Hitchin Branch

ECML Railway Services around Hitchin

   Hitchin Panorama - looking north from Benslow Bridge on 12th October 2009. From left to right, i.e. west to east; the car park site, typically, was once a busy goods yard; on the down main a class '365' 'Networker' slows with the 12.45 FCC 'flagship' service, non-stop Kings Cross-Cambridge which will take to the Cambridge Branch north of the station; on the up slow a veteran 317 comes away from Hitchin with the 12.18 Peterborough-Kings Cross semi-fast, approaching the turn out from the up yard - which is clamped out of use. Hitchin up yard, beyond the train, stands on the site of Hitchin steam depot, 34D, and is utilised by scrap metal trains for Dungeness and Cardiff. In 2009 Hitchin also received stone from Peak Forest, this is easily visible as a white pyramid standing east across the one road through the yard, opposite the darker scrap metal pyramid. All trains must access the up yard from Cambridge Branch Sidings which stand next to the upside Cambridge Branch beyond the station, nowadays involving a reversal from the Cambridge Branch; this midday path has replaced long and convoluted empties journeys via Peterborough in order to achieve Hitchin up side.   Norman Hill

Passenger Traffic

First Capital Connect Great Northern trains calling at Hitchin

Hitchin station is on the East Coast Main Line in the four track section running between Woolmer Green Junction and Huntingdon North Junction and is itself the junction for the Cambridge branch. Access to the Cambridge line in the down direction is possible from both main and slow lines. In the up direction only the slow line can be directly accessed from the branch; the main line can then be gained from the up slow some ¼ mile south of Hitchin station.

ECML signalling through Hitchin is 4 aspect colour light controlled by Kings Cross power box, the boundaries of which are northwards to just beyond Sandy on the main line and to approximately 1 mile east of Royston on the Cambridge branch.

Platforms are provided on the slow lines only and can accommodate 12 coach trains. This is a legacy of the line's earliest days when Hitchin was the first 'first class' station out of Kings Cross and when Great Northern Railway, then London North Eastern Railway expresses, and, finally, British Rail 'Intercity' trains stopped here from 1850 until the 1960s when a new station was built at Stevenage to serve the developing new town.

Services calling at Hitchin today are provided by First group’s Capital Connect Great Northern outer-suburban trains from London Kings Cross. The services run between Kings Cross and Cambridge – with an off-peak hourly extension to Kings Lynn – and Kings Cross and Peterborough. The off-peak service consists of 2 fast and 2 slow trains an hour to and from Kings Cross, one fast and one slow to both Cambridge and Peterborough destinations. In the down direction trains leave Kings Cross on a regular interval of 15 minutes slow/fast. This can lead to delays to the fast services approaching Hitchin where the slow train, after making seven intermediate stops, is only 4 minutes in front of the fast; in fact all ECML trains are liable to delay at Cambridge Junction; but recent legislation has agreed to a new flyover to take the down Cambridge line over the main lines. This will remove all delays on the East Coast Main Line at this point and preliminary work has started. In the up direction the fast trains are scheduled to depart 5 minutes in front of the slows so no tail chasing occurs. An hourly each way off-peak extension of the inner suburban service between Moorgate and Hertford North (detailed below) calls at Watton-at-Stone, Stevenage and Hitchin to terminate at Letchworth Garden City, first station on the Cambridge branch. Peak hour services augment the regular timetable and include 12 coach trains as detailed below. There are no weekend trains to Moorgate.

   Resplendent in its new FCC 'Urban Lights' livery, 317340 makes the 10.15 Peterborough to Kings Cross, 11.03 off Hitchin, on 17th October 2009   Norman Hill
   365540 forms the 11.22 Kings Cross to Peterborough at Hitchin on 30th June 2008 and colourfully celebrates the 'Garden Cities of Hertfordshire'   Norman Hill

With the start of the Summer timetable on the 17th May 2009 Kings Cross outer suburban peak time trains again included 12 coach trains. Only two evening 12 coach trains called at Hitchin, both for Peterborough, leaving Kings Cross at 17.40 and 18.10, calling non-stop to Hitchin then at St. Neots and Huntingdon. These longer peak-time trains were made possible by the transfer of six BREL 321 units from ex-Silverlink/London Midland services between Euston and Northampton; those in turn now being worked by new Siemens 'Desiro' class 350 units.

