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The West Coast Main Line (WCML) is a busy mixed-traffic railway route in the United Kingdom. It provides fast, long-distance Intercity passenger services between London, the West Midlands, the North West, North Walesmarker and southern Scotland.

Central to the WCML is its long core section between London Eustonmarker and Glasgow Centralmarker with principal InterCity stations at Watford Junctionmarker, Milton Keynesmarker, Rugbymarker, Nuneatonmarker, Staffordmarker, Crewemarker, Warringtonmarker, Wiganmarker, Prestonmarker, Lancastermarker, Oxenholmemarker, Penrithmarker, Carlislemarker and Motherwellmarker. Strictly (and by definition), this section alone is the West Coast Main Line, but the term now extends to include a complex system of branches and divergences serving the other major towns and cities of Northamptonmarker, Coventrymarker, Birminghammarker, Wolverhamptonmarker, Stoke-on-Trentmarker, Macclesfieldmarker, Stockportmarker, Manchestermarker, Runcornmarker, Liverpoolmarker and Edinburghmarker.

In addition, several sections of the WCML form part of the suburban railway systems in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, with many more smaller commuter stations, as well as providing a number of links to rural towns and villages.

The WCML is a strategic European route and has been designated a priority Trans-European Networks (TENS) route. It is the principal rail freight corridor linking the European mainland (via the Channel Tunnelmarker) through London and south-east England to the West Midlands, north-west England and Scotland, and is one of the busiest freight routes in Europe.


Early history

The line was built between the 1830s and the 1870s, as a number of separate railways, the first being the Grand Junction Railway (Warringtonmarker-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, the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway and the Manchester and Birmingham Railway amalgamated their operations in 1846 to form the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). North of Carlisle, the Caledonian Railway remained independent and opened its main line to Beattockmarker in September 1847, to Edinburghmarker in February 1848 and to Glasgow in November 1849. One important section, the North Staffordshire Railway, which opened in 1848 from Macclesfield (connecting with the LNWR from Manchester) via Stoke-on-Trent to Norton Bridgemarker and Colwichmarker, 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 Chilternsmarker (Tringmarker cutting), the Watford Gapmarker and Northampton uplands followed by the Trent Valley, the mountains of Cumbriamarker with a summit at Shapmarker, and Beattock Summitmarker 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. A 'conventional' attempt to raise line speeds as part of the InterCity 250 upgrade in the 1990s would have relaxed maximum cant levels on curves and seen some track realignments; this scheme faltered for lack of funding in the economic climate of the time.

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 Baymarker between Lancaster and Carnforthmarker 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 between London and Glasgow. 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 Rugbymarker there is a loop that serves Northamptonmarker, and there is also a branch north of Crewemarker to Liverpoolmarker 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 Wilmslowmarker. The Windsor Linkmarker north-south junction line in Manchester, built by British Rail in 1988, has made possible a through service via Boltonmarker back to the main line at Preston. A further branch at Carstairsmarker 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; the line from Weaver Junction (where the route to Liverpool diverges) to Glasgow was electrified in 1974. In this era, a policy of "no diesels under the wires" meant that engines had to be changed (from steam, and later from diesel, to electric traction) at busy change-over stations like Birmingham New Street, Crewe and Preston. Along with electrification came the gradual introduction of modern, air conditioned coaches such as the Mark 2 and following the northern electrification scheme's completion in 1974, the fully integral Mark 3 design. These vehicles remained the mainstay of the WCML's express services through until the early 2000s.

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. Notable examples were Birmingham New Street, Stafford, Coventry and London Euston. To enable the latter, the famous Doric Arch portalmarker into the original Philip Hardwick-designed terminus was demolished in 1962 amid much public outcry. Recently, plans have been mooted to completely rebuild both New Street and Euston stations.

Electrification of the Edinburgh branch was carried out in the late 1980s as part of the ECML electrification project. 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 trainload 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 before 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 HST units transferred from the ECML after the latter's electrification.

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: Windermeremarker; Barrow-in-Furnessmarker, Whitehavenmarker and Workingtonmarker; Huddersfieldmarker and Halifaxmarker (via Stockport); Blackpoolmarker; Colnemarker (via Stockport); Morecambemarker and Heyshammarker; Southportmarker (via Edge Hillmarker); and Stranraermarker Harbour. Notable also is the loss of through service from Liverpool to Scotland.

