ECML Railway Services around Hitchin


Hitchin Panorama – looking north from Benslow Bridge on 12th October 2009. From left to right, i.e. west to east; the car park site, typically, was once a busy goods yard; on the down main a class '365' 'Networker' slows with the 12.45 FCC 'flagship' service, non-stop Kings Cross-Cambridge which will take to the Cambridge Branch north of the station; on the up slow a veteran 317 comes away from Hitchin with the 12.18 Peterborough-Kings Cross semi-fast, approaching the turn out from the up yard – which is clamped out of use. Hitchin up yard, beyond the train, stands on the site of Hitchin steam depot, 34D, and is utilised by scrap metal trains for Dungeness and Cardiff. In 2009 Hitchin also received stone from Peak Forest, this is easily visible as a white pyramid standing east across the one road through the yard, opposite the darker scrap metal pyramid. All trains must access the up yard from Cambridge Branch Sidings which stand next to the upside Cambridge Branch beyond the station, nowadays involving a reversal from the Cambridge Branch; this midday path has replaced long and convoluted empties journeys via Peterborough in order to achieve Hitchin up side.   Norman Hill

‘Govia Thameslink Railway’; ‘Great Northern’ suburban lines

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Hitchin stands on the four track section of the East Coast Main Line running between Woolmer Green Junction – just north of the bottle-neck twin track section over Welwyn Viaduct and through Welwyn tunnels – and Huntingdon North Junction. Hitchin station stands just south of the junction for the Cambridge branch. Access to the Cambridge line in the down direction was, until 2013, only possible via a flat crossing, and late running by Cambridge services arriving at Hitchin from London could lead to severe delays. Down slow trains arriving at Hitchin, after making seven intermediate stops, are only four minutes in front of the following fast departure, while all ECML trains were liable to delay at Cambridge Branch Junction. At the time of the East Coast electrification in the 1970s an underpass was suggested to alleviate this problem and land actually set aside for it. However, nothing was done until May 2010 when permission was granted for the construction of a flyover to take the down Cambridge line over the East Coast Main Line. Construction started in 2012 and in May 2013 the people of Hitchin and Letchworth Garden City were invited to a ‘walkover’, when they were able to walk across the new flyover before it was opened to the first train on June 26th. Only three trains a day used the new flyover at first, until the start of the new timetable in December 2013. The huge embankment necessary for the flyover was constructed from local Chiltern chalk quarried from the nearby Wilbury Hills, the most easterly extension of the Chiltern Hills. The opportunity was taken to seed the embankment with poppy seeds; it is now known locally as ‘Poppy Bank’ and presents the East Coast traveller with a summertime blaze of colour. Down Cambridge trains access the flyover at Hitchin North Junction and the initial ramp is constructed on a short section of the 1857 Hitchin to Bedford line which provided the Midland Railway with its London access via the Great Northern Railway until its own line was completed into St. Pancras in 1868. The line continued as a branch until final closure in 1964. The down flyover line rejoins the original Cambridge line at Hitchin East Junction. The majority of Cambridge trains now use the flyover but the old crossing can be useful and is regularly used during each weekday evening peak when, for instance in mid 2017, the 17.52 from Kings Cross calls at Hitchin at 18.38 where it is overtaken by the 18.14 Kings Cross to Kings Lynn which uses the flat crossing. </p>

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In the up direction only the slow line can be directly accessed from the Cambridge branch; the main line can then be gained from the up slow some ¼ mile south of Hitchin station via a 75 mph turnout.


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Signalling through Hitchin is 4 aspect colour light operated by Kings Cross power box which controls the ECML to a point just north of Sandy, and to approximately 1 mile east of Royston on the Cambridge branch.


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Platforms at Hitchin are provided on the slow lines only and can accommodate 12 coach trains. This is a legacy of the line’s earliest Great Northern Railway days when Hitchin was the first ‘first class’ station out of Kings Cross when Great Northern, then London North Eastern Railway expresses, and, finally, British Rail ‘Intercity’ trains stopped here from 1850 until 1973 when a new station was opened at Stevenage about a mile south of the old station, in a central position in the developing new town which is presently served by two ECML trains per hour.