   Great Northern Green at Cambridge again ? 321402 is a recent transfer to FCC from 'Silverlink' (London Midland) and still wears that railway's colours at Cambridge on 3rd August 2009, just arrived at 11.27 as the 10.06 from Kings Cross.   Norman Hill
   321404 shows off her 'First' new dress at Hitchin at 12.33 on the 11.55 semi-fast from Cambridge to Kings Cross on 11th February 2010.   Norman Hill

In the timetable which started on 12th December 2010 seven more 321 units from Silverlink/London Midland have enabled FCC to further strengthen peak time trains to and from Kings Cross. These provided 6,500 more seats on FCC peak services. In the up, morning, direction, the 06.19 from Peterborough (retimed from 06.21 departure) now consists of twelve coaches in addition to the existing four up '12 coachers' (not calling at Hitchin) introduced in May 2009; it calls as before (06.21 departure) at Huntingdon and St. Neots but then calls only at Stevenage, arriving Kings Cross at 07.26; the 06.21 predecessor called only at Biggleswade and arrived Kings Cross at 07.28. Biggleswade's 'lost' stop is compensated by a completely new eight coach departure from Huntingdon at 06.40 which calls all to Arlesey then Kings Cross only, arriving 07.40 (Biggleswade commuters lose 12 minutes or start out earlier!). The 05.12 and 08.16 ex Peterborough, both all stations to Stevenage, Finsbury Park, Kings Cross, are strengthened from four to eight coaches, as is the 08.39 starting from Hitchin and calling all to Hatfield, Finsbury Park and Kings Cross.

In the evening the 17.10 Kings Cross to Hitchin, St.Neots and all to Peterborough is strengthened from eight to twelve coaches. Closely following the existing twelve coach 17.40 from Kings Cross to Peterborough which has the same calls as the 17.10, is the 17.44 to Kings Lynn which - previously eight coaches non-stop to Cambridge whence only the first unit went forward - is now formed of twelve coaches but is now able to call at Royston (first stop) thanks to the recent extension of the down platform; the first unit of the 17.44 goes forward from Cambridge to Kings Lynn. The ingenious twelve coach 18.14 Kings Cross to Kings Lynn is the only other train to enjoy the benefit of Royston's down extension; previously eight coaches throughout and running non-stop to Cambridge, the 18.14 now divides at Royston, eight coaches going forward to Cambridge and all stations to Kings Lynn while the rear unit follows on, all stations to Cambridge. Both the 18.52, Finsbury Park, Hatfield then all stations to Cambridge and 19.52, Finsbury Park, Stevenage and all to Peterborough are strengthened from four to eight coaches; the 18.52, however, divides at Letchworth GC, only the front unit going on all stations to Cambridge; The two up morning twelve coach trains from Cambridge have been accommodated in Royston's existing long up platform since their 2009 inception.