Modernisation by Network Rail

By the dawn of the 1990s, it was clear that further modernisation was required. Initially, this took the form of the InterCity 250 project which would have seen the introduction of new rolling stock derived from that developed for the East Coast electrification introduced alongside a wholesale refurbishment of the WCML itself. But then the privatisation of BR intervened, which saw Virgin Trains win the franchise in 1996 for the running of long distance express services on the line. The bold modernisation plan unveiled by Virgin and the new infrastructure owner Railtrack would see the upgrade and renewal of the line to allow the use of tilting Pendolino trains with a maximum line speed of , in place of the previous maximum of . Railtrack estimated that this upgrade would cost £2bn, be ready by 2005, and cut journey times London to Birmingham to 1hr (since September 2004, 1hr 21mins) and 1hr 45mins London to Manchester.

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 and its replacement by Network Rail following the Hatfield crashmarker brought a reappraisal of the plans whilst the original cost of the upgrade soared. Despite early fears that 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 . 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 of introducing running along most of the entire length of the line 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) although considerable work such as the quadrupling of the track in the Trent Valley, upgrading the slow lines, the second phase of remodelling Nuneaton, and the remodelling of Stafford, Rugby, Milton Keynes and Coventry stations were the last stages of the project to be completed in late 2008. The upgrading of the Crewe to Manchester line via Wilmslow was completed in Summer 2006.

In September 2006, a new speed record was set on the WCML - a Pendolino train completed the 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.

December 2008 saw the final completion of the decade-long modernisation project. This allowed the introduction of Virgin's VHF (Very High Frequency) timetable to be progressively introduced through early 2009, the highlights of which are a three-trains-per-hour service to both Birmingham and Manchester during off-peak periods, and nearly all Anglo-Scottish timings brought under the 4hrs 30min barrier - with one service (calling only at Preston) achieving a London-Glasgow time of 4hrs 10mins.


The complete route has been cleared for W10 loading gauge freight traffic, allowing use of higher hi-cube shipping containers.

Rolling stock

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 Chestermarker as well as improved services to Liverpool, Preston and Scotland. From December 2008 there has been an hourly Desiro operation from London to Crewe serving Watford, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby, Nuneaton, Atherstonemarker, Tamworthmarker, Lichfieldmarker, Rugeleymarker, Stafford, Stone, Stoke on Trent, Alsager and Crewe, which is operated by London Midland.

The older BR-vintage locomotive hauled passenger rolling stock still has a limited role on the WCML, with the overnight Caledonian Sleeper services between Euston and Scotland using Mark 3 and Mark 2 coaches, and Arriva CrossCountry use InterCity 125 HST sets over the West Midlands sections on Scotland-Plymouth/Penzance services.


Proposed Developments

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 to 135 mph (200 to 218 km/h) after the quadrupling of track had been completed. This would permit faster services and possibly allow additional train paths. 218 km/h is claimed to be achievable by Pendolino trains while using existing signalling systems without the need for a cab signalling system. Network Rail is studying this proposal.

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


See also: List of rail accidents in the United Kingdom

The route in detail

Network Rail, successor from 2001 to Railtrack plc, in its business plan published in April 2006, has divided the national network into 26 'Routes' for planning, maintenance and operational purposes. 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. The northern terminal sections of the WCML are reached by Routes 26 (to Motherwell and Glasgow) and 24 (to Edinburgh). This therefore differs from the "classic" definition of the WCML as the direct route from London Euston to Glasgow Central.

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 Linemarker 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 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 57/3 diesel locomotive.

London to Glasgow and Edinburgh (Network Rail Route 18)

Town/City Station Ordnance Surveymarker
grid reference
Branches and loops
London London Eustonmarker
Wembleymarker Wembley Centralmarker
Harrowmarker Harrow and Wealdstonemarker
Busheymarker Busheymarker
Watfordmarker Watford Junctionmarker
Apsleymarker Apsleymarker
Kings Langleymarker Kings Langleymarker
Hemel Hempsteadmarker Hemel Hempsteadmarker
Berkhamstedmarker Berkhamstedmarker
Tringmarker Tringmarker
Cheddingtonmarker Cheddingtonmarker
Leighton Buzzardmarker Leighton Buzzardmarker
Bletchleymarker Bletchleymarker
** Bedfordmarker ** Bedfordmarker Marston Vale Linemarker spur
Milton Keynesmarker (centremarker) Milton Keynes Centralmarker
Wolvertonmarker Wolvertonmarker
** Northamptonmarker ** Northamptonmarker Northampton Loop diverges north of Wolverton
** Long Buckbymarker ** Long Buckbymarker Northampton Loop rejoins south of Rugby
Rugbymarker Rugbymarker Rugby-Birmingham-Wolverhampton-Stafford
(see separate table below)
Nuneatonmarker Nuneatonmarker
Atherstonemarker Atherstonemarker
Polesworthmarker Polesworthmarker
Tamworthmarker Tamworthmarker
Lichfieldmarker Lichfield Trent Valleymarker
Rugeleymarker Rugeley Trent Valleymarker
Staffordmarker Staffordmarker Rugby-Birmingham-Stafford rejoins
Manchester via Stoke-on-Trent diverges
either before or after Stafford (two routes)

