Great Northern Route

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Great Northern
Great Northern Class 717 Desiro City at Bowes Park June 2019 No.2.jpg
A Class 717 standing at Bowes Park in 2019
Main region(s)London, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk
Fleet size
Stations called at54
Parent companyGovia Thameslink Railway
Reporting markGN (Great Northern)
Track gauge1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) standard gauge
Electrification25 kV 50 Hz AC OHLE
750 V DC third rail
Route map
Route map
Great Northern Route
King's Lynn
Downham Market
Cambridge North
St. Neots
Ashwell and Morden
Letchworth Garden City
Welwyn North
Hertford North
Welwyn Garden City
Welham Green
Brookmans Park
Crews Hill
Potters Bar
Gordon Hill
Enfield Chase
Hadley Wood
Grange Park
New Barnet
Winchmore Hill
Oakleigh Park
Palmers Green
New Southgate
Bowes Park
Alexandra Palace
London Underground Finsbury Park
London Underground London King's Cross
Drayton Park
London Underground London St Pancras
Highbury & Islington London Underground London Overground
Essex Road
Old Street London Underground
Moorgate London Underground

The Great Northern Route (formerly known as Great Northern Electrics) is the name given to suburban rail services run on the southern end of Britain's East Coast Main Line and its 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. In early 2018, the line was connected to the Thameslink route via a junction just south of the High Speed 1 bridge, north of King's Cross, allowing through services to south of London.

The service is currently operated by Govia Thameslink Railway, operating services under Great Northern as a brand.


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 provided by EMUs.

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. In September 2014, the Department for Transport transferred the new Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise to Govia Thameslink Railway.[1] 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.


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[2] 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.[3]

The Inner Suburban Lines to Welwyn Garden City and Hertford North were electrified in 1976 with Class 313 EMUs. In 1978 the electrification was complete to Royston with Class 312 EMUs providing the service. The route was then promoted as the Great Northern Electrics.[3] 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 Watton-at-Stone station was reopened between Hertford and Stevenage. A new station also opened at Welham Green in 1986.

With the electrification by British Rail 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[4] 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 the maximum line speed was raised to 90 mph.

Rapid growth on the route, especially on the Cambridge Line resulted in consultation on a new service pattern,[5] 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]

Together with the Digswell Viaduct (Welwyn Viaduct) some ten miles to the south, the flat junction just north of Hitchin was a major bottleneck,[6] 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[7] and subsequent application for an order[8] 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 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.


The Great Northern off-peak service pattern, with frequencies in trains per hour (tph), consists of the following:

Route tph Calling at Stock
London King's Cross to Ely 1 Cambridge, Cambridge North[9] 365 or 387
London King's Cross to King's Lynn 1 Cambridge, Cambridge North, Waterbeach, Ely, Littleport, Downham Market, Watlington[9]
Route tph Calling at Stock
London Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City 4 Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington, Drayton Park, Finsbury Park, Harringay (2tph), Hornsey (2tph), Alexandra Palace, New Southgate, Oakleigh Park, New Barnet, Hadley Wood, Potters Bar, Brookmans Park (2tph), Welham Green (2tph), Hatfield[10]
Harringay, Hornsey, Brookmans Park and Welham Green are served by the same trains.
London Moorgate to Hertford North 2 Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington, Drayton Park, Finsbury Park, Harringay, Hornsey, Alexandra Palace, Bowes Park, Palmers Green, Winchmore Hill, Grange Park, Enfield Chase, Gordon Hill, Crews Hill, Cuffley, Bayford[10]
London Moorgate to Stevenage 2 Old Street, Essex Road, Highbury & Islington, Drayton Park, Finsbury Park, Harringay, Hornsey, Alexandra Palace, Bowes Park, Palmers Green, Winchmore Hill, Grange Park, Enfield Chase, Gordon Hill, Cuffley, Hertford North, Watton-at-Stone[10]

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 Thameslink and Great Northern service brands were maintained and separated from each other.[11]

Future developments[edit]

Thameslink programme[edit]

As part of the Thameslink Programme,[12] the Great Northern Route has been connected to the existing Thameslink route via a new junction at Belle Isle[13] (south of the High Speed 1 flyover, just north of London King's Cross). Two single-bore tunnels (known as the Canal Tunnels) were driven from here to the low-level 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.