Great Northern History and Evolution

‘Great Northern’ services calling at Hitchin today are now provided by Govia Thames Link Railway (GTR) which also operates ‘Thameslink’, ‘Southern’ and ‘Gatwick Express’ services. Fortunately GTR have carried on the ‘Great Northern’ title for its services from Kings Cross, thus continuing the original name of the East Coast London to York railway, opened in 1850. The title disappeared at ‘The Grouping’ in 1923 when the old ‘Great Northern’ became part of the ‘London and North Eastern Railway’. ‘Great Northern‘ first reappeared as a sub-division of Network South East (NSE), the London suburban passenger sector created by British Rail in 1986; the G.N. sub-division consisted of all suburban services between Kings Cross and Moorgate to Peterborough and Cambridge; it was not used as a brand name and did not appear on NSE trains. 1997 saw ‘sectorisation’ become full ‘privatisation’ and the end of British Rail. Thus in 1997 suburban services from Kings Cross and Moorgate became the property of a consortium of investors from the bus industry calling themselves ‘Prism Rail’ who were awarded four far flung rail franchises and who called their Kings Cross suburban operation ‘West Anglia Great Northern’ and were soon bought out by the giant ‘National Express’ company in 2000. As the first part of the new title suggests, the new ‘Prism/National Express’ company included suburban services from Liverpool Street to Cambridge and that line’s branches. A series of franchise adjustments during the six year existence of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), a body founded by the newly elected Labour government of 1997 in an attempt to centralise privatisation, saw ‘Great Northern’ separated from ‘West Anglia’ which joined the ‘Greater Anglia’ franchise in 2002. On its own ‘Great Northern’ became ‘WAGN’ although its only physical link with West Anglia now occurred at Shepreth Branch Junction where the branch joined the Great Eastern/Greater Anglia line into Cambridge. In 2004 the SRA coupled ‘Great Northern/WAGN’ with the ‘Thameslink’ franchise which ran trains from Bedford, through London via Farringdon and Blackfriars to Brighton and destinations in South London, and so formed the extensive suburban grouping which Kings Cross’ ‘Great Northern’ trains have belonged to ever since. In December 2005 the Department of Transport, soon to abolish and replace the SRA, awarded the ‘Thameslink’ franchise to ‘First Group’ when West Anglia Great Northern services became ‘First Capital Connect’ on the 1st of April 2006. The ‘First’ franchise ended in September 2014 when Govia took it over and created the ‘Govia Thameslink Railway’ (GTR) train operating company. Govia was another transport group formed to initiate rail privatisation in 1997, a joint venture between the Go-Ahead and Keolis transport groups. ‘Southern’ and ‘Gatwick Express’ joined GTR in July 2015 making it the largest rail franchise.

   Resplendent in its new FCC ‘Urban Lights’ livery, 317340 makes the 10.15 Peterborough to Kings Cross, 11.03 off Hitchin, on 17th October 2009   Norman Hill
   365540 forms the 11.22 Kings Cross to Peterborough at Hitchin on 30th June 2008 and colourfully celebrates the ‘Garden Cities of Hertfordshire’   Norman Hill

Great Northern outer-suburban services to 2018

‘Great Northern’ outer-suburban services run between Kings Cross and Cambridge – with an hourly extension to Kings Lynn – and Kings Cross and Peterborough. The off-peak service consists of 2 fast and 2 slow trains an hour to and from Kings Cross, one fast and one slow to both Cambridge and Peterborough destinations. In the down direction off-peak trains leave Kings Cross on a regular interval of 15 minutes slow/fast.

In the up direction the fast trains are scheduled to depart Hitchin 5 minutes in front of the ‘slows’ so no tail chasing occurs. An hourly each way off-peak extension of the inner suburban service between Moorgate and Hertford North (detailed below) calls at Watton-at-Stone, Stevenage and Hitchin to terminate at Letchworth Garden City, first station on the Cambridge branch. Peak hour services augment the regular timetable and platform lengthening has permitted 12-coach peak time trains to call at major stations since 2008; Hitchin’s former ‘intercity’ status meant that the original platforms are easily able to accommodate the 12-coach peak hour trains.

The introduction of 12 coach trains and the strengthening of four car trains to eight on Kings Cross outer suburban peak-time services was made possible by the transfer of six BREL 321 units from ex-‘Silverlink’ County/London Midland services between Euston and Northampton; those services in turn now being worked by the then new Siemens ‘Desiro’ class 350 units.

In the timetable which started on 12th December 2010 seven more 321 units came from Silverlink/London Midland and enabled FCC further to strengthen peak time trains to and from Kings Cross. 6,500 more seats were provided on FCC peak services and so all peak time trains have since consisted of at least eight coaches.

A completely new timetable was launched in May 2018 when it was anticipated that all outer suburban services would be worked by the new Siemens ‘Desiro City’ EMUs detailed below. The new units consist of either eight (60 units) or twelve car (55 units) and have, therefore, considerably increased Great Northern outer suburban capacity. From early 2018 the new units were integrated with the current EMUs, classes 365 and 387, and four services per weekday introduced the first through workings from the Great Northern to Brighton and Horsham via the new tunnel link which leaves the GN approach to Kings Cross between Copenhagen and Gasworks tunnels and dives across to join the Thameslink route at St. Pancras.

Unfortunately the new timetable proved unworkable from the outset and the first weeks’ new service provision can only be described as chaotic; at times no trains at all were available and eventually what can only be described as fleets of buses were drafted in at main stations to cover the non-availability of trains; Hitchin station forecourt station was a virtual bus-station throughout June and into July while at the same time still more buses were marshalled in the Leisure Centre car-park exit on the down side of Stevenage station; other stations also hosted buses and altogether this provision of so many replacement buses, some from companies as far afield as Birmingham, must surely have caused Govia Thameslink Railway great expense.

