East vs west: which is the better British train service ending in “coast main line”?

The West Coast Main Line at Watford Gap. Image: G-Man/Wikimedia Commons.

Conflicts between east and west have shaped history. From the Cold War to hip-hop, there have always been some serious east vs west fueds.

And none more so than the East Coast Main Line vs West Coast Main Line rivalry. Infamously, the “Race to the North” turned dirty in 1851 when an ECML drivers gang shot three WCML train assistants dead in a drive by at Watford Junction [citation needed].

To settle this once and for all, we’re going to have a look at what each line has to offer and choose a winner, considering the destinations, the stations, the sights, the rolling stock, and the cost.

Where can you go? What are the stations like?

While a train journey can itself be a pleasure, when gauging the quality of a line, the destinations matter: after all, the Eurostar wouldn’t be very exciting if it only went to Ashford International.

The ECML stretches from London to Edinburgh, passing the cities of Peterborough, York, Durham, and Newcastle, plus a slate of towns such as Welwyn Garden City, which is not a city, and Stevenage, which has a truly revolting station. Stevenage aside, many of the stations are spectacular: trains speed from the arches of King’s Cross, round the curves of York, past the unnecessarily wide platforms of Darlington, through the gargantuan Newcastle, before coming to rest between the Old and New Towns at Edinburgh Waverley. Rating: 6 cities out of 52 stations.

The main railways of Great Britain. The ECML is in blue, the WCML in black. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The WCML is somewhat more complex. It runs from London to Glasgow, but also has termini in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Edinburgh. This is the result of the route’s history, formed by amalgamation of various intercity railways and town branch lines.

The main trunk line runs through the cities of Lichfield, Preston, Lancaster, and Carlisle. Several stations are brilliant: Carlisle is peculiar but quaint; Liverpool Lime Street is the oldest mainline terminus still in use and, just like King’s Cross, benefits hugely from revealing its facade; Glasgow Central crosses Argyle Street with a great glass-walled bridge; and Euston…

Ah. Euston does not bode well for any journey: just thinking about it leaves me with a general sense of dread, not the sense of wonder that King’s Cross imparts. Rating: 6 cities out of 51 stations (but -1 arbitrary point for Euston).

What can you see?

The WCML has something to confess to you. Despite its name, those boarding at Euston for seaside views will be sorely disappointed. Just north of Lancaster, it runs close to Morecambe Bay for less than five miles. For fans of hills and motorways, however, the WCML is just the ticket: the Watford Gap & M1 tease Cumbria’s highlight of the Lune Gorge and M6. Lichfield Cathedral’s triple spires are also just about visible.

The ECML  ndeniably has better sights. Over thirty miles of track runs alongside the east coast, offering superb views of the Northumberland coast, Lindisfarne, and the North Sea. The approach into Durham with the view of the castle and cathedral is marvellous, and the sight of the Royal Border Bridge (even if it’s not actually the border) with the excitement that the train will be crossing over it makes sitting on a window seat a must.


What’s the rolling stock?

The rolling stock operated on these lines has been a long-running competition. Before nationalisation, railway companies fought to run the London to Scotland route faster than the other, driving technological development and higher speeds, creating legends in the process: the East Coast’s Flying Scotsman, which broke the 100mph barrier, and the West Coast’s Coronation, which broke its crockery in the process of braking after breaking the East Coast’s speed record (got it?).

Today’s rolling stock is less legendary. The WCML’s curves necessitated tilting trains to increase overall line speed. Unfortunately, the Pendolino was commissioned by people with more experience with planes than trains, and who believed that windows didn’t matter. So if you were hoping to see Lune Gorge and the M6, there’s a decent probability you wouldn’t be able to. I’ve probably missed out some sights above because I’ve never seen them thanks to the tiny size of the windows. The line remains principally operated by Virgin Trains, which has had the franchise since the dawn of time (or 1997).

The ECML is dominated by the InterCity 125 & 225s, iconic British Rail trains with huge windows you can actually see out of. Sadly, post-privatisation refurbishment of their carriages has led to less space and smaller tables, but the sandwiches have got better. Today, the line is predominantly operated by LNER, with a handful of open-access operators, such as Grand Central.

A special mention for the WCML’s Caledonian Sleeper, the overnight service to Scotland, and a moment of silence for its ECML counterpart, discontinued in 1988.

How long does it take? What’s the cost?

The WCML will get you from Euston to Glasgow in just under 4.5 hours for £30.

The ECML will get you from King’s Cross to Edinburgh in just over 4 hours for £26.50.

Who’s the winner?

After much careful consideration, the inaugural Chris Grayling Award goes to the ECML. With superior stations and sights, better trains, and cheaper and faster travel, it beats the WCML.

Hold on, I’ve just remembered: the ECML has got the dreadful Harry Potter tie-in. And Stevenage. Let’s call it a draw.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.