Straightening Out the West Coast Main Line

Rail Travel

Created on: November 19, 2018

Updated on: November 19, 2018

If you want to learn about why the WCML is at full capacity right now, one needs to go back to the beginning and learn about how the WCML came in to being.


The WCML was built in the 1800’s and the core section is between London Euston and Glasgow Central and its nearly 400 miles in length.

When the line was being built back then as it left London and it was going through what was then rural Middlesex. As the engineers left Wembley they started to approach Harrow and the engineers at the time asked the landowners in the local area whether they wanted the line to go through their area.

Harrow or should I say Harrow School objected to this and the line was routed through nearby Wealdstone and this area grew exponentially after the railway arrived at the expense of Harrow.

One of the major problems with the line was the objections from landowners. Remember that this was before compulsory purchases had been invented by local authorities.

This meant that the line had to bend and go around pockets of land. A prime example of this is the part that protrudes in to a cutting at Carpenders Park and the line rises up to Bushey station before swinging across Oxhey in to North East Watford as a means to avoid the steep escarpment of the Bushey, Barnet & Stanmore ridge that goes across the area.

The WCML splits in to two branches at Northampton and at Rugby and one of the major reasons why it splits at Northampton was because Northampton sits on a plateau. The WCML had to not only contend with objective landowners it also had to deal with the geology of England.

The railway company had to think of ingenious ways to climb the steep escarpment where Northampton sits in. Once it arrived there they had to think about how to swing the line over to the Watford Gap area.


At Rugby, the line splits in to two and one of the then goes directly to Birmingham and the Black country whilst the other goes via the more direct route to the North West.

Both lines re-join just before Stafford and then there are various branches that go to Manchester via Stoke on Trent or Crewe. There is a branch to Liverpool via Runcorn. Further up the line there are branches to Blackpool, Blackburn and a branch to the picturesque Settle – Carlisle line.

Why do branches exist?

There is one thing about railway branches that some people may not know about. Lines that have branches have limited capacity to turn around trains. Railway companies that built the railways back in the day found a cost-effective way of serving alternative destinations without putting in the investment in additional infrastructure and this is the primary reason why we have them.

The trouble is that when the population grows this places an additional bottleneck or burden on the infrastructure because you can only push through a certain number of trains down any particular railway line.

Midland MainLine

However, in the Manchester area there were two competing companies that had their branches going to Manchester city centre. There was the WCML and the MML.

The MML branch started at Manchester Central station and passed through the south-eastern suburbs of Manchester before burrowing underneath the Pennines passing through Glossop, Bakewell & Hadfield. Bakewell is famous for its Bakewell tarts and it is surrounded by the High Peak National Park. The line converged with the Nottingham and Sheffield lines at a triangle surrounding one of the large power stations and the line then goes to London via Eastern England.

Dr Beeching

Sadly, Dr Beeching closed this branch during the 1960’s and the excuse that was made was the fact that it wasn’t making huge sums of money. One of the sad aspects of this is that the line that travels through Hadfield is currently disused and there are a number of tunnels that are currently disused.

It is very sad to see that the MML infrastructure has fallen in to disuse and it also helps to emphasis the fact that you should “Never put all your eggs in one basket “.

One of the lessons learnt from this is that if Dr Beeching had thought about the long-term implications of closing down a main line then we wouldn’t be spending billions of pounds on HS2 in order to shave off minutes on our time it takes to get to Manchester by train. And we would have electrified the Cinderella Midland Main line at a fraction of the cost.

This would mean that we would have a pot of money to spend on a myriad of projects that are sorely needed across the railways in the UK.

I really enjoyed writing this article, and if you get a minute why don’t you take a peek at my Twitter and Instagram accounts @thediversecoder.

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