From July 15 a temporary replacement timetable was introduced and at present – 25th September – is quite reliable: off peak services provide two trains each hour from Peterborough to Horsham, running fast from Stevenage to Finsbury Park, while one train per hour from Cambridge making similar stops makes a Brighton service. Two trains per hour – one from Ely and one from Kings Lynn – provide non-stop services from Cambridge to Kings Cross thus continuing the ‘Cambridge Cruiser’ services introduced by WAGN in the 1990s. However, while trains calling at stations between Stevenage and Finsbury Park all start at Cambridge and run in their pre May timings to Kings Cross there is sometimes an hour between them. Peak time services are augmented to and from Kings Cross while the Horsham and Brighton trains maintain their intervals. At weekends there are no through services to the south, all terminate at Kings Cross.

Several reasons have been put forward for the lamentable initial failure of Govia Thameslink’s new services but it seems that not enough drivers had been trained on the ‘700’s, there were possibly difficulties in handing over at Finsbury Park and St. Pancras which resulted in trains often left standing in Finsbury Park station with no available crew to move them.

It is promised that this timetable will eventually – or even gradually – be improved and the original ambitious service will run.

Great Northern Green at Cambridge again ? 321402 is a recent transfer to FCC from 'Silverlink' (London Midland) and still wears that railway's colours at Cambridge on 3rd August 2009, just arrived at 11.27 as the 10.06 from Kings Cross.   Norman Hill
321404 shows off her 'First' new dress at Hitchin at 12.33 on the 11.55 semi-fast from Cambridge to Kings Cross on 11th February 2010.   Norman Hill

Great Northern Outer Suburban Fleet

41 ABB Class ‘365’ ‘Networker Express’ four car electric units of 1994/5, 365501-541, (365526 was the unit involved in the Potters Bar disaster on 10 May 2002 and was returned to service during 2010) became ‘Great Northern’s ‘flagship’ units from 1995, working the outer-suburban services to and from Kings Cross under ‘Network South East’, then ‘WAGN’, ‘First Capital Connect’ and so into the present ‘Govia’ franchise in 2014. Until mid-2017 they were assisted by 12 venerable four car BREL ‘317/1’s of 1981/2 (317337-348), the ‘Great Northern’ representatives of a class 72 strong; the remaining 60 ‘317’s working suburban services from Liverpool Street on the Abellio ‘Greater Anglia’ and ‘London Overground’ franchises. With the arrival of the last ‘387’ Bombardier ‘Electrostars’ (see below) from ‘Thameslink’ in May 2017 the 317s joined their sisters on ‘Greater Anglia’ services from Liverpool Street.

The ‘365’s were delivered in ‘Network SouthEast’ livery which they wore through the ‘WAGN’ sectorisation days until full privatisation in 2006 when ‘First’ group decked them out in the ‘Urban Lights’ version of their ‘Dynamic Lights’ livery of indigo/blue with pink and white markings. From 2001 the 12 ‘317’s, together with the inner suburban ‘313’s, were given a plain purple livery which they wore until 2006 when they joined the ‘365’s in ‘First’s ‘Urban Lights’ livery. From 2015 ‘365’ and ‘317’ (surprisingly in view of their imminent withdrawal from GN service) units were gradually put into ‘Govia Thameslink Railway’s grey/white livery with light blue doors and the old ‘Great Northern’ title proudly and centrally displayed on a central blue vinyl.

Four 365s wore colourful advertising liveries depicting scenes on the lines served; 365510 depicted ‘Cathedral Cities’, scenes from Cambridge and Ely, 365519 showed scenes in and around Peterborough, the ‘environmental capital’, 365531, ‘Nelsons County’, depicted Norfolk scenes while 365540 showed off the two ‘Garden Cities of Hertfordshire’, Letchworth and Welwyn. However, Govia have not, unfortunately, retained these special liveries and with refurbishment all four have joined their sisters in Govia grey/white and blue.

The 365s and the old 317s worked with the 13 middle-aged 1989 BREL 321 units (321401-410 & 321418-420) which were transferred from ‘Silver Link County/London Midland’ Euston services in 2008 and 2010, initially retaining their ‘Silver Link’ blue and green colours. The 321 units were soon put into First Group’s ‘Urban Lights’ livery which they wore until the arrival of the Bombardier 387 ‘Electrostar’ units, transferred from the ‘Thameslink’ line from late 2016 and through 2017 – 321401 and 321404 were surely working a last GN 321 roster when they made the 07.22 Kings Cross to Peterborough on Thursday 9th of February 2017. The 2014/5 built 387 ‘Electrostar’s came to the Great Northern instead of the promised earlier ‘Electrostar’ 377s; the 387s were replaced on ‘Thameslink’ by the first Siemens 700 ‘Desiro City’ units which, in both the 8-car and 700/1 12-car formations, have now also taken up regular duties with the 365s and 387s on current services.

