The route forms a key artery on the eastern side of Great Britain and is broadly paralleled by the A1 trunk road. It links London, the South East and East Anglia with Yorkshire, the North East Regions and Scotland. It also carries key commuter flows for the north side of London. It is therefore important to the economic health of a number of areas of the country. It also handles cross-country, commuter and local passenger services, and carries heavy tonnages of freight traffic. The route has ELRs ECM1 - ECM9.
The line was built by three railway companies, each serving their own area but with the intention of linking up to form the through route that became the East Coast Main Line. From north to south they were the North British Railway, from Edinburgh to Berwick-on-Tweed, completed in 1846, the North Eastern Railway from Berwick-on-Tweed to Shaftholme the Great Northern Railway from Shaftholme to Kings Cross, completed in 1850.
When first completed, the GNR made an end-on connection at Askern famously described by the GNR’s chairman as “a ploughed field four miles north of Doncaster” with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, a short section of which was used to reach the NER at Knottingley. In 1871 the NER combined an existing York - Selby line with a new section south of Selby to form a direct through route to an end-on junction with the GNR, at Shaftholme, just south of Askern.
Realising that through journeys were an important part of their business, the companies established special rolling stock in 1860 on a collaborative basis; it was called the “East Coast Joint Stock”. In 1923 the three companies were grouped into the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER).
Numerous alterations to short sections of the original route have taken place, the most notable being the opening of the King Edward VII Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1906 and the Selby diversion, built to by-pass anticipated mining subsidence from the Selby coalfield and a bottleneck at Selby station. The Selby diversion was opened in 1983 and diverged from the original ECML at Temple Hirst, north of Doncaster, and joined the Leeds to York line at Colton Junction. LNER Class A3 No. 2547 Doncaster hauls the daily Flying Scotsman train in 1928.
The northernmost section from Kinnaber Junction, north of Montrose to Aberdeen was built by the Caledonian Railway, but with North British running rights to Aberdeen Station, commonly referred to as Aberdeen Joint Station. The ‘Race to the North’ from London to Aberdeen was effectively resolved by the shortening of the King’s Cross route by the construction of the two bridges, crossing the Forth and Tay estuaries.
The ECML has been the backdrop for a number of famous rail journeys and locomotives. The line was worked for many years by Pacific locomotives designed by Gresley, including the famous steam locomotives “Flying Scotsman” and “Mallard”. Mallard achieved a world record speed for a steam locomotive, at 126 miles per hour (203 km/h) and this record was never beaten. It made the run on the Grantham-to-Peterborough section, on the descent of Stoke Bank. 55008 The Green Howards passes Peterborough in July 1974. The Class 55 Deltic was the main express locomotive on the ECML between 1961 and 1981.
Steam locomotives were replaced by Diesel electrics in the early 1960s, when the purpose-built Deltic locomotive was developed by English Electric. The prototype was successful and a fleet of 22 locomotives was built, to handle all the important express traffic. The Class 55 were powered by two engines originally developed for fast torpedo boat purposes, and the configuration of the engines led to the Deltic name. Their characteristic throaty exhaust roar and chubby body outline made them unmistakable in service. The class 55 was for a time the most powerful diesel locomotive in service in Britain, at 3,300 hp (2,500 kW).
It was just after the Deltics were introduced that the first sections of the East Coast Main Line were upgraded to officially allow 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) running. The first length to be cleared for the new higher speed was a 17 miles (27 km) stretch between Peterborough and Grantham on 15 June 1965, the second was 12 miles (19 km) between Grantham and Newark.
As the demand for higher speed intensified, the Deltics were eventually superseded by the High Speed Train (HST), introduced between 1976 and 1981 and still in service in 2013 (re-engined, with the original Paxman Valenta power units replaced by MTU engines).
A prototype of the HST, the Class 41 achieved 143 mph (230 km/h) on the line in 1973. Current UK legislation requires in-cab signalling for speeds of over 125 mph which is the primary reason preventing the InterCity 225 train-sets from operating at their design speed of 140 mph (225 km/h) in normal service.
A secondary factor was that the signalling technology of the time was insufficiently advanced to allow detection of two broken rails on the line on which the train was operating.
Before the present in-cab regulations came in, British Rail experimented with 140 mph running by introducing a fifth, flashing green signalling aspect on track between New England North and Stoke Tunnel. The fifth aspect is not observable in normal service and appears when the next signal is showing a green (or another flashing green) aspect and the signal section is clear which ensures that there is sufficient braking distance to bring a train to a stand from 140 mph. Locomotives have operated on the ECML at speeds of up to 161.7 mph (260.2 km/h) in test runs.Electrification of the ECML was authorised in 1984, and work began in 1985 with the initial section between King’s Cross and Leeds going into operational trials in 1988. The full electrification was completed in late 1990, and the current InterCity 225 rolling stock was introduced.