London and Edinburgh, and its key divergences serving Leeds, Bradford and Glasgow, was thrust into a new context during 2007, when its principal intercity franchise also fell into new hands.
The publication of government spending priorities, ‘Delivering a Sustainable Railway’ and a change of principle passenger operator reshaped the future of this key UK rail artery.
Electrified with a 25kV ac overhead supply in stages between 1976 and 1991, ECML lines have experienced traffic growth in most sectors, although operational problems have become accentuated. High demand has led to passenger overcrowding across long distances.
The line is prone to problems with overhead line equipment, with resultant service curtailments, often attributed to the lightweight nature of the original electrification scheme.
With a new UK north-south high-speed line ruled out by government for the foreseeable future, the ECML and its West Coast Main Line (WCML) counterpart, nearing the end of a major upgrade, will therefore be placed under greater pressure in meeting the projected demand increases.
Train operators using the ECML
Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), the ECML’s long-distance passenger operator since 1996, surrendered the franchise to National Express in December 2007. The now-familiar GNER dark blue and red train sets are to give way to a new all-over white, akin to Germany’s ICE.
In spite of overseeing a marked rise in passenger numbers and increasing services, problems were caused by the financial difficulties of GNER’s Sea Containers parent company and the franchise awarded to them in 2005 was cut short by the government.
Long associated with high speed thanks to several long stretches of straight or gently curving track and few severe gradients, the rapid centre-to-centre ECML services are highly competitive with road and air alternatives. It is not until Newcastle that air offers a realistic high-volume alternative to passengers on the London route.
The modern ECML is characterised by the many companies and services that share the route. South of Peterborough and growing more intensive nearer to the London King’s Cross terminus, First Capital Connect has held the inner and outer suburban franchise since 2006.
Another significant ECML presence north of Doncaster is the long-distance cross-country franchise operated by Arriva (Virgin before November 2007). Northern Trains, TransPennine Express, First ScotRail and Stagecoach East Midlands (Central Trains before November 2007) also use parts of the ECML.
Hull Trains has successfully filled a vacuum created by the sparse GNER service to the city. After several delays, a second open-access operator, Grand Central, will add HST services originating in Sunderland to the ECML south of Eaglescliffe (near Middlesbrough) from the beginning of 2008.
Overshadowed in freight volume by the WCML, the ECML nevertheless has seen growth in this field, even at the southern end where previously it had been in steep decline. Main freight operators such as EWS, Freightliner, Direct Rail Services and First GBRf all have a presence on the ECML.