The only restriction on unit utilisation was on the ½ hourly non-stop Kings Cross to Cambridge and Kings Lynn services which were operated almost exclusively by 365s; 317s and 321s deputised very occasionally. WAGN dubbed these trains ‘Cambridge Cruisers’ but First Group, unfortunately, dropped the title. In September 2018 several 365s have been retained to run two fast peak time trains between Baldock and Kings Cross in the morning and four evening returns, all making four intermediate calls ! 387s work the London to Cambridge non-stops as they go on to and from Ely and Kings Lynn – which 700s cannot do ! All other outer suburban services are worked by 700 units.

Great Northern Inner Suburban Services and Fleet

Govia GN inner suburban services between Moorgate or Kings Cross and Hertford and Welwyn Garden City, together with the hourly extension to Stevenage, Hitchin and Letchworth Garden City mentioned above are worked by 41 1976/7 built BREL 313 3-car units, (313018/024-033/035-064) pioneer EMUs on the ECML GN lines. With the timetable starting in December 2010 these inner suburban peak services were enhanced by the transfer of three 313/1s, replaced on the North London and Watford (London Overground) services by new 378 ‘Capitalstar’ units. While 313122/123/134 have had their shoe collector gear modified to 313/0 specification, they have not been renumbered.

313121 has also been retained at Hornsey for European Traffic Management System (ERTMS) signalling trials over the ‘New Line’, the section of the Hertford Loop north of Hertford which is to be single lined for the hourly Stevenage and Letchworth service. The ‘New Line’ service between Hertford North and Stevenage and Letchworth is currently under threat of closier due to congestion at Stevenage where a projected new platform has now been put on hold.

The 313s are due for replacement in December 2018 after some 45 years’ service. They will be replaced by 25 brand new dual voltage 6-car Siemens units designated class ‘717’, a ‘high density seating’ version of the ‘700’ with end doors between coupled units necessary for working through the tunnels between Drayton Park and Moorgate.

   How they used to look. On 9th October 2006 313043 is smart in FCC usurped WAGN purple at New Barnet, one of the ‘all stations’ called at by the 12.43 Welwyn Garden City to Moorgate service.   Norman Hill
   Now in FCC’s bright ‘Urban Lights’ livery, 313056 prepares to lead a sister away from Welwyn Garden City on 21 February 2007, forming the 16.58 all stations to Moorgate.   Norman Hill

The ‘Great Northern’ from 2018/9

The ‘Great Northern’ fleet is stabled and maintained at Hornsey EMU depot, situated on the up side just north of Finsbury Park station and some 4 miles from Kings Cross. Developed on the site of Hornsey’s 1899 steam shed the modern electric depot was opened in 1973 for the initial GN electrification. Hornsey EMU depot has always offered services such as wheel-turning to Thames Link units (319s and 377s) and has now also encroached on the site of Hornsey Carriage Sidings and extends almost as far north as Alexandra Palace station, this in spite of the fact that further expansion has been halted.

With the advent of the new Siemens ‘700’ and ‘717’units which will apparently eventually run all Thames Link and Great Northern services, a new EMU maintenance depot at Three Bridges complements Hornsey towards the southern end of Govia Thames Link Railway’s system, while stabling is still provided at Bedford EMU depot which no longer offers maintenance facilities.

Therefore in 2019 Govia Thameslink Railway will present a brand new look to the largest franchise on British railways, a new look which was first envisaged ten years ago in the Department of Transport’s document entitled The Thameslink Programme which is in turn part of the Government’s overall strategy for Britain’s railways. The 6 (some say 7) billion pound programme set out to completely refurbish the ‘Thameslink’ franchise and greatly to increase passenger carrying capacity. While the initial beneficiaries of the renewal were the ‘Thameslink’ lines proper – Bedford through Kings Cross to Brighton and the other southern destinations – the renewal would eventually include great changes to ‘Great Northern’ services. And these changes have now become an actuality. But not without considerable ‘teething’ difficulties.

The Thameslink Rolling Stock Programme is an essential component of the Thameslink Programme and in 2008 the Department of Transport invited bids for new trains. Government involvement in this upgrade of a private railway franchise was explained in that the Department of Transport would oversee the risk involved in the integration of the several components of the enhanced ‘Govia Thameslink Railway’; that they would “successfully integrate as an operational railway system”. The forthcoming franchise change (realised in May 2014) was also seen as a risk to be covered by the Department.

In 2011 The Department of Transport accepted the bid of a financial consortium which became known as ‘Cross London Trains’ (XLT) and Siemens to supply the new Thameslink trains. Despite links with the U.K. spanning some 170 years Siemens build the ‘Desiros’ in Germany and the decision sparked immediate and inevitable dissent with ‘Bombardier Transportation’ at Derby who had virtually re-equipped the south of England railway system – Southern and South Eastern Railways – with their ‘Electrostar’ EMUs, classes 375, 376 and 377, in three, four and five car configurations, since 2001.


