An important and objective ranking of the 17 main stations on the East Coast Main Line

London King’s Cross: basically fine. Image: George Rex/Wikimedia Commons.

Ahh, the East Coast Main Line: heart of the British railway. For more than a century it has shuttled the great and the good between London and Edinburgh, and, possibly – depending on who you talk to – beyond, to Aberdeen or Inverness.

But somehow, despite the fact it’s one of the busiest lines in the country and connects some of the country’s biggest cities, there has yet to be a definitive ranking of its stations.

Until now.

Pick up your railcard, dust off your Lonely Planet guide to Yorkshire, and join us as we rank the 17 main stations on the East Coast Main Line.

17. Dunbar

I hate this place, with its smarmy, narcissistic topiary hedge, spelling out its name in the mocking and undeserved confidence that comes from being the first station properly in Scotland. (Sorry Berwick, but Scotland’s just not that into you.) I once got stuck here for two hours on a Cross Country train while that hedge laughed maniacally at my predicament. The bastard.

16. Retford

Where is Retford? What is Retford? Why is Retford? Why must my train stop in this desolate part of the country between Peterborough and Doncaster where, I have been reliably informed, nothing exists?

Where? Image: Owen Dunn/Wikimedia Commons.

Points are also deducted for having nothing to do with Robert Redford, which seems a missed opportunity.

15. Peterborough

Asbestos warnings are rarely welcoming. Even less so at a depressing concrete monstrosity where dreams go to die.

Legend has it that all evil-doing commuters live out the after-life stuck on Platform 3 of Peterborough station watching inter-city trains zoom through while they stand in the cold – Purgaborough is always seemingly 10 degrees colder than Siberia – desperately hoping their train to Retford (WHERE IS IT!?) will eventually arrive in time for the last bus home.

It will never arrive.


14. Northallerton

Why? Did anyone actually look on a map before deciding trains should stop here?

13. Stevenage

It is very difficult to come close to being as ugly as Peterborough station, but Stevenage manages it. Fans of late 1960s concrete brutalism should appreciate it, but then again those people are insane.

12. Grantham

It is such a shame that what is actually quite a pretty little station is linked so inextricably to one of the most depressing people to think about while travelling around Britain’s underfunded railway infrastructure.

Luckily, Margaret Thatcher was born here, so Isaac Newton’s links to the town through his schooling can be put to the back of your mind.

11. Morpeth

A little bit like Northallerton, it does feel like at this point route planners went, “Oh crap! There’s nothing between Newcastle and Edinburgh! Where’s a nice place for a quick cup of tea on the way?” and then chose Morpeth.

However, have you seen that station building? It is absolutely gorgeous. I want to show it to Kings Cross and tell it to listen to what St Pancras has to say and stop trying to be all rebellious and modern.

10. London Kings Cross

One of my biggest pet hates is when you are stood waiting, under the departure boards, as ‘Boarding Soon’ flashes interminably until five minutes before departure, causing a Lion King-esque stampede. Women and children become weapons of mass blockage, forcing rushing passengers to dive and swerve while stern looking suit-wearing businessmen stride past grimacing at the toddler they’ve kneed in the face just so that they can get to their seat seconds before anyone else.

This happens at many stations. But it’s particularly annoying at Kings Cross, where you can usually see the train you’re due to be on – It’s been sat there for half an hour – and there is always one smug bloke with a briefcase and an obnoxious hat who has used OpenTrainTimes to work out which train it is and has been sat smugly at an unreserved table in Coach E for twenty minutes.

9. Newark North Gate

Whatever happened to Newark South Gate? Did it take a bunch of plucky Englishmen to the semi-finals of the station World Cup and then retire into obscurity? We will never know.

8. Doncaster

“It’s a shame we’re not Sheffield,” should really be Doncaster’s motto.

Doncaster: Not quite Sheffield. Image: Stephen McKay/Geograph.org.uk.

