Great Northern Route

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This article is about the railway route. For the current train operator, see Thameslink and Great Northern.
Not to be confused with Great Northern Railway.
Great Northern
365533 B Peterborough.JPG
Type Commuter rail, Suburban rail
System National Rail
Status Operational
Locale East of England
Greater London
Termini London King's Cross and Moorgate
Peterborough, Cambridge and King's Lynn
Owner Network Rail
Operator(s) Great Northern
Depot(s) Hornsey Electric Multiple Unit Depot
Rolling stock Class 313
Class 317
Class 321
Class 365 "Networker Express"
No. of tracks 2-4
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge
Electrification 25 kV 50hz AC Overhead lines,
750 V DC third rail Northern City Line
Operating speed 100 mph (160 km/h) maximum
Great Northern Route
King's Lynn
Downham Market
National Rail Peterborough
Ely National Rail
Cambridge National Rail
St Neots
Ashwell & Morden
Letchworth Gdn City
National Rail Stevenage
Welwyn North
Hertford North
Welwyn Gdn City
Welham Green
Crews Hill
Brookmans Park
Gordon Hill
Potters Bar
Enfield Chase
Hadley Wood
Grange Park
New Barnet
Winchmore Hill
Oakleigh Park
Palmers Green
New Southgate
Bowes Park
Alexandra Palace
London Underground Finsbury Park
National Rail London Underground King's Cross
Drayton Park
& Islington
London Underground London Overground
Essex Road
Old Street London Underground
Moorgate London Underground

The Great Northern Route (previously known as the Great Northern Electrics) is the name of the suburban rail services run on the southern end of Britain's East Coast Main Line and associated branches. Services operate to or from London King's Cross and Moorgate in London. Destinations include Hertford North, Welwyn Garden City, Stevenage, Peterborough, Cambridge and King's Lynn. Services run through parts of Greater London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.

The route forms a major commuter route into London from Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and eastern Bedfordshire; ridership has grown rapidly over recent years. In 2009 rolling stock was transferred from other lines to allow additional services and longer trains to be run. By 2018 the line will be connected with the Thameslink route via a junction just south of the High Speed 1 bridge, north of Kings Cross, to allow through services to south of London.


The network consists of all local and semi-fast services on these lines:

Additionally, the main service on the Fen Line is provided as part of the route. All services are electric.

At privatisation the services became part of West Anglia Great Northern, becoming their sole route in 2004 when the West Anglia services were transferred to 'one'. In April 2006 the services became the responsibility of First Capital Connect. When the Thameslink Programme is completed in 2018, many of these services will become part of the Thameslink network, running through central London to destinations south of the River Thames. On 23 May 2014, the Department for Transport announced its intention to award the new Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise to Govia Thameslink Railway, replacing the existing Thameslink and Great Northern franchise (currently operated as First Capital Connect) with effect from 14 September 2014.[1]


Several services are provided on the route and these are, from fastest to slowest:[2]

Cambridge cruiser (or Cambridge express)[edit]

A half hourly service running non-stop between London King's Cross and Cambridge with trains extended once an hour to King's Lynn.

This service runs Monday to Saturday and is reduced to hourly on Sunday.

Cambridge semi-fast[edit]

An hourly service between London King's Cross and Cambridge calling at Finsbury Park, Stevenage, Hitchin, Letchworth, Baldock and Royston.

In the direction of the morning and evening peaks, this runs as a modified half hourly service between London King's Cross and Royston only.

Peterborough semi-fast[edit]

An hourly service between London King's Cross and Peterborough calling at Finsbury Park, Stevenage and then all stations.

In the direction of the morning and evening peaks, this service runs half hourly.

In the direction of the morning and evening peaks, there is an additional half hourly services to Peterborough calling at Hitchin, St Neots, Huntingdon and Peterborough only.

Cambridge stopping[edit]

An hourly service between London King's Cross and Cambridge calling at Finsbury Park, Potters Bar, Hatfield, Welwyn Garden City and then all stations.

In the direction of the morning and evening peaks, this service runs half hourly, but occasionally omits stops at Potters Bar, Baldock and Ashwell and Morden.

Peterborough stopping[edit]

An hourly service between London King's Cross and Peterborough calling at Finsbury Park, Potters Bar, Hatfield, Welwyn Garden City and then all stations.