‘Bombardier Transportation’ was founded in Canada where its first big order was for Montreal’s metro trains in 1974, and the next year Bombardier purchased Montreal Locomotive Works. Bombardier came to the U.K. via Belgium and France – ANF Industries – in 1990 with the acquisition of Procor Engineering Ltd. of Horbury, Wakefield, which manufactured coach body shells, and became ‘Bombardier Prorail’. In 1991 ‘Prorail’ became ‘Bombardier Eurorail’ and in view of the 2011 dissent it is interesting to find that ‘Bombardier’s European headquarters is given as Berlin! – Although, of course, ‘Electrostar’ units were constructed at ‘Bombardier’s Derby works. The construction and provision of British railway trains has become complex, devious – and multi-national; the new ECML EMUs are provided by Hitachi of Tokyo, built at Newton Aycliffe just one stop on ‘The Bishop Line’ away from Shildon – 1825 ‘Cradle of the Railways’.


The Thameslink trains dispute delayed the Thames Link plan so badly that in 2013 ‘Southern’, ordered 116 more 4-car ‘Bombardier’ ‘Electrostar’ units in order to maintain their share of through ‘Thameslink’ services. These units were designated ‘387’, the first 29, 387101 – 387129 are presently employed on Great Northern services alongside the ‘Siemens‘ ‘Desiro City’ 700’s.

91107 named 'Newark on Trent' by Great North Eastern Railway, stands off, LE, in Kings Cross station's 'arrival' (east side) siding on 22nd November 2007. A sister GNER '91' awaits departure from platform 3   Norman Hill
91126 in National Express white on blue leaves Doncaster LE and blunt end first for Kings Cross after attention at WABTEC, 18th July 2009.   Norman Hill


In addition to ‘Govia Thameslink Railway’s ‘Great Northern’ suburban services which call at Hitchin, three TOCs currently (2018) operate passenger trains which pass through Hitchin over the southern section of the ECML. Scheduled main line services which pass through Hitchin serve Leeds and Bradford, York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Edinburgh and Glasgow, with two daily services to Aberdeen and one to Inverness; these last three long-distance services are still provided by faithful HSTs as also is the daily return train from Kings Cross to Hull, the one-time ‘The Hull Executive’ which now leaves Hull at 07.00, arriving into Kings Cross at 09.55 with a return evening working leaving Kings Cross at 17.19 and back into Hull at 20.04 in competition with ‘First Group’s ‘Hull Trains’ reviewed below.

With the class ‘43’ locomotives (power cars) re-engined over the years with two varieties of Paxman unit while all East Coast ‘43’s are now fitted with MTU engines, the much refurbished HSTs,are now over 40 years old, they still work ECML front-line services alongside the ‘Electra’ class ‘91’ electric locomotives detailed below. Both classes will be replaced at the end of 2018.

Upon privatisation in 1996 the Bermuda based transport and container leasing company, ‘Sea Containers’, won the franchise to run the former British Rail ECML Intercity services as the ‘Great North Eastern Railway’; the BR ‘Intercity’ livery, dark grey over white with a red stripe, was changed to dark blue with red stripes and ‘Route of the Flying Scotsman’ badges. Under GNER, ECML services were enhanced – notably by half-hourly services to Leeds – and the demand for extra stock was met by hiring in more HSTs, those displaced from Midland Main Line and Virgin Cross Country Railways, which companies in turn received new ‘Bombardier’ built ‘Meridian’ and ‘Voyager’ DMUs.

In 2007 financial difficulties both within the parent ‘Sea Containers’ company and in GNER’s inability to meet the privatisation premium repayments to the government, led to the transfer of the ECML franchise to the ‘National Express Group’ who took over on December 9th 2007 and named the ‘new railway’ ‘National Express East Coast’. This involved immediate re-branding, then a more gradual change of train livery from GNER’s dark blue to grey with white central diagonal stripe bearing the ‘National Express’ logo. By mid-2009 all HSTs and their accompanying Mark 3 coaches were wearing this new ‘National Express’ livery. However the Mark-4 ‘Intercity 225’ coaching stock – built for the B.R. East Coast electrification by ‘Metro-Cammell’ in 1988-91, refurbished for GNER by ‘Bombardier’ as ‘Mallard’ stock during 2003-5, and marshalled in fixed 9-car formation plus DVT – retained their GNER dark blue while now wearing a narrow white horizontal stripe to show the ‘National Express’ logo; the ‘Route of the Flying Scotsman’ badges were removed from all vehicles.

