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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.