On 6 November 2017 the first Thameslink Programme units entered service on the Great Northern route.[14] 700128 worked the 0656 Peterborough-London King’s Cross and 1812 return, while 700125 worked the 0733 Peterborough-London King’s Cross and 1742 return. Eventually 75% of the GN fleet will be Class 700 units.[14]

East-West (Varsity) line[edit]

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 1968 but there are now plans to restore this route, but via the Cambridge Line and the East Coast Main Line, diverting westwards at Stevenage.

Current fleet[edit]

Class Image Type Top speed Cars Number Routes operated Built
mph km/h
365 Networker Express Class 365 Networker Express in Great Northern livery by Hugh Llewelyn.jpg EMU 100 161 4 21 Semi-fast services between London King's Cross and Peterborough / Ely 1994–5
Great Northern Class 365.png
387/1 Electrostar Cambridge - GTSR Great Northern 387123 empty to depot.JPG 110 177 4 29 Express services between London King's Cross and Peterborough / Ely / King's Lynn 2014–5
Great Northern Class 387 Diagram.png
717 Desiro City[15] 717009 OKL.jpg 85 137 6 25 Northern City Line: Services between London Moorgate and Welwyn Garden City / Hertford North / Watton-at-Stone 2018–9
Great Northern Class 717.png

Past fleet[edit]

Class Image Type Top speed Cars Number Routes operated Built Withdrawn Notes
mph km/h
313 313057 AAP.jpg EMU 75 120 3 44 Northern City Line: Services between London Moorgate and Welwyn Garden City / Hertford North / Watton-at-Stone 1976–7 2019 Scrapped and replaced with Class 717
313 First Capital Connect and Great Northern.png


  1. ^ Department for Transport. "New rail franchising deal set to transform passenger services across London and south east". Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  2. ^ Bradshaw's July 1922 Railway Guide. Manchester: Henry Blacklock & Company. 1922.
  3. ^ a b British Railways Board. "Your New Electric Railway: The Great Northern Suburban Electrification" (PDF). Retrieved 15 April 2010.
  4. ^ "Major rail closures ruled out". Home News. The Times (61815). London. 26 April 1984. p. 4.
  5. ^ "Cambridge Capacity Study". First Capital Connect. Archived from the original on 2 April 2010. Retrieved 14 March 2010.
  6. ^ "APPENDIX 2: Issues in defining and measuring railway capacity" (PDF). Office of Rail Regulation. 13 February 2006. p. 2. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  7. ^ Network Rail. "Hitchin Flyover". Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  8. ^ Network Rail. "The Network Rail Hitchin (Cambridge Junction) Order" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 15 April 2010.
  9. ^ a b Table 25 National Rail timetable, May 2020
  10. ^ a b c Table 24 National Rail timetable, May 2020
  11. ^ "GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) Presentation" (PDF). Govia. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  12. ^ First Capital Connect. "2016 (Thameslink & Great Northern routes)". Archived from the original on 2 April 2010. Retrieved 15 April 2010.
  13. ^ Network Rail (December 2006). London North Eastern Sectional Appendix. Module LNE. p. 12 LOR LN101 Seq002. NR30018/02.
  14. ^ a b "Class 700s make Great Northern debut". Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  15. ^ "New Govia Thameslink Railway trains to be Class 717s". RAIL magazine. RAIL magazine. Retrieved 9 June 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Perren, Brian (30 November – 13 December 1989). "Great Northern reliability". RAIL. No. 110. EMAP National Publications. pp. 24–27. ISSN 0953-4563. OCLC 49953699.

External links[edit]