The 31 unique, ‘flagship’, BREL/GEC, class ’91’ ‘Electra’, electric locomotives (91001-031) were built at Crewe between 1988 and 1991 to power the new BR Mark-4 coaching stock. Initially in British Rail ‘Intercity’ grey and white livery, ‘Great North Eastern’s 1996 dark blue earned them the nickname of ‘Stealth Bombers’ – neither this nor the more formal ‘Electra’ name seems to have stuck, the class ‘91’s always referred to as – “91s”! During 2001/2 the class was refurbished by ‘Bombardier’ at Doncaster and renumbered 91101-122/124-132 when 91023’s new number was accidentally transposed and allowed to remain as 91132! Class ’91’ locomotive 91111 was the only Mark-4 vehicle to be painted into ‘National Express’ white and grey livery, the other 30 locomotives complemented the Mark-4 coaches, retaining their GNER dark blue with the words ‘National Express’ in alternate blue and red painted on the white central stripe.

In July 2009 it was confirmed that the ‘National Express Group’ would no longer support ‘National Express East Coast’ which – just as GNER two years previously – could not meet its financial commitment – as a private railway – to central government, and that the East Coast Main Line franchise would be taken over by that Government. At 23.59 on Friday 13th November 2009, therefore, the flagship East Coast Main Line returned to public ownership, actually trading under the name of ‘East Coast Main Line Company Ltd.’ but operated by a new, Government formed holding company, ‘Directly Operated Railways’. The initial intention was that DOR would run the line for two years when it would again be offered for franchise.

The ‘Directly Operated Railways Company’ was formed at this time to take any future ailing private franchises under its governmental wing. In November 2015 the DORC was disbanded and its powers passed into the hands of truly big-business in the form of a consortium of the multi-national Arup, Ernst & Young and SNC-Lavalin Rail and Transport engineering and business groups, the last with headquarters in Derby, a tenuous link to British railways. This grouping which apparently has no single name is known ominouisly as “the operator of last resort”.

In the event the ‘nationalised’ ‘East Coast Main Line Company Ltd.’ operated until 2015, an extension of the franchise being announced in March 2013 by the government’s Department of Transport.

The formation of the ‘East Coast Main Line Company’ again saw the introduction of a new livery for ECML trains. ‘East Coast’s’ all-over silver-grey was not dissimilar to ‘National Express’ grey and was relieved by a horizontal central purple stripe with the ‘East Coast’ logo carried boldly in purple letters below this central line. During 2010/11 the class ’91’ locomotives and their accompanying Mark-4 coaches received this new livery and a coaching set refurbishment which involved a complete refit of the restaurant accommodation in order that full restaurant service in 1st class could be replaced by a complementary at-seat service. The temporary absence of Mark 4 sets during this refurbishment was covered by a hired-in ‘East Midlands’ HST set – Mark-3 coaches and two power cars – which is still retained in 2018 – and whose ocean blue, grey and white was an eye-catching exception to the silver-grey of the regular ECML inter-city trains; the ECML HSTs were also put into ‘East Coast’ livery from 2011.

From 22 May 2011 ‘East Coast’ introduced a much changed ECML timetable and called it the ‘East Coast Eureka’ timetable, built around the Mark-4 refurbishment programme and claiming to be ‘the biggest improvement to the route in 20 years’.

The latest "Flying Scotsman", newly liveried 91101 heads the 12.05 Kings Cross-Leeds through Hitchin on 21st June 2011   Norman Hill

A remarkable ‘Eureka’ timetable change provided one (and one only!) named ‘Flying Scotsman’ weekday train, leaving Edinburgh at 05.40 (!), calling only at Newcastle (07.03) and arriving into Kings Cross at 09.40. This timetable application of the name ‘Flying Scotsman’ to the new 05.40 from Edinburgh and the retiming of the 10.30 from Kings Cross to Aberdeen – named the ‘Northern Lights’ in the timetable – to depart at 10.00 has very quietly displaced a train which has left Kings Cross for Edinburgh at 10.00 and has been known – even if only in the timetable since privatisation – as ‘The Flying Scotsman’ – since 1862 ! Eureka !

With the launch of the ‘Eureka’ timetable In May 2011 ’91’ class locomotive 91101 and DGV 82205 appeared in a new purple livery bearing the name ‘Flying Scotsman’ displayed in bold LNER style white ‘Gill Sans’ letters along the waist-line on each side, together with a new purple ‘Flying Scotsman’ ‘thistle’ logo set high in the midst of the end yellow warning panels. This doyen ‘91’ was originally named ‘Swallow’ when new as BR 91001. In 1997 GNER removed the name but renamed the loco ‘City of London’ in 2002, this name being removed when ‘National Express’ took over the franchise in 2008. 91101 has retained its ‘Flying Scotsman’ status into the present (early 2018) ‘Virgin East Coast’ franchise but was re-painted into ‘Virgin’s own special livery and renamed with great pomp at Edinburgh Waverley station on the 31st of October 2015 at a ceremony attended by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Managing Director of ‘Virgin East Coast’, David Horne, who were “thrilled to continue the legendary name of the Flying Scotsman” – in a timetable, on a one way, once a day early morning service!

