West Coast Main Line

West Coast Main Line

The West Coast Main Line (WCML) [ [http://www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/rail/pi/wcml/ West Coast Main Line] ] is a busy mixed-traffic railway route in the United Kingdom. It is central to the provision of fast, long-distance Intercity passenger services between London, the West Midlands, the North West, North Wales and southern Scotland.

Central to the WCML is its 401-mile long core section between London Euston and Glasgow Central with principal InterCity stations at Watford Junction, Milton Keynes, Rugby, Nuneaton, Stafford, Crewe, Warrington, Wigan, Preston, Lancaster, Oxenholme, Penrith, Carlisle and Motherwell. Strictly (and by definition), this section alone is the West Coast Main Line [Electric all the way, British Rail, 1974] , but the term now extends to include a complex system of branches and divergences serving the other major towns and cities of Northampton, Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Macclesfield, Stockport, Manchester, Runcorn, Liverpool and Edinburgh. [ [http://www.virgintrainsmediaroom.com/index.cfm?Articleid=311 History of the West Coast Main Line] ]

Beyond this, the WCML also forms a part of the suburban railway systems within London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow with many more smaller commuter stations, as well as providing links to rural towns and villages.

The WCML is of strategic importance in a European context and has been designated as a priority Trans-European Networks (TENS) route. It is the principal rail freight corridor linking the European mainland (via the Channel Tunnel) via London and South East England to the West Midlands, North West England and Scotland and is one of the busiest freight routes in Europe.


The line was built between the 1830s and the 1870s, as a number of separate railways, the first being the Grand Junction Railway (Warrington - Birmingham) then the London and Birmingham Railway, both completed in the 1830s. These lines together with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the North Union Railway and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway amalgamated in 1846 to form the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). North of Carlisle, the Caledonian Railway remained independent and opened its mainline to Beattock in September 1847, to Edinburgh in February 1848 and to Glasgow in November 1849. One important section, the North Staffordshire Railway, which opened its line in 1848 from Macclesfield (connecting with the LNWR from Manchester) via Stoke-on-Trent to Norton Bridge and Colwich, also remained independent until the forced amalgamations of 1923.

Partly to appease the concerns and opposition of landowners along the route, in places some railway lines were built so that they avoided large estates and rural towns, and to reduce construction costs the railways followed natural contours, resulting in many curves and bends. The WCML also passes through some of the more hilly areas of the British mainland, such as the Chilterns (Tring cutting), the Watford Gap and Northampton uplands followed by the Trent Valley, the mountains of Cumbria with a summit at Shap and Beattock Summit in the Leadhills area of southern Lanarkshire. This has left a legacy of lower maximum speeds on the line compared to the East Coast Main Line (ECML) route, and the principal solution to the problem has been the adoption of tilting trains, formerly British Rail's ill-fated APT, and latterly the Class 390 Pendolino trains constructed by Alstom and introduced by Virgin in 2003.

The route to Scotland was marketed by the LNWR as 'The Premier Line' but operations were complicated by incompatible braking systems since the LNWR used the vacuum brake and the Caledonian used the Westinghouse air brake. Through trains were therefore of necessity composed of dual braked and jointly owned "West Coast Joint Stock" (so named). Following amalgamation, on 1 January 1923, it became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) and the vacuum brake quickly became standard. In 1947, following nationalisation, it came under control of British Railways' London Midland and Scottish Regions, when the term "West Coast Main Line" officially came into use. However, it is something of a misnomer given that the line only physically runs along the west coast on a brief section overlooking Morecambe Bay between Lancaster and Carnforth for barely half a mile.

The WCML is not a single railway; rather it can be thought of as a network of routes which diverge and rejoin the central core which runs between London Euston and Glasgow Central. The route from Rugby to Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Stafford was the original main line until the shorter line was built via the Trent Valley. South of Rugby there is a loop that serves Northampton and a branch north of Crewe to Liverpool which is notable since Weaver Junction on this branch is the oldest flyover type junction in use. Among the other diversions are loops that branch off to serve Manchester, one from Colwich Junction in the Trent Valley south of Stafford via Stoke-on-Trent, one north of Stafford also via Stoke-on-Trent and one via Crewe and Wilmslow. The Windsor Link north-south junction line in Manchester constructed by British Rail in 1988 has made possible a through service via Bolton back to the main line at Preston. A further branch at Carstairs links Edinburgh to the WCML, giving it a direct connection to the East Coast route.

