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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why? Did anyone actually look on a map before deciding trains should stop here?
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.
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.
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 King’s Cross and tell it to listen to what St Pancras has to say and stop trying to be all rebellious and modern.
10. London King’s 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 King’s 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.
“It’s a shame we’re not Sheffield,” should really be Doncaster’s motto.
Doncaster: Not quite Sheffield. Image: Stephen McKay/Geograph.org.uk.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.