Back in 2011 the ‘Eureka’ timetable introduced additional ‘stopping’ services from Kings Cross at 07.08, 09.08, then hourly until 16.08 to either York or Newark and return. A new 07.20 from Lincoln also gave that city a through service to London with a complementing return leaving Kings Cross at 19.06. Service patterns to Scotland remained much the same although the 06.50 from Glasgow Central and 15.00 return from London Kings Cross became the only through weekday East Coast services between those two cities, while on Saturdays, only the up 06.50 service was provided, while on Sundays only a 17.00 down service from Kings Cross ran through to Glasgow.

In January 2014 The Department for Transport announced a short-list of three bidders for the ECML franchise and on the 1st of March 2015 a joint ‘Stagecoach/Virgin’ venture took over East Coast operations. ‘Stagecoach’ held 90% of the franchise and ‘Virgin’ the remaining 10% but the new company was called ‘Virgin Trains East Coast’. The new franchise commenced some eight months before the demise of ‘The Directly Operated Railways Company’ and its replacement by the tri-partite multi-national business conglomerate mentioned above. Initially the franchise was set to run until 2023 but the company was dogged by disputes and industrial action over manning and redundancy plans from the outset which led to a loss to the ‘Stagecoach’ group in mid-2017, and, finally, the inevitable inability to meet franchise payments which in turn caused the Department for Transport to curtail the franchise agreement by three years while a ‘public-private’ railway arrangement was considered by the government. Thus in early 2018 ‘Virgin Trains East Coast’ became the third ECML franchise to fail in 11 years and on the 16th May 2018 the DfT announced that the ECML would be taken back into government control under the aegis of that sinister “operator of last resort” – so presumably while it is apparently the Department for Transport which runs ECML services the actual provision of services is overseen by; The Arup Group – multinational engineering and design – Ernst and Young – multinational professional services – and SNC-Lavalin Rail and Transit – international rail consultancy since 2015 when the rail consultancy was acquired by SNC-Lavalin – multinational engineering and construction – but providing a tenuous British railway connection in its Derby based headquarters office. The DfT has thus formed the ‘A. E&Y and SNC Railway’ but have disguised this grand new multi-national railway business with the traditional name of London North Eastern Railway, provided with a new LNER logo in which the ‘N’ of the logo is elongated with sharp points; this diagonal ‘N’, it is proudly pointed out in a ‘Design Week’ article, will be cleverly turned to form the ‘Z’ of ‘Azuma’, Japanese for ‘East’ which the new ‘Hitachi’ ‘800’ class EMU and BI-MODE units are to be known as.

In 2015 VTEC carried on the services inherited from ‘East Coast’ with little change although one major innovation was the introduction of a through service from Stirling to Kings Cross which leaves Stirling at the bracing hour of 05.26, arriving in London at 10.51. The return working leaves Kings Cross at 15.00 and arrives in Stirling at 20.15.

Initially VTEC livery on locomotives comprised a diagonal red stripe over the ‘East Coast’ grey containing the ‘Virgin’ logo, while the Mark-4 coaches retained their grey with ‘Virgin’ logo. From 2015 full ‘Virgin’ red and white livery was applied throughout. LNER has retained ‘Virgin’ red and white while carrying the new LNER logo.

The ECML in 2018/9

As noticed above the ‘new look’ Govia ‘Great Northern’ service will be complemented by a ‘new look’ ECML at the end of 2018. In September 2018 ECML services are provided by the government-business run London North Eastern Railway which in some three months’ time are due to take delivery of the new Newton Aycliffe, ‘Cradle of the Railways’ built, Hitachi class ‘800’ EMU and ‘bi-mode’ 5 and 9 car units. The ‘bi-mode’ units; while essentially electric units, will incorporate a diesel engine, thus allowing them to operate beyond the constraints of electrified lines. It has been agreed that the new units will be known as ‘Azuma’s, a Japanese word which bears a more musical and syncopated rhythm than its English translation – ‘East’.