Modernisation by British Rail

The line was modernised and electrified in stages between 1959 and 1974 - initial electrification was in 1959 between Crewe and Manchester and Liverpool, with the rest of the southern section of the line following in stages to 1967 [Britain's New Railway; O.S. Nock (1966) - Ian Allan] ; the line from Weaver Junction (where the route to Liverpool diverges) to Glasgow was electrified in 1974. [Electric Euston to Glasgow; O.S. Nock (1974) - ISBN 0 7110 0530 3] This era was notable for time-consuming and congestion-causing routine changes from at first steam and later diesel to electric traction at busy change-over stations like Birmingham New Street, Crewe and Preston. A policy of "no diesels under the wires"Fact|date=August 2007 was taken to extremes; at one time excursions from South Wales to Blackpool had to change to electric traction at Crewe and back to diesel at Preston.

The modernisation also saw the demolition and redevelopment of several of the key stations on the line - BR was keen to symbolise the coming of the "electric age" by replacing the Victorian-era buildings with new structures built from glass and concrete - the most significant examples of this being Birmingham New Street, Coventry and Euston. However, the new look for the railway has not aged well, with the Euston redevelopment being the most controversial - the famous Doric Arch portal into the original Philip Hardwick designed terminus was demolished in 1962 amid much public outcry. Only recently have plans been mooted to completely rebuild both New Street and Euston stations. Coventry station is unlikely to be replaced any time soon as the station building is Grade II listed.

Electrification did not arrive on the short Carstairs Junction - Edinburgh Waverley branch until 1989. Only the Preston - Manchester via Bolton, and Crewe - Holyhead branches remain unelectrified.

Modernisation culminated in the adoption of air brakes for locomotive hauled express trains. Also under British Rail, freight train operations and practices changed drastically resulting in the virtual elimination of the traditional slow moving and generally unbraked pick-up goods train and the introduction of faster moving point to point train load operations using air braked vehicles.

The running of express passenger services on the WCML came under the Inter-City brand in the late 1960s, which prior to privatisation in 1996 was known as "InterCity West Coast". "InterCity CrossCountry" using the West Midlands sections of the WCML was also greatly developed with the introduction of transferred HST units following the electrification of the ECML. Following privatisation, the principal operator on the line has been Virgin Trains who operate all long-distance express services, but many regional operators along the route also run local commuter sevices.

Modernisation brought great improvements, not least in speed and frequency, to many WCML services but there have been some losses over the years. Locations and lines served by through trains or through coaches from London in 1947 but no longer so served include: Windermere; Barrow-in-Furness, Whitehaven and Workington; Huddersfield and Halifax (via Stockport); Blackpool; Colne (via Stockport); Morecambe and Heysham; Southport (via Edge Hill); and Stranraer Harbour. Notable also is the loss of the through service from Liverpool to Scotland.

Modernisation by Network Rail

The WCML is currently nearing completion of a major upgrade along almost its entire length. The original plans drawn up by Railtrack estimated that this upgrade would cost £2bn, be ready by 2005, and cut journey times London to Birmingham to 1hr (currently 1hr 40mins) and 1hr 45mins London to Manchester. This would be achieved through increasing the line speed to 225 km/h (140 mph), in place of the previous maximum of 177 km/h (110 mph).

However, Railtrack had not assessed the technical viability of moving block signalling prior to promising the speed increase to Virgin and the Government. No-one had attempted to implement moving block on a line as complex as the WCML anywhere in the world, and it soon became apparent to engineers that the technology was not mature enough to be used on the line. The bankruptcy of Railtrack in 2001 following the Hatfield crash brought a reappraisal of the plans whilst the original cost of the upgrade soared. Despite early fears that the cost overruns on the project would push the final price tag to £13bn, reappraisal of the plans has brought the cost down to between £8bn and £10bn, ready by 2008 with a maximum speed for tilting trains of a more modest 200 km/h (125 mph). Services from Liverpool to the South West and the South Coast were withdrawn by Virgin in September 2003.