   365536 'RUFUS BARNES' is the 11.52 Kings Cross to Cambridge leaving Hitchin on 11 February 2010. 'Rufus' is crossing from down slow to down main and will then proceed across the ECML up roads beyond in order to gain distant Cambridge Junction and the Cambridge branch. Legislation for a fly-over at this point has been approved.   Norman Hill
41 ABB Class 365 ‘Networker Express’ four car electric units of 1994/5, 365501-541, (365526 was the unit involved in the Potters Bar disaster on 10 May 2002 and was returned to service during 2010) comprise FCC's Great Northern flagship units and work the outer-suburban services to and from Kings Cross. They are assisted by 12 four car BREL 317/1s of 1981/2 (317337-348); the survivors of a Great Northern class once 72 strong, the remaining 60 '317s' now work suburban services from Liverpool Street. FCC now also operate no less than 13 1989 BREL 321 units (321401-410 & 321418-420) transferred from Silver Link/London Midland as mentioned above. All units are now in First Group’s ‘Urban Lights’ livery, dark blue with pink, white and light blue patterned markings on the lower body side, except for four 365s which are in picturesque advertising liveries depicting scenes on the lines served; 365510 depicts ‘Cathedral Cities’, scenes from Cambridge and Ely, 365519 shows Peterborough scenes as the ‘environmental capital’, 365531, ‘Nelsons County’, wears Norfolk scenes while 365540 shows off the two ‘Garden Cities of Hertfordshire’, Letchworth and Welwyn. The only restriction on unit utilisation seems to be on the ½ hourly non-stop Kings Cross to Cambridge and Kings Lynn services which are operated almost exclusively by 365s although 317s and 321s have deputised occasionally on this FCC prestige service. WAGN dubbed these trains ‘Cambridge Cruisers’ but First Group seems to have dropped this title.

   How they used to look. On 9th October 2006 313043 is smart in FCC usurped WAGN purple at New Barnet, one of the 'all stations' called at by the 12.43 Welwyn Garden City to Moorgate service.   Norman Hill
   Now in FCC's bright 'Urban Lights' livery, 313056 prepares to lead a sister away from Welwyn Garden City on 21 February 2007, forming the 16.58 all stations to Moorgate.   Norman Hill

FCC GN inner suburban services between Moorgate or Kings Cross and Hertford and Welwyn Garden City, together with the hourly extension to Stevenage, Hitchin and Letchworth Garden City mentioned above are worked by 41 1976/7 built BREL 313 3-car units, (313018/024-033/035-064) pioneer EMUs on the ECML GN lines. With the timetable starting in December 2010 these inner suburban peak services were also enhanced by the transfer of three 313/1s, replaced on the North London and Watford (London Overground) services by new 378 'Capitalstar' units. While 313122/123/134 have had their shoe collector gear modified to 313/0 specification, they have not been renumbered. This has enabled the 07.06 (formerly 07.09) all stations Gordon Hill to Moorgate, and the 10.50 Letchworth G.C. all stations to Moorgate, to be increased from three to six coaches (although the 10.32 Hertford to Moorgate has been reduced from six to three coaches !). In the evening the 16.53 and 17.08 Moorgate to Welwyn G.C. have been similarly strengthened to two 313 units each.

313121 has also been retained at Hornsey for European Traffic Management System (ERTMS) signalling trials over the 'New Line', the section of the Hertford Loop north of Hertford which is to be single lined for the hourly Stevenage and Letchworth service.

The extra FCC unit allocation calls for extra accommodation and it is intended to extend FCC's Hornsey maintenance depot which also accepts FCC 'Thameslink' 319 units and, more recently, (early 2011) 'Thameslink' 377/5s, for wheel-turning.

ECML trains passing through Hitchin.

In addition to FCC Great Northern's suburban services, three TOCs currently operate express passenger trains over the southern section of the ECML. Following Privatisation, in 1996, British Rail's East Coast 'Intercity' services between London Kings Cross, the North East, and Scotland were taken over by the Bermuda based 'Seacontainers' transport and container leasing company, and operated as the 'Great North Eastern Railway'. Following 'Seacontainer' financial difficulties during 2006/7, on December 9th 2007 the National Express Group took over the East Coast Main Line franchise from Great North Eastern Railway as ‘National Express East Coast’. This involved immediate re-branding, then a more gradual change of train livery from GNER’s dark blue with red stripes and ‘Route of the Flying Scotsman’ badge, to the lighter National Express white and grey uniform with ‘East Coast’ logo. By mid-2009 all HSTs and their accompanying Mark 3 coaches were wearing this new National Express livery.