In the direction of the morning and evening peaks, this service does not run, but is replaced by the Peterborough Fast service.

Inner suburban[edit]

A service every 20 minutes between Moorgate and Welwyn Garden City and between Moorgate and Hertford North calling at all stations. One Hertford service per hour runs to/from Letchworth. Some additional services start and terminate at Gordon Hill during peak hours. Additional peak and night services run to/from Potters Bar and Hatfield.[citation needed]

Additional trains, some omitting some stops, run during the peak.

The service is reduced to every 30 minutes and runs from London King's Cross instead of Moorgate in the night and on Saturday and Sunday.


St Albans — a bridge (opened in 1868) carrying the Midland Railway over Hatfield and St Albans Railway (closed in 1964), a branch of the Great Northern Line. National Cycle Network road No 61.

The term Great Northern is related to the Great Northern Railway, the original builders of the line.

The July 1922 Bradshaw's Railway Guide[3] contains a typical rail service on the Cambridge Line as follows:

Six stopping and two (three on Saturday) Semi-fast services to Cambridge (Monday to Saturday) - One Sunday stopping service to Cambridge with two back. The fastest service taking about 1hr30 to travel from London King's Cross to Cambridge.

An additional two (three on Wednesday) services reached Royston (Monday to Saturday) - one additional service reaching Royston on Sunday.

An additional seven services reached Baldock (Monday to Saturday)

An additional three services reached Letchworth (Monday to Saturday), the last service running just after midnight Thursday morning.

Since the 1960s, Great Northern has been used to describe the suburban part of the East Coast Main Line, south of Peterborough and south of Royston. The Great Northern Railway proposed electrification of part of the line in 1903, but it was not until 1971 that a scheme to electrify the line from London King's Cross and Moorgate was authorised.[4]

The Inner Suburban Lines to Welwyn Garden City and Hertford North were electrified in 1976[4] with Class 313 EMUs. In 1978[4] the electrification was complete to Royston with Class 312 EMUs providing the service. The route was then promoted as the Great Northern Electrics.[4] The route between Hertford and Langley Junction, south of Stevenage, was also electrified but not regularly used by electric trains until 1979 when one Moorgate-Hertford service per hour was extended to Letchworth; prior to this diesel multiple units provided an infrequent service over this route, running between Hertford and Huntingdon/Peterborough. From 1979 until 1987 DMUs provided the service between Hitchin and Huntingdon/Peterborough. DMUs also provided a shuttle service between Royston and Cambridge between 1978 and 1988, connecting with the electric trains and replacing the former through Cambridge buffet expresses between Kings Cross and the university city.

In 1982 a new station at Watton-at-Stone was opened between Hertford and Stevenage.

With the electrification of the East Coast Main Line electric services could be extended to Peterborough and the Outer Suburban Service was changed from Class 312 to Class 317, some of which were cascaded from the newly created Thameslink route, with the remainder newly built.

In 1984[5]

the decision to electrify the line between Royston and Shepreth Branch Junction with the West Anglia Main Line north of Shelford allowed the reinstatement of through services to Cambridge from London King's Cross via the East Coast Main Line, resulting in faster journey times than from Liverpool Street via the West Anglia Main Line. This electrification was completed in 1988.

Later the track between these points was also upgraded with welded joint track instead of the jointed track that had existed, and line speeds were raised to 90 mph.

Rapid growth on the route, especially on the Cambridge Line resulted in consultation on a new service pattern,[6] which was then implemented at the timetable change in Spring 2009. During the peak hours, the route is now saturated and can support no further service improvements.

Hitchin Flyover[edit]

Main article: Hitchin Flyover

Together with the Digswell Viaduct (Welwyn Viaduct) some ten miles to the south, the flat junction just north of Hitchin was a major bottleneck,[7] as northbound trains diverging from the East Coast Main Line towards Letchworth and thence to Cambridge had to cross one northbound (fast) line and two southbound (fast and slow) lines to access the Cambridge Line. Proposals as part of the original electrification work envisaged a new underpass here and land was set aside for its construction. However, budgetary constraints forced this part of the programme to be abandoned. The land stood empty for many years, but has since been used to provide new housing.