** Stoke-on-Trentmarker ** Stoke-on-Trentmarker
** Congletonmarker ** Congletonmarker
** Macclesfieldmarker ** Macclesfieldmarker
** Stockportmarker ** Stockportmarker
** Manchestermarker ** Manchester Piccadillymarker
Crewemarker Crewemarker Crewe-Manchester-Preston and
Crewe-Chester-North Wales-Holyhead
(see separate tables below)

Winsfordmarker Winsfordmarker
Northwichmarker Hartfordmarker
Acton Bridgemarker Acton Bridgemarker Liverpool route diverges north of Acton Bridge
** Runcornmarker ** Runcornmarker
** Liverpoolmarker ** Liverpool Lime Streetmarker
Warringtonmarker Warrington Bank Quaymarker
Wiganmarker Wigan North Westernmarker
Prestonmarker Prestonmarker Crewe-Manchester-Preston rejoins
Lancastermarker Lancastermarker
Oxenholmemarker (Kendalmarker) Oxenholme Lake Districtmarker
Penrithmarker Penrithmarker
Carlislemarker Carlislemarker
Lockerbiemarker Lockerbiemarker
Carstairsmarker Carstairs Junctionmarker
Then either
Motherwellmarker Motherwellmarker
Glasgowmarker Glasgow Centralmarker
Haymarketmarker Haymarketmarker
Edinburghmarker Edinburgh Waverleymarker

Branches and loops

The WCML is noted for the diversity of branches served from the London to Edinburgh and Glasgow main line. The following map deals with the very complex network of lines in the West Midlands that link the old route via Birmingham with the new WCML route via the Trent Valley (i.e. 1830s versus 1840s):
Map of the Rugby-Birmingham-Stafford line and other local routes.

In the following tables, related to the WCML branches, only the Intercity stations are recorded:

Rugby-Birmingham-Wolverhampton-Stafford (Rugby-Birmingham-Stafford Line) (Network Rail Route 17)
Town/City Station Ordnance Surveymarker
grid reference

Crewe-Holyhead (North Wales Coast Line) (Network Rail Route 22)
Town/City Station Ordnance Surveymarker
grid reference

Crewe-Manchester-Preston (Network Rail Route 20)
Town/City Station Ordnance Surveymarker
grid reference