The first phase of the upgrade, south of Manchester, opened on 27 September 2004 with London to Birmingham journey times of 1hr 21mins and London to Manchester 2 hours 6 minutes. The final phase was announced as opening on 12 December 2005, bringing the fastest journey from London to Glasgow to 4 hours 25 mins (down from 5hrs 10mins) [ [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/4518282.stm High-speed tilting train on track] ] although considerable work such as the quadrupling of the track in the Trent Valley (in progress and moving towards completion under budget), upgrading the slow lines, the second phase of remodelling Nuneaton, and the remodelling of Stafford, Rugby, Milton Keynes and Coventry stations are mostly now progressing. The upgrading of the Crewe to Manchester line via Wilmslow was completed in Summer 2006. The Trent Valley quadrupling still sees weekend services diverted via the Birmingham Loop which can push Glasgow-London journey times to over 6 hours.

New trains for the route include 53 nine-car Class 390 Pendolino trains and initially 30 four-car Class 350 Desiro electric trains for London Midland Trains (with more anticipated) as well as CrossCountry Voyager and Super-Voyager trains for the cross-country services. Pendolino 2005 off-peak frequency of six trains per hour (rising to ten in the morning peak) is planned to increase to nine off-peak by 2009 including three per hour to both Birmingham and Manchester plus an hourly tilting Voyager service to Chester as well as improved services to Liverpool, Preston and Scotland. There will also be an hourly Desiro operation from London to Crewe serving Watford, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby, Nuneaton, Atherstone, Tamworth, Lichfield, Rugeley, Stafford and Crewe.

Virgin Trains recently put forward plans to increase the line speed in places on the WCML and particularly on sections of the Trent Valley Line between Stafford and Rugby from 125 mph to 135 mph after the quadrupling of track had been completed. This would permit faster services and possibly allow additional train paths. 135 mph is claimed to be achievable by Pendolino trains while using existing signalling systems without the need for a cab signalling system. Network Rail are studying this proposal.

In promoting the above proposal Virgin Trains report that passenger numbers on Virgin West Coast have increased from 13.6 million in 1997/98 to 18.7 million in 2005/6, while numbers on CrossCountry have grown from 12.6 million to 20.4 million over the same period.

In September 2006, a new speed record was set on the WCML - a Pendolino train completed the 401-mile Glasgow Central - London Euston run in a record 3 hours 55 minutes, beating the APT's record of 4 hours 15 minutes, although the APT still holds the overall record on the northbound run.


:See also: List of rail accidents in the United Kingdom
* Grayrigg derailment (at Lambrigg Crossovers, south of Grayrigg) - 23 February 2007; 1 killed
* Tebay rail accident - 15 February 2004; 4 workers killed (no public involvement)
* Norton Bridge rail crash - 16 October 2003; 1 injured
* Winsford rail crash - 23 June 1999; 31 injured
* Watford rail crash - 8 August 1996; 1 killed, 69 injured
* Stafford rail crash (1996) - 8 March 1996; 1 killed, 22 injured
* Newton rail crash - 21 July 1991; 4 killed; 22 injured
* Stafford rail crash (1990) - 4 August 1990; 1 killed, 35 injured
* Colwich rail crash - 19 September 1986; 1 killed 60 injured
* Wembley Central rail crash - 11 October 1984 3 killed, 18 injured
* Nuneaton rail crash - 6 June 1975; 6 killed 67 injured
* Watford Junction rail crash - 1975; 1 killed, 11 injured
* Hixon - 6 January 1968; 11 killed, 27 injured
* Stechford rail crash - 28 February 1967; 9 killed, 16 injured
* Cheadle Hulme - 28 May 1964; 3 killed
* Coppenhall Junction - 26 December 1962; 18 killed, 34 injured
* Harrow and Wealdstone - 8 October 1952; 112 killed, 340 injured - worst accident in England and London.
* Lambrigg Crossing signal box between Grayrigg and Oxenholme - 18 May 1947; express hit light engine through driver missing a signal while looking in his food box; 4 in hospital, 34 minor injuries [cite web | url = http://home.clara.net/gw0hqd/bumps/180547/180547.htm | title = Ministry of Transport Accident Report Between Grayrigg and Oxenholme, L.M.S.R., May 18, 1947 | accessdate = 2008-02-18 ]
* Lichfield, 1 January 1946; 20 killed, 21 injured.
* Bourne End rail crash - 30 September 1945; 43 killed, 64 injured
* Winwick Junction - 28 September 1934; 12 killed
* Quintinshill rail crash - 22 May 1915; 227 killed, 246 injured. - worst ever accident in the United Kingdom.
* Wigan North Western railway station - 1 August 1873; 13 killed, 30 major injuries.

