For those of you who know me and my past this may not be a complete surprise but….. I have never travelled the full route of the East Coast Main Line! With strong connections to the South West and being raised in Devon I have never found the necessity to travel any further than Newcastle.
What have I missed? The answer of course is an awful lot of premium railway through a wonderfully scenic environment. So when LNER asked me if I would like to Join them at Aberdeen for the introduction of its new Azuma service to London Kings Cross I gladly accepted.
7 am on a wet and dark Tuesday morning and we have just heard LNER Managing Director David Horne and the Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Barney Crockett, welcome us to the Granite City.
David Horne, Managing Director of LNER, said: “As one of our most popular routes, and Aberdeen being Scotland’s third largest city, we’re proud to be introducing our new Azuma trains connecting Aberdeen with Edinburgh and London. The Granite City is the gateway to the UK’s largest national park, the Caingorms, as well as being surrounded by some of Scotland’s most scenic coastlines. It’s a magnificent destination all year round and what better way to get to and from Aberdeen in style and speed than with our Azuma trains”.
There is a loud thump and crash. It’s the next arrival and a 5 piece drumming band to escort us to the 0752 departure for Kings Cross. The band in the smart yet somehow spooky make up and uniforms have a carefully choreographed light show in honour to the “Northern Lights” name of the Aberdeen service. This works incredibly well in the dim, murky conditions of a November pre dawn morning. Fabulous and what a way to launch a new service, nobody is left half asleep as we head on to platform 5! Well done LNER, it certainly grabbed the attention.
LNER operates three services in both directions every day between Aberdeen and London Kings Cross. An additional fourth service also operates on weekdays in both directions between Aberdeen and Leeds. The inaugural northbound Azuma service arrived on the previous night.
Jo Robinson, VisitScotland Regional Director, said: “The launch of the Aberdeen LNER Azuma service is just the latest in a line of exciting developments for the city. It is important that visitors have the option to travel easily, sustainably and comfortably so the expansion of the Azuma trains into the North East is great news.
The region is going from strength to strength with the Aberdeen Art Gallery re-opening its doors earlier this month after a huge refurbishment and Scotland’s biggest travel trade event, VisitScotland Expo, will be held at the new P&J Live arena in April next year – shining a global spotlight on Aberdeen and the surrounding area.
These developments contribute to Scotland’s ongoing tourism success story, which is the heartbeat of the Scottish economy and touches every community, generating income, jobs and social change.”
The journey by rail is roughly 520 miles and takes on average 7 hours and 12 minutes. However, todays journey is booked at 6 hours 57 minutes and I believe there will be further reductions in time once the new Hitachi class 800 is let loose with new timetables and pathing allowances.
We all love an HST. Just an honest observation on the fantastic workhorse that led the British railways back into the world of what the travelling public expected and deserved. Introduced between 1976 and 1981 these glorified diesel multiple units, as some referred to them, were not given the warmest of welcomes. How times with opinions change!
The move away from traditional locomotive and coaches, shunting and running around at stations was viewed with a stark look over the top of the glasses in a way the headmistress would reinstate the correct atmosphere to a class of disruptive children. From the moment the class 43 took its first trip, time and effort was saved by a driver simply walking from one end of a train to the other. Yes it caused a shortage of work for some staff and the early retirement of some giants such as the Deltic but it brought in a new era of radical change in how a railway could operate.
The HST has done the UK and its designer Sir Kenneth Grange proud but it’s now time to allow these thoroughbreds their shorter formation duties or retirement. I don’t expect we will be viewing the 80x stock with such a romantic, rose tinted glasses view when they finish but in truth, at present we just don’t know.
The benefit of the new trains is obvious if you have been on one. The acceleration is much better and the braking more efficient. Those two aspects alone, researched and worked on over a length of time, should allow for a decrease in journey times. Added into the equation more seats, more legroom, better wifi, better access for those with limited mobility, electric doors and much greener for the environment and you can see just why these sets have appeal for the Train Operating Companies.