Network Rail Route 18 (WCML) - Branches and junctions

Location Type Route Details
Camden Jnct Branch 18 Watford DC Linemarker (WDCL)
+ Junction 6 North London Line from Primrose Hillmarker joins WDCL and WCML
Willesden Jnct Junction 6 North London Line from West Hampsteadmarker joins WDCL and WCML
+ Junction 2 West London Line from Clapham Junctionmarker joins WCML
+ Junction 6 North London Line from Richmondmarker joins WCML
Willesden Junctionmarker Interchange 6 North London Line with Watford DC Linemarker
Watford Junctionmarker Branch 18 Watford DC Line terminates at separate bay platforms
+ Branch 18 St Albans Branch Linemarker (AC single line single section) to St Albansmarker
Bletchleymarker Branch 18 Marston Vale Linemarker to Bedfordmarker
Bletchleymarker High Level (Denbigh Hall South Jnct) Branch 16 Freight only line to Newton Longvillemarker (remnant of mothballed Varsity Linemarker to Oxfordmarker)
Hanslope Junction Loop 18 Northampton Loop leaves a few miles north of Wolvertonmarker and rejoins just south of Rugby
Rugbymarker Junction 17 West Midlands Main Line to Coventry, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Stafford
Nuneatonmarker Junction 19 The Birmingham to Peterborough Line from Peterborough
+ Junction 17 The Coventry to Nuneaton Line
+ Junction 17 The Birmingham to Peterborough Line to Birmingham
Tamworthmarker Interchange 17 The Cross Country Route Bristol and Birmingham to Derby and the North East
Lichfield Trent Valleymarker Interchange 17 The Cross-City Line Redditch to Lichfield
+ Junction 17 north of the station
Rugeley Trent Valleymarker Junction 17 The Chase Line from Birmingham to Rugeley
Colwich Junctionmarker Branch 18 to Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester (Route 20 from Cheadle Hulme)
Staffordmarker Junction 17 West Midlands Main Line from Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton
Norton Bridgemarker Branch 18 to Stone to join line from Colwich Jnct to Manchester (Route 20 from Cheadle Hulme)
Stoke-on-Trentmarker Junction 19 from Derby
Kidsgrovemarker Branch 18 to Alsager and Crewe
Cheadle Hulmemarker - 20 Route 18 London - Manchester Line becomes Route 20 through to Manchestermarker
Crewemarker Branch 18 from Kidsgrove (diesel service from Skegness, Grantham, Nottingham Derby and Stoke-on-Trent)
+ Junction 14 The Welsh Marches Line from South Wales, Hereford and Shrewsbury
+ Junction 22 to Chestermarker and the North Wales Coast Line
+ Junction 20 to Wilmslowmarker, Manchester Airportmarker, Stockport and Manchester
Hartford North Junction 20 (freight only) from Northwich
Weaver Jnct Branch 18 to Runcornmarker and Liverpool (Route 20 from Liverpool South Parkway railway station)
Liverpool South Parkwaymarker - 20 Route 18 London to Liverpool Line becomes Route 20 to Liverpool Lime Streetmarker
Warringtonmarker Junction 22 from Llandudnomarker and Chester to Manchester
Winwick Jnct Junction 20 to Liverpool, Earlestownmarker and Manchester
Wiganmarker Junction 20 from Manchester
+ Junction 20 The Liverpool to Wigan Line
Euxton Jnct Junction 20 The Manchester to Preston Line from Manchester
Farington Jnct Junction 23 East Lancashire Line and Caldervale Line
Farington Curve Jnct Junction 23 Ormskirk Branch Line, East Lancashire Line and Caldervale Line
Preston Dock Junction 23 west
Prestonmarker Junction 20 to Blackpoolmarker
Morecambe South Jnct Junction 23 to Morecambemarker
Hest Bank Jnct Junction 23 from Morecambe
Carnforth Jnct Junction 23 Furness Line to Barrow-in-Furnessmarker and also the Leeds to Morecambe Line to Leedsmarker
Oxenholmemarker Junction 23 to Windermeremarker
Penrithmarker Junction 23 Route 23 uses two junctions to the north of the station
Carlislemarker Junction 23 Route 23 Settle-Carlisle Railway and Route 9 from Newcastlemarker
+ Junction 23 The Cumbrian Coast Line from Barrow-in-Furness
Gretna Jnct Junction 26 to the Glasgow South Western Line
Carstairs South Jnct Junction 24 Route 18 West Coast Main Line becomes Route 24 to Edinburghmarker
Carstairs South - 26 Route 18 West Coast Main Line becomes Route 26 to Glasgowmarker

The length of the WCML's main core section is nominally quoted as being 401.25 miles (645.7 km). The basis of this measurement is taken as being the distance between the midpoint of Platform 18 of London Euston to that of Platform 1 of Glasgow Central, and has historically been the distance used in official calculations during speed record attempts.

See also


  1. West Coast Main Line, Department for Transport.
  2. Electric all the way, British Rail, 1974.
  3. History of the West Coast Main Line, Virgin Trains, July 2004.
  4. Nock, O. S. (1965). Britain's new railway: Electrification of the London-Midland main lines from Euston to Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Crewe, Liverpool and Manchester. Shepperton: Ian Allan.
  5. Nock, O. S. (1974). Electric Euston to Glasgow. London: Ian Allan. ISBN 0711005303
  6. "High-speed tilting train on track", BBC News Online, 12 December 2005.
  7. Business plan 2007, Network Rail.
  8. Route plans, Network Rail.
  9. Network Rail Route 18.
  • Buck, Martin. and Rawlinson, Mark (2000). Line By Line: The West Coast Main Line, London Euston to Glasgow Central. Swindon: Freightmaster Publishing. ISBN 0953754006

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