The Mark 4 'Intercity 225' coaching stock, built for the East Coast electrification by Metro-Cammell in 1988-91, refurbished by Bombardier as 'Mallard' stock during 2003-5, and marshalled in fixed 9-car formation plus DVT, however, retained their GNE dark blue while now wearing a white National Express stripe; the 'Route of the Flying Scotsman' badges were removed from all coaching stock.


The 31 unique, 'flagship', BREL/GEC, class '91' 'Electra', electric locomotives (91001-031) were built at Crewe between 1988-91 to power the new Mark 4 stock. Initially in British Rail 'Intercity' livery, 'Great North Eastern' earned them the nickname of 'stealth bombers' when they put them into the basic dark blue livery which is only now being replaced by 'East Coast' silver and purple. During 2001/2 the class was refurbished by 'Bombardier' at Doncaster and renumbered 91101-122/124-132 when 91023's new number was accidentally transposed and allowed to remain as 91132 ! Class '91' locomotive 91111 was the only Mark 4 vehicle to be painted into 'National Express' white and grey livery.

In July 2009 it was confirmed that 'National Express' could not meet its financial commitment and that the East Coast Main Line franchise would be taken over by the Government. At 23.59 on Friday 13th November 2009, therefore, the flagship East Coast Main Line returned to public ownership, actually trading under the name of 'East Coast Main Line Company Ltd.' but operated by a new, Government formed holding company, 'Directly Operated Railways'. The initial intention was that DOR would run the line for two years when it would again be offered for franchise. The 'Directly Operated Railways Company' is designed to take any future ailing franchises under its wing.

   91107 named 'Newark on Trent' by Great North Eastern Railway, stands off, LE, in Kings Cross station's 'arrival' (east side) siding on 22nd November 2007. A sister GNER '91' awaits departure from platform 3   Norman Hill
   91126 in National Express white on blue leaves Doncaster LE and blunt end first for Kings Cross after attention at WABTEC, 18th July 2009.   Norman Hill

In 2011, therefore, the nationalised 'East Coast Main Line Company' operates the majority of scheduled main line services which pass through Hitchin serving Leeds and Bradford, York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Edinburgh and Glasgow, with two daily services to Aberdeen and one to Inverness; these last three long-distance services are still provided by faithful HSTs, refurbished and fitted with new MTU engines, but now over 30 years old. Under GNER, ECML services were enhanced - notably half-hourly services to Leeds - and the demand for new stock was met by hiring in more HSTs, those displaced from Midland Main Line and Virgin Cross Country, which companies in turn received new 'Bombardier' built 'Meridian' and 'Voyager' DMUs.

The formation of the 'East Coast Main Line Company' again saw the introduction of a new livery for the ECML's flagship operator. 'East Coast's' all-over silver base colour is releaved by a purple stripe mid-body with the 'East Coast' logo in purple below the centre line. During 2010/11 the class '91' locomotives and their accompanying Mark 4 coaches are receiving this new livery and a coaching set refurbishment which involves a complete refit of the restaurant accommodation in order that full restaurant service in 1st class will be replaced by a complementary at-seat service. The temporary absence of Mark 4 sets during this refurbishment is covered by a hired-in 'East Midlands' HST set whose ocean blue, grey and white is an eye-catching exception to the dark blue or grey and silver of the regular ECML inter-cities, for the ECML 'East Coast' HSTs retain their relatively recently applied 'National Express' uniform which, either by design or coincidence, blends well with the new East Coast colours.