While I will happily accept that the new trains feel somewhat sparse and clinical, the seats may not be as comfortable as a mk3 and they have little character, I would ask readers to accept that the railway has to evolve and the operators have to provide a reliable service. They are not running the Orient Express here. It has been a hard fought battle to secure funding and investment to see a once in a generation change for the next 20 – 30 years. Passenger feedback across both GWR and LNER has been positive with the results far superior to the current rolling stock in use.
It’s very much an ongoing project to deliver the Hitachi class 80x’s into service. GWR have had theirs for some time, LNER for around 6 months with 8 of the 9 car 800s and 2 of the 9 car 801 now received and in service along with a number of 5 car sets. The fleet should be completed by June 2020 when all 65 sets of 5 or 9 have been put into service. TPE and Hull trains are now rolling out their sets but it’s LNER who have made the first announcement of modifications.
They have announced the introduction of additional luggage space in each carriage. The modification will install additional floor mounted luggage racks for large items where some non-reservable seating is currently located. The modifications are due to commence in the new year and are essential for the long distance journeys.
Scotland is synonymous with castles, mountains, lochs and history so settle down and let me take you through some of the most scenic countryside and history of the ECML as we travel from Aberdeen, into the North east of England and down to London.
The original line was built during the 1840s by 3 companies. The North British railway, The North Eastern Railway and The Great Northern Railway. The three companies were amalgamated in 1923 to form the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) following the Railways act of 1921.
The route runs from London to Edinburgh via Peterborough, Doncaster, York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle. LNER services run further on to Aberdeen, Inverness and Glasgow.
The main competitor of the LNER was the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) and the two companies went head to head in a battle for passengers. This created such competition that names were given to trains and speed and luxury were the order of the day. For LNER it generated the birth of the Nigel Gresley designed pacifics. The A3 Flying Scotsman and A4 Mallard being arguably the most famous locomotives in the World. The Mallard holding the World record for a steam locomotive when recording 126 mph between Grantham and Peterborough.
The line was electrified for most of its length between 1976 and 1991 which allowed for the introduction of the intercity 225 sets onto the ECML.
The route that we take has a number of tunnels but it is the bridges which are the standout structures. The Tay bridge, The Forth Bridge and Royal Border Bridge being the most well known.
Crossing the Firth of Tay between Dundee and Wormit is the 3,290 metre Tay Bridge.
The first bridge was opened in 1878 and replaced the train ferry that had operated until that time. Designed by Thomas Bouch, the bridge was a single track, lattice grid construction made of cast and wrought iron.
Sadly there were a number of design flaws within the original bridge which ultimately led to its collapse during a storm in December 1879. The disaster cost the lives of 75 people on board a train that was passing at the time.
In March 1882 work began on the replacement bridge and it was completed and opened to passenger traffic in June 1887. The bridge is 19 metres upstream from the original and reused many of the original materials from the first bridge. However, this time the materials were severely tested before being installed.
During 2003 the bridge was given a £20.85 million refurbishment and strengthening overhaul which won the BCI Civil engineering award.
At a total length of 2,467 metres the John Fowler and Benjamin Baker designed cantilever bridge is one of the most used images to promote Scotland.
Opened in March 1890 the bridge spans the Forth between the villages of North Queensferry and South Queensferry, the bridge has the second longest cantilever span (521m) in the World. The bridge is double tracked and clears the water by almost 46 metres. It contains over 6.5 million rivets!
The bridge was the first major structure in Britain to be constructed in steel and used 42,000 tonnes of the material. During the peak of construction some 4,600 workers were employed in its creation. Once completed and opened. the bridge was pivotal for the LNER and ultimately led to the “Race to the North” with journey times being slashed from 13 to 8.5 hours.
Royal Border Bridge
Although this feature mostly focuses on the Scottish section, I can not go without mentioning 659 metre Royal Border Bridge. Just over the border with England in Northumbria, the bridge spans the River Tweed between the previously Scottish Berwick-upon-Tweed and Tweedmouth.
It is a stone and brick structure containing 28 arches that each span 18 metres carrying the track bed 37 metres above the river.
Built by the Newcastle and Berwick Railway the bridge was not completed until after the railway was operational. Instead wooden viaducts were in use for traffic and to bring materials to the site. The bridge was eventually opened by Queen Victoria in in August 1850.
