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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.