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.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

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

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