If you are now tempted to venture northwards what can you expect? The train we are on is clearly heading south but here are a few points of interest at the places we are calling at and additionally some notable places, as advised my friend Jim, an ex signaller on the section, who gives his look out the window suggestions.
Jim’s must sees.
Some places I think are interesting and stunningly scenic on the East Coast Main Line. All views from the left hand side of the train heading Southbound.
1. Passing Craiginches after leaving Aberdeen with Torry Lighthouse on the left as the train goes round a right hand curve.
2. Small section between Craiginches and Portlethen.
3. Between Newtonhill and Stonehaven 11 to 13 minutes after leaving Aberdeen.
4. Between Arbroath and Carnoustie.
5. West Ferry immediately after passing through Broughty Ferry towards Dundee, with the River Tay and both Road and Rail Bridges in the distance.
6. Travelling over the Tay Bridge.
7. Between Kirkcaldy, Kinghorn, Burntisland, and Dalgetty Bay, with views of the River Forth and bridges.
8. The Forth Bridges.
9. Various segments of scenery between Edinburgh, Dunbar, and Berwick Upon Tweed, especially 5 miles north of Berwick at the Scottish Border (Marshall Meadows) the view is absolutely stunning.
10. Leaving Newcastle going across King Edward Bridge above the River Tyne.
Now the calling points.
The starting point for todays journey is Scotland’s third largest city. Aberdeen is well known for its links with the oil industry and its heliport is one of the busiest commercial heliports in the World. The seaport is also the largest in the north east of Scotland as Aberdeen constantly supplies the north Sea rigs with both supplies and workforce.
Known as the Granite City because of the locally quarried stone being the main construction material for building, the city can appear very grey. However, during sunnier conditions this changes to a sparkling silver as the mica in the granite sparkles and gives the reason for its secondary nickname of the Silver City.
The location was originally settled some 8,000 years ago and prior to the discovery of North Sea oil and gas the main industries were fishing, textiles, shipbuilding and papermaking. The fishing fleet has now reduced but still has a prominent existence. It can also boast of having the first steam powered trawler!
As well as the outstanding architecture, the City has a number of prominent statues including William Wallace, Robert Burns and Robert the Bruce.
Stonehaven lies around 15 miles south of Aberdeen and is our first stop on this journey. It was originally an Iron age fishing village which expanded inland from the sea.
The town is situated at the southern end of the Causey Mounth trackway which connected the Bridge of Dee to Cowie Castle and was used by the Earl of Marischal and the Marquess of Montrose to lead an army of 9,000 men in the first battle of the English Civil war.
The traditional fishing industry and fleet diminished by the late 1930s and its main area of commerce is now marine services and tourism. The local Dunnottar Castle brings in a large number of visitors every year. The town also boasts an Olympic size open air swimming pool which is filled with a mixture of tap and filtered sea water. It is the northernmost lido in the UK.
Montrose is a former Royal burgh which lies around 38 miles north of Dundee. The skyline is dominated by the 67m high steeple of Old and St Andrews Church. The town has an active port but the major employer is GlaxoSmithKline.
The town was plundered by the Danes on numerous occasions but in 980 it was razed to the ground during a raid. During the War of Independence, Edward I visited the town with 30,000 men and stayed at Munros Castle.
Since 2008 the town has hosted the Montrose Music Festival at the end of May. It has become Scotlands largest free music event with over 200 gigs being played over 3 days.
We are now 45 Miles south west of Aberdeen and have reached Arbroath, the home of the famous Smokie! The Arbroath Smokie is protected under the Geographical Indication and must be produced within 4 km of the town to bear the name. Made from Haddock, salted and smoked overnight, it’s an obligatory food for anyone visiting the town.
Some fun facts for sports fans is that the town’s football team holds the record for the largest winning margin in a senior football match, 36 – 0 during a Scottish Cup match against Bon Accord in 1885. The home ground, Gayfield Park is just 5 1/2 yards from the high tide line making it the closest stadium in Europe to the sea.
Next on our journey is Scotland’s fourth largest city. Dundee developed in the 12th century and established itself as an important trading port. During the 19th century the city expanded further due to the industrial revolution and in particular the Jute industry.
