This debate will take place between 2.30 and 4.00 pm on 17 October in Westminster Hall. The Member who secured the debate is Catherine McKinnell MP (Lab., Newcastle upon Tyne North).

MPs can find Parliamentary questions, statements and debates on the ECML via this link.

What is the ECML?

The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is a 393-mile long major railway link between London and Edinburgh via Peterborough, Doncaster, York, Darlington, Durham and Newcastle. It is electrified along the whole route. The route forms a key artery on the eastern side of Great Britain and is broadly paralleled by the A1 trunk road.

Network Rail states that a third of the UK population lives within 20 minutes of an ECML station and that together they produce 41% of the UK’s GDP. The ECML enables in excess of 80 million passenger journeys per year, covering some 8.3 billion passenger kilometres.

A map of the route can be viewed here. A map showing the major economic centres and transport infrastructure in the North of England part of the ECML corridor can be viewed here.

Infrastructure improvements

In December 2017 Network Rail (NR) published the ECML Route Study. It provides a summary of investment choices, or ‘enhancement options’, that have a strategic fit with the national network, and can be progressed for further development. The study sets out a range of options that promote economic growth:

  • fast suburban services that exploit the speed of the ECML to link people to jobs and links between business;
  • improvements at hub stations along the route to make the most of the ECML links with the wider network, and to allow better interaction between local and mainline services;
  • a package of major infrastructure investments that can unlock a step change in service provision across the North, linking the trans-Pennine route with York, the Tees Valley, Durham and Newcastle (these form part of the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme);
  • journey time savings of over 10 minutes between London and Scotland; and
  • proposals for new and improved stations that could unlock new markets and drive growth in revenue.

Transport for the North (TfN), the sub-national transport body for the North of England, has identified upgrades to the ECML between the north and Scotland as a key strategic priority for the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) programme.  It stated in its draft Strategic Transport Plan that “Strengthening rail connectivity and capacity along the East Coast Main Line and other key parallel rail lines, such as the Durham Coast Line, to provide enhanced strategic and local connectivity in the North East, Tees Valley, East Riding and North Yorkshire” [p73].

The previous NR investment round, for CP5 (2014-19), was guided by the Government’s High Level Operating Statement (HLOS), published in 2012. This included the following projects affecting the ECML:

  • Intercity Express Programme;
  • electrification of the route between Micklefield and Selby with appropriate links to the ECML; and
  • further improvement in capacity and reduction in journey times within a maximum CP5 expenditure of £240m. These plans should include suitable efficient capacity for the crossing flows of passenger and freight traffic at Peterborough.

The current ECML upgrade programme includes the ECML power supply upgrade (worth about £237 million, and due to be complete by 2019); Werrington Grade Separation; and the Huntingdon to Woodwalton improvement programme.

Infrastructure spending

In July 2018 the Government announced a £780 million spending commitment to the ECML, to fund upgrades in Control Period 6 (CP6, 2019-2024). It stated that it would “see significant improvements to platforms, tracks, signals and junctions across the route. Together with new Intercity Express Trains on the East Coast Main Line, this will mean passengers travelling on long distance journeys between northern towns and cities will benefit from more seats and faster, more frequent journeys between Doncaster, Leeds and Newcastle”.

As regards earlier spending, in response to a Lords PQ in January 2015 the then transport minister Baroness Kramer said:

The Government, as part of the Rail Investment Strategy (RIS) for CP5, provided a £240m connectivity fund for infrastructure improvements on the East Coast Main Line. The apportionment of this fund is being administered by an industry programme board and enhancements under the fund are to deliver an increase in capacity, which the new franchise plans to utilise to deliver their train service. The new franchise will be responsible for delivering the new Intercity Express Programme (IEP) fleet of class 800 / 801 trains into service. The Government’s RIS for CP5 has specified investments of £330m on the East Coast Main Line to enable the class 800 / 801 fleet to run to a range of destinations. [HL 3974, 14 January 2015]

There was a short debate on ECML investment in the Lords in December 2016. During the debate the then transport minister, Lord Ahmad, said:

The east coast connectivity fund, totalling £247 million over control periods 5 and 6, is delivering projects that specifically increase capacity and reduce journey times through better segregation of freight and passenger services […] I can reassure [the House] ​about the continued investment in this line. I shall run through some of the programmes: the Northallerton to Newcastle loops in 2019; the York north throat in 2020; and the Peterborough to Fletton Junction down slow extension in 2019. I also believe a new station is opening, or at least a new station platform, which will allow fast-running trains to run through more quickly on what is a heavily used line with many shared services. [HL Deb 8 December 2016]

It should be noted that the way infrastructure improvements are funded has changed. NR explains in the route study:

Network Rail has been reclassified as a publicly-funded body without the ability to finance enhancements through financial markets. Alongside this shift, a move to devolving decisions and spending on transport infrastructure to a more local level has seen the creation of Combined Authorities and Sub-National Transport Bodies, as well other organisations with a wider brief such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). These groups are able to define the railway needs in their area, and apply for government funding – or attract or provide third party investment – to meet those needs.

Overall, this means that improvements in rail infrastructure should not be seen as an automatic pipeline of upgrades awaiting delivery; rather, they are choices that may or may not be taken forward depending on whether they meet the needs of rail users, provide a value for money investment, and are affordable. To respond to such a funding environment, this document seeks to emphasise that rail improvements are choices, and to present a range of strategically-aligned choices to a broad range of funders and investors. [page 10]

Further information on the changes to NR funding can be found in the Transport Committee’s June 2018 report, Rail Infrastructure Investment.

Rail services

Rail services on the ECML are provided by multiple operators:

  • London North Eastern Railway (LNER), a publicly-owned train operating company;
  • Thameslink and Great Northern, East Midlands Trains, CrossCountry, Northern Rail, ScotRail, and the Caledonian Sleeper, all privately-run franchised train operators; and
  • Grand Central and Hull Trains, privately-run ‘open access’ operators.

From 2020 the Government is planning to introduce a new ‘East Coast Partnership’ on the ECML. It would be between the public and private sector, operating under one management and a single brand (LNER), to run services and plan the future route infrastructure. However, other operators would continue to run services on the line.

On 12 September 2018 the Transport Select Committee published its report into the collapse of the Virgin East Coast franchise and the Government’s plans for an East Coast Partnership going forward.

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