7. Darlington

I honestly love Darlington station. Its Platform 1 is so unnecessarily wide. In winter, I’m convinced you could fit an ice skating rink and a Christmas market on there, and still have more than enough space for all the 2.2m passengers who use it every year to have a personal sofa to sit on while they wait for their train to arrive.


6. Berwick-upon-Tweed

The bridge into Berwick is one of the most beautiful parts of any journey up the East Coast mainline. The station itself is small and quirky, it has Grade-II listed buildings, and it’s in one of the most gorgeous parts of the country – even if no-one can decide if it is English or Scottish.

5. Alnmouth

Or Alnmouth for Alnwick, to give it its full title. Another stunningly situated little gem of a station in the middle of Northumbria. Alnmouth is visible from the rail line as you come into the station from the south and honestly, that view should attract more people there than the town the station seems to exist for. It is such a nothing station with a tiny main building and a pretty old signal box, but who cares, that view is just stonking.

4. Newcastle

Newcastle station is a terrible indictment of the overuse of ticket barriers. Why are there so many? Why can’t I get a pint at The Centurion if my train is delayed? I can see the sweet nectar we call beer, but those blasted plastic barriers of doom get in the way. They make the usable part of the station for those not travelling imminently so small it is infuriating.

But, Newcastle Central is such an imposing and angry looking industrial behemoth I can’t help but love it. No other station in the country manages to dominate an area in a city as much and it is glorious in its obnoxiousness.

3. Durham

Want to walk up a huge hill to get your train home? Sure you do!

Durham is a great example of an old station bound to its geography – it sits on top of a hill, overlooking the city – which has been well modernised to make the most of that fact. Durham’s cathedral naturally dominates the landscape – and frankly if you are wanting to look at anything while you wait that’ll be it.

Mmmm Durham. Image: Jungpioneer/Wikimedia Commons.

When the station was renovated in the latter part of the last decade, the ticket office moved back into the original buildings, and a transparent waiting area was installed – so if you want cover from the wind or rain, you can still see Durham.

Which is a bonus. Once upon a time, you would be staring at a brick wall as you desperately gasped for breath after dragging yourself up the never-ending hill to reach the station. Now, you get to stare at the city instead.

2. York

It’s my home station, but don’t let my inevitable bias put you off.

How many corners of the UK can you get to from York? All of them! Glasgow, Aberdeen, London, Penzance, Liverpool and Scarborough, all reachable from York. It’s the heart of the British Railway and if you disagree, fight me.

It’s also the only station stubborn enough to force Costa Coffee to paint its logo blue if it wanted to stay in the old signal box in the station, making it the only blue Costa in the country. There’s also the National Railway Museum within stumbling distance, a pub, a huge map of pre-Beeching railway in the north on the wall, and a glorious curved roof. And, when it opened in its present position in 1877 after first being moved outside of York’s city walls, it was the largest station in the world with a then impressive 13 platforms.

1. Edinburgh Waverley

Nestled in between the Old and New Towns of Scotland’s capital, with Arthur’s Seat in front of it, Edinburgh Castle behind it, and the Scott Monument effectively on top of it, Edinburgh Waverley is unique in its placement underneath a major road bridge, slap bang in the centre of a capital.

Edinburgh Waverley from the east. Image: G-13114/Wikimedia Commons.

Network Rail has now banned taxis from inside, allowing for more platforms to be built around the concourse, which lies in the centre of the station (which shouldn’t be, but is, a rarity). The station has four separate entrances and exits. One takes you directly onto the busiest shopping street in the city, Princes Street; another brings you out at the bottom of a steep staircase straight up to the Royal Mile; a third takes you out onto Waverley Bridge and in sight of Princes Gardens, the castle, and next to the Scott Monument. And a fourth takes you out to where Ewan McGregor nearly got run over by a car in Trainspotting.

It’s not the prettiest station, it’s not the most well connected station, it’s not even the busiest in Scotland – but with that infuriating talking toilet on a Virgin train as my witness, it’s the best around.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.