The route in detail

Network Rail, successor from 2001 to Railtrack plc, in its latest business plan [ [http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/3085.aspx Network Rail business plan] ] published in April 2006, has divided its National network into 26 'Routes' for planning, maintenance and operational purposes. [ [http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/4451.aspx Network Rail routes overview] ] Route 18 is named as 'that part of the West Coast Main Line that runs between London Euston and Carstairs Junction' although it also includes several branch lines that had not previously been considered part of the WCML. [ [http://www.networkrail.co.uk/browse%20documents/StrategicBusinessPlan/R18%20-%20WCML.pdf Network Rail Route 18] ] The northern terminal sections of the WCML are reached by Routes 26 (to Motherwell and Glasgow) and 24 (to Edinburgh).

The cities and towns served by the WCML are listed in the tables below. Stations on loops and branches are marked ** Those stations in "italics" are not served by main-line services run by Virgin Trains but only by local trains. Between Euston and Watford Junction the WCML is largely but not exactly paralleled by the operationally independent Watford DC Line with 17 intermediate stations, including three with additional platforms on the WCML.

The final table retraces the route specifically to indicate the many loops, branches, junctions and interchange stations on Route 18, which is the core of the WCML, with the new 'Route' names for connecting lines.

The North Wales Coast Line from Crewe to Holyhead and the line from Manchester to Preston are not electrified. Services from London to Holyhead and from Manchester to Scotland are mostly operated either by Virgin Super Voyager tilting diesel trains or, in the case of one of the Holyhead services, by a Pendolino set hauled from Crewe by a Class 57 diesel locomotive.

London to Glasgow and Edinburgh (Network Rail Route 18)

Crewe-Manchester-Preston (Network Rail Route 20)

Network Rail Route 18 (WCML) - Branches and junctions


* Buck, M. and Rawlinson, M. (2000), "Line By Line: The West Coast Main Line, London Euston to Glasgow Central", Freightmaster Publishing, ISBN 0-9537540-0-6

ee also

*East Coast Main Line
*Rail transport in the United Kingdom

External links

* [http://www.railway-technology.com/projects/virgin/ Rail Industry www page which monitors the progress of the project]
* [http://www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_control/documents/contentservertemplate/dft_index.hcst?n=16557&l=2 Department of Transport - 2006 - West Coast Main Line - Update Report]
* [http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/3085.aspx Network Rail Business Plans and Reports]
* [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHbLBhANLY8 Rugby to Glasgow in five minutes] - time-lapse video
* [http://www.thesectionalappendix.co.uk/WLSEC01.html British Railways in 1960, Euston to Crewe]
* [http://www.thesectionalappendix.co.uk/WLNCG01.html British Railways in 1960, Crewe to Carlisle]
* [http://www.thesectionalappendix.co.uk/ScRWCC01.html British Railways in 1960, Carlisle to Carstairs]
* [http://www.thesectionalappendix.co.uk/ScRWCG01.html British Railways in 1960, Carstairs to Glasgow]

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