A new plan[8] and subsequent application for an order[9] to build a flyover was approved, and construction was completed in June 2013. The scheme has created a new single-track line that diverges from the northbound slow line at a new junction just beyond Hitchin station, using a short embankment section of the former Bedford to Hitchin Line, a section of which was cleared of vegetation and made progressively higher, to form a short ramp. The track is carried over the East Coast Main Line on a newly constructed viaduct and onto a new embankment to join the present Cambridge Line at the newly created Hitchin East Junction, closer to Letchworth. Although this takes trains over a longer distance, it removes the need for them to dwell at Hitchin – sometimes for several minutes – awaiting a safe path across the tracks of the main London-Peterborough route, thus decreasing the overall journey time to Cambridge in many instances. The scheme improves the punctuality and reliability of both the London-Cambridge and London-Peterborough routes, because Peterborough-bound stopping trains are no longer delayed if running closely behind a Cambridge service being held at Hitchin waiting to cross the flat junction.

Govia Thameslink Railway[edit]

In September 2014, services run by First Capital Connect were taken over by a new company called Govia Thameslink Railway. The Great Northern services have their own sub-brand.[10]

Future developments[edit]

Thameslink programme[edit]

Main article: Thameslink Programme

As part of the Thameslink Programme,[11] the Great Northern Route will be connected to the existing Thameslink route via a new junction at Belle Isle[12] (south of the High Speed 1 flyover, just north of London King's Cross). Two single-bore tunnels (known as the Canal Tunnels) have already been driven from here to the low-level FCC platforms at St Pancras during the 'St Pancras Box' phase of the redevelopment works that created St Pancras International station. Trains diverging from the Great Northern Route at Belle Isle will join the 'core' St Pancras - Farringdon - City Thameslink - Blackfriars section of the existing Thameslink route and then serve stations across Surrey, East Sussex, Kent, and West Sussex.

East-West (Varsity) line[edit]

Main article: East West Rail Link

The Varsity Line connected Cambridge with Oxford via Sandy and Bedford ("Varsity" being slang for "University", those termini being major university towns). It was closed in 1967 but there are now proposals[13] to restore this route, but via the Cambridge Line and the East Coast Main Line, diverting westwards at Stevenage.

Rolling stock[edit]

While the Great Northern has a distinct set of Rolling Stock, it is detailed together with the Thameslink Rolling Stock here.


The Queen and Prince Philip are reported to have travelled by scheduled train to reach their country residence at Sandringham, near King's Lynn.[14]


  1. ^ Department for Transport. "New rail franchising deal set to transform passenger services across London and south east". Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  2. ^ First Capital Connect. "A - Train Times 18 May to 13 December 2014 - Great Northern Route". Retrieved 15 August 2014. 
  3. ^ Bradshaw's July 1922 Railway Guide. Manchester: Henry Blacklock & Company. 1922. 
  4. ^ a b c d British Railways Board. "Your New Electric Railway: The Great Northern Suburban Electrification". Retrieved 15 April 2010. 
  5. ^ "Major rail closures ruled out" (Home News). The Times (London). Thursday, 26 April 1984. (61815), p. 4.
  6. ^ "Cambridge Capacity Study". First Capital Connect. Retrieved 14 March 2010. 
  7. ^ "APPENDIX 2: Issues in defining and measuring railway capacity". Office of Rail Regulation. 13 February 2006. p. 2. Retrieved 28 February 2014. 
  8. ^ Network Rail. "Hitchin Flyover". Retrieved 28 February 2014. 
  9. ^ Network Rail. "The Network Rail Hitchin (Cambridge Junction) Order". Retrieved 15 April 2010. [dead link]
  10. ^ "GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) Presentation". Govia. Retrieved 10 July 2014. 
  11. ^ First Capital Connect. "2016 (Thameslink & Great Northern routes)". Retrieved 15 April 2010. 
  12. ^ Network Rail (December 2006). London North Eastern Sectional Appendix. Module LNE. p. 12 LOR LN101 Seq002. NR30018/02. 
  13. ^ Steer Davies Gleave. "East West Rail Central Section - Operating Case". Retrieved 15 April 2010. [dead link]
  14. ^ Pidd, Helen (17 December 2009). "Queen lets the train take the strain on way to Sandringham". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 14 March 2010. 

External links[edit]