Friday, 20 February 2015

In praise of... the East Coast Main Line.

In a few days' time, another chapter will begin on the East Coast Main Line. On 1 March, the railway will be operated by a new franchise holder, Virgin Trains East Coast, a partnership between Stage Coach and Virgin. So this is a good opportunity to celebrate this illustrious line.

I am one of those clergy who have loved trains since I was in a pushchair.  I was brought up in north London just a couple of miles away from the East Coast Main Line. In carefree years before adolescence, my favourite place in London was King's Cross Station. In all weathers I would spend hours on the platform end, sometimes with friends, often alone, Ian Allan train-spotter's book in hand, and watch the Gresley Pacifics setting out on their long journeys towards exotic places like Durham, Newcastle and Edinburgh. I dreamed one day of travelling to this undiscovered country of the North. 

Years later I got to make the journey. I always hoped that my maiden voyage would be behind the famous streamlined Mallard, 60022, then - and still - the holder of the world speed record for a steam locomotive. Alas, by the mid 1960s, the route was run by diesels. But it still felt like a big adventure into a strange land. That day I got as far as Durham where I had applied for a place to read maths at the University. When the train rounded the curve across the viaduct and I got my first sight of the Castle and Cathedral perched on their rocky acropolis, I had two epiphanies. The first was like the disciples gazing on the Jerusalem Temple: 'what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings'. The second was simply: 'is there a main line in the world that can be compared to the East Coast?'

I have seen a few other main lines since then, many of them magnificently engineered. But I have not lost my admiration for the ECML as it is known to its friends. You don't need me to remind you of its scenic highlights: Durham, of course; the Angel of the North, crossing the Tyne at Newcastle, Alnmouth sitting prettily on its estuary, Berwick huddled by the Tweed, the gorse-clad cliffs of north Northumberland and the Border, the uplands of southern Scotland and finally, the majestic sense of arrival you get at Edinburgh Waverley - what other destination is so romantically named? Not to mention the procession of great cathedrals and churches you pass on the way: Peterborough, Grantham, Newark, Doncaster, York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle, and even Lincoln, beckoning on a clear day from its far-off hill top. And three of England's best railway stations: King's Cross, York and Newcastle.

In 2013, to celebrate the residency of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham, East Coast named Class 91 electric locomotive 91114 Durham Cathedral. I admit it was a proud moment to stand on the platform at Newcastle Central station for the naming and blessing ceremony.  In my address, I spoke about the pleasures of train travel, the links between a railway and the regions it passes through and the importance of excellent public transport. And I also reminded the gathering that County Durham was the cradle of the railways. The ECML crosses the original Stockton and Darlington line which was opened in 1825. So the railway connects us not only to the natural and built heritage of the North East but also to its proud industrial heritage and to the working traditions of this part of England. 

I ended by saying this. 'The Great Western GWR was affectionately known as ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’.  I don’t see why that quirky broad-gauge line should have the monopoly on divinity or greatness. It was on this East Coast Main Line 75 years ago this very day that Gresley's A4 Mallard achieved the world speed record for a steam locomotive. East Coast Main Line, ECML, is surely the Excellent, Classic and Most Magnificent Line. We are proud of it in this region, and I take today as meaning that the railway is proud of the region too. As a working cathedral of today and tomorrow, it is good to be linked with the twenty-first century railway system with all its positive messages about the part public transport plays in environmental responsibility and sustainability.'

Thank you to nationalised operator East Coast UK for running the line so successfully during the past few years. They have served us in an exemplary way. As we bid them farewell, and exchange Palatinate purple for red, we welcome Virgin Trains East Coast. Privatised railway operation remains controversial. The jury is still out. So please care for our much-loved railway. Treat it well, and all who travel up and down these tracks.


  1. I echo all you say about East Coast. It is invariable an enjoyable experience. I especially appreciate the gentle authority they bring to bear in keeping the 'sacred space' of the quiet coach that way. Quite different to Virgin's policy on the West Coast line, I fear! I was, therefore, especially sorry to be travelling on East Coast last Friday evening when we experienced delays from the North towards London, and the journey was devoid of the information, explanations and apologies we have come to take for granted from their (usually unfailingly) excellent staff. Let us pray that this is not a vision of things to come!

  2. I, too, have always loved the ECML and have long lived near its fastest stretches. I have had some great times with East Coast in its tenure and have written a little about those times at and wondered if your readers might be interested ...