Since 2000 the city on the Humber has been served by its own dedicated London service, operated by ‘Hull Trains’, the first ‘open access’, non-franchised, railway, commenced by the international ‘GB Railways Group’ which ran the ‘Anglia Railways’ franchise and which provided 3-car class 170 ‘Bombardier’ ‘Turbostar’ DMUs for ‘Hull Trains’ opening service. In August 2003 ‘Hull Trains’ was purchased by ‘First Group’ which in March 2004 supplied four new ‘Turbostars’, 170393-6; then, from 2005, again new, four Bombardier ‘Pioneer’ 4-car, 125 m.p.h class 222 DMUs, 222101-104; these being virtually the same as the ‘East Midland’s’ Bombardier ‘Meridian’ 222/0 variously formed units. ‘Pioneer’ unit 222103 was soon withdrawn from service after accident damage and, while it saw no further service with ‘Hull Trains’, has subsequently returned to join its sister ex-‘Hull Trains’ units with ‘East Midlands Trains’. Replacements for 222103 during 2008 included the unique East Coast sight of AC Loco Group’s preserved 86101 Robert Stephenson, powering 5 Cargo-d Mark3 coaches with DVT 82115 tailing. This ‘86’ along with other ‘stop-gap’ class ‘47’ loco haulage was replaced in late 2008 by ‘Alstom’ 5-car class 180 ‘Adelante’ DMUs, 180110 and 180111. The 14 ‘Adelantes’ were new to ‘First Great Western’ in 2000 and while, along with the 222s, presenting the new millennium with a new futuristic railway shape, the ‘180’s were not so reliable and by 2008 were unwanted by ‘First GWR’. Network Rail’s 2008 Route Utilisation Strategy produced for the government Office of Rail Regulation moved two more ‘Adelantes’ to ‘First Hull’, 180113 and 180114, while the 222 ‘Pioneers’ were moved to join their ‘Meridian’ cousins on ‘East Midlands Trains’ (Stagecoach owned!) services out of St. Pancras. ‘Hull Trains’ have since been worked by five ‘180’ ‘Adelante’ DMUs and reliability was much improved by a complete mechanical overhaul in 2012. However the snow of February 2018 resulted in decimation of ‘First Hull’s timetable due to mechanical problems; 180109, 180110, 180111 and 180113 make up the current (2018) ‘Hull Trains’ fleet working seven return journeys from Hull to Kings Cross on weekdays and five on Saturdays and Sundays; one return journey each day is extended from and to Beverley. The ‘Adelante’s are in ‘First Group’s’ basic dark blue ‘Dynamic Lines’ livery. Five new Hitachi bi-mode units are on order for 2019 and will be classed ‘802’, thus ensuring that ‘Hull Trains’ will stay in step with the prestigious ECML modernisation.

Grand Central Railway

A second open access operator commenced ECML operations in late 2007 after over two years of negotiation. After much initial disruption by constant failures and associated inability fully to run its advertised services ‘Grand Central Railway’ eventually achieved reasonable reliability. The company now provides services over parts of two ECML routes; ‘The North Eastern Service’ offers 5 return journeys Mondays to Saturdays, and 4 each way on Sundays between Sunderland and Kings Cross, calling at West Hartlepool, Eaglescliffe, Northallerton, and York.

In May 2010 the route now known as ’The West Riding Service’ was inaugurated; initially three, but now four, daily return services, Sundays included, between Bradford and Kings Cross. The ‘West Riding Service’ calls at Low Moor, Halifax, Brighouse, Mirfield, Wakefield (Kirkgate), Pontefract (Monkhill) (except Sundays) and Doncaster.

The introduction of the ‘North Eastern Service’ in 2007 provided the first direct service between Wearside and London via the ‘coast route’ for over 20 years while the ‘West Riding Service’ from Bradford is the first ever direct service between West Yorkshire intermediate stations and London. The Wearside services were initially provided by three 6-coach Mark-3 HST sets powered by six off-lease Porterbrook, class 43 buffered power cars, 43065/7/8/80/4 and 43123, overhauled for the opening of the Wearside service following storage at Devonport. During 2010 the power cars were fitted with new MTU engines in line with the ECML and ‘Great Western’ 43s and renumbered as 43423 (ex 43123) 43465/7/8/80/4.

During 2009/10 five ex-‘First GWR’ Class 180 ‘Adelante’ DMUs; 180101/105/107/112/114 opened the Bradford services. While cleared to run to Bradford the HSTs were rostered exclusively for ‘The North Eastern Service’ while the ‘Adelante’s worked both services.

In July 2017 ‘Grand Central Railway’ was voted Britain’s ‘best value train company’ by the National Rail Passenger Survey for the fifth year running.

In late 2017 GCR’s faithful HSTs were withdrawn and transferred to ‘East Midland Trains’ to be replaced by five more ‘180’ ‘Adelante’s; 180102/3/4/6/8, recently returned to the reluctant GWR but now displaced there by the new Hitachi ‘800’ IC units, soon to be seen through Hitchin on the ECML upgrade. The GCR fleet now consists, therefore, of ten ‘180’ ‘Adelante’ DMUs 180101-108/112/114; 180105 is named The Yorkshire Artist – Ashley Jackson, 180107 Hart of the North 180112 James Herriot.

The fleet is based on Heaton depot but is currently undergoing a £9m internal refurbishment at Arriva TrainCare, Crewe which is planned to take 18 months. The first unit was completed in early April 2018; the refurbishment includes the pioneer fitting on internal British railways of ETCS (European Train Control System) which at last brings signals inside the driver’s cab

The striking ‘Grand Central’ livery is all over black set off with a vivid orange lower body stripe.

Last updated: 30th March 2019