Dundee is branded as “One City, Many Discoveries” and this is celebrated by having the RRS Discovery, Scotts Antartic exploration vessel berthed at Discovery Point. The City is also recognised by UNESCO for its association with design and medical research.
The old town and castle were occupied by the English during the First War of Independence but recaptured by Robert the Bruce in 1312. Dundee has often been at the centre of military conflicts and has been besieged on many occasions.
The most famous railway link to the city is of course the Tay Bridge which was originally opened in 1878. Sadly this collapsed during a storm 18 months later while a passenger service was on it and 75 people sadly lost their lives.
First recorded during the reign of William the Lion ( 1165 – 1214) Leuchars is best know for the 12th Century St Athelnase Church. It is described as one of the finest surviving examples of an unaisled Romanesque parish churches in Scotland.
The town was also home to an RAF base with the Typhoon jet until the base was changed to Army use in 2015.
Leuchars is also the nearest station to the town of St Andrews, the home of the famous Scottish University attended by Prince William. St Andrews is also internationally known amongst the sporting fraternity for being the home of golf. It hosts the oldest professional tournament, The Open, with it’s famous claret jug trophy, each July over the links course.
We are now just 12 miles from Edinburgh and the east coast town of Kirkcaldy. The town is the 12th most populous settlement in Scotland and dates back to the Bronze Age. In more recent centuries it developed into an industrial centre for Salt, Coal mining, Nail making and Linen. The linen industry then developed into a floor cloth and subsequent Linoleum producer until the mid 1960s.
The town has the nickname of “Lang Toun” (Long Town) which relates to the towns original 16th century 0.9 mile main street.
The name Inverkeithing is derived from the Scottish Gaelic meaning “Confluence, inflow”. The town itself has some evidence to date it as far back as AD 83 when the Roman General Agricola made an excursion into Northern Scotland. It was generally well settled before the 5th century when its first church was created.
The town holds an historically strategic position and was granted burgh status due to its proximity to the narrowest crossing point of the Firth of Forth in addition to its sheltered bay.
The original burgh was unusual in construction as unlike most fortified burghs its walls and four gates were built from stone and not the usual wooden Palisades.
In 1651 there was a Battle of Inverkeithing, fought on two sites. The first was fought close to Pitreavie Castle and the second around the peninsula of North Queensferry which is now where the Forth Bridge stands.
Haymarket is an area of Edinburgh located to the west of the city and is the focal point for many Transport systems. There is a main crossroads with a clock tower at its centre. The tower itself is actually a war memorial and lists football players from a number of teams who gave their lives during the First World War while serving in McCrae’s Battalion, better known as “The Footballers Battalion”.
The station itself is the second in Edinburgh and offers connections to Glasgow, Fife, Carlisle, Inverness and Aberdeen. It has recently been redeveloped and while some older buildings remain in use, it looks very different to its original 1842 Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway terminus building.
The City of Edinburgh has been recognised as the capital of Scotland since the 15th century. Located on the south shore of the Firth of Forth ( try saying that after a wee dram or two!) it is the second largest city in Scotland.
It boasts some truly magnificent buildings and events so it is extremely difficult to pick a couple for suggestions. However, If you plan a trip then lets go for the Fringe Festival. This is the World’s largest arts festival which in 2018 lasted for 25 days, with 55,000 performances in 317 venues. Now that truly has to provide something for everyone?
For a building? it has to be Edinburgh Castle which dominates the skyline. It’s also worth mentioning that much of Edinburgh is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The earliest known habitation in the area was a mesolithic camp site dated around 8500 BC. The Castle Rock has revealed traces of both Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements.
Nicknames include Auld Reekie which means Old Smokey and was given for the view from the countryside of the smoke covered Old Town area of the city.
I have decided to just give you the Scottish calling points of the service to tempt you in to a visit but, additionally the new route will call at Berwick upon Tweed, Newcastle, Darlington and York before an almost 2 hour non-stop delivery into London’s Kings Cross terminus.
The journey on a clear day, not the foggy day that we unfortunately experienced, is an absolute must for any railway fan. The railway architecture alone is worth the effort but, couple to that some of the most spectacular views from a train window to frame a long lasting memory, then you have a result that will leave you wanting more of this historic route.