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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.