   The latest "Flying Scotsman", newly liveried 91101 heads the 12.05 Kings Cross-Leeds through Hitchin on 21st June 2011   Norman Hill

From 22 May 2011 a revamped East Coast timetable has been named; it's the East Coast 'Eureka' timetable - claiming to be 'the biggest improvement to the route in 20 years' - and is built around the Mark IV refurbishment programme. The 'Eureka' provides one (and one only) new 'Flying Scotsman' weekday train which leaves Edinburgh at 05.40, calls only at Newcastle (07.03) and arrives Kings Cross at 09.40. GEC/BREL '91' class locomotives 91101 and DGV 82205 have recently (May 2011) appeared in a new purple livery bearing the name 'Flying Scotsman' displayed in bold LNER style white Gill Sans letters along the waist-line on each side, together with a new purple 'Flying Scotsman' 'thistle' logo set in the midst of the front yellow warning panel. 'Eureka' finds additional HSTs leaving at eight minutes past each hour between 07.08 (08.08 excepted) and 16.08 running alternatively to York and Newark. The 07.20 from Lincoln now offers that city a through service to London with a complementary return leaving Kings Cross at 19.06. Service patterns to Scotland are much the same although the 06.50 from Glasgow Central and 15.00 return from London Kings Cross are now the only through weekday East Coast services between those two cities, while on Saturdays, only the up 06.50 service runs through, with only a 17.00 down through service from Kings Cross on Sundays. The timetable application of the name 'Flying Scotsman' only to the new 05.40 from Edinburgh and the retiming of the 10.30 Aberdeen - named the 'Northern Lights' in the timetable - to depart at 10.00 from Kings Cross has very quietly displaced a train which has left Kings Cross for Edinburgh at 10.00 and has been known - even if only in the timetable since privatisation - as 'The Flying Scotsman' - since 1862 ! Eureka !

'East Coast' also operates one up morning and evening return service to Hull, ‘The Hull Executive’, also HST operated.

Since 2004, however, the city on the Humber has gained its own dedicated London service, operated by ‘Hull Trains’, the first open access operator although now owned by 'First'. Initially 'Hull Trains' operated four new Bombardier built 3-car 'Turbostar' diesel units, 170393-6; then, from 2005, again new, four Bombardier ‘Pioneer’ 4-car, 125 m.p.h DMUs, class 222101-104, these virtually the same as the ‘East Midland’s’ Bombardier ‘Meridian’ 222/0 variously formed units. ‘Pioneer’ unit 222103 was soon withdrawn from service after accident damage and, while it saw no further service with 'Hull Trains', has recently returned to join it's sister units on 'East Midlands Trains'. Replacements for 222103 during 2008 included the unique East Coast sight of AC Loco Group’s preserved 86101 Robert Stephenson, powering 5 Cargo-d Mark3 coaches with DVT 82115 complementing. Alstom 5-car class 180 'Adelante' units, 180109 and 180111, unwanted by their 'from new' in 2000 TOC, First Great Western, replaced the 86 and other 'stop-gap' class 47 diesel haulage later in 2008, and have since been joined during 2009 by 180102, 180110 and 180113. The five 'Adelantes' now form the ‘Hull Trains’ fleet while the four 'Pioneer' 222/1s have joined their 'Meridian' cousins 'next door' on 'East Midlands Trains' services out of St. Pancras. 'Hull Trains' provide 7 weekday journeys each way and 5 returns on both Saturdays and Sundays. All are now in 'First Group's' basic dark blue with 'Dynamic Lines'.

A second open access operator commenced ECML operations in late 2007 after over two years of negotiation. After much initial disruption by constant failures and associated inability fully to run its advertised services 'Grand Central Railway' now appears to have achieved reasonable reliability. The company now provides services over two ECML routes; 4 weekday return journeys, 4 up and 3 down on Saturdays, and 3 each way on Sundays between Sunderland and Kings Cross, calling at West Hartlepool, Eaglescliffe, Northallerton, and York, and, since the 23rd May 2010, three daily return trains every day, weekends included, between Bradford and Kings Cross. This latest service calls at Halifax, Brighouse, Wakefield (Kirkgate), Pontefract (Monkhill) and Doncaster. The introduction of the Wearside service in 2007 provided the first direct service to London from Wearside via the ‘coast route' for over 20 years while the Bradford service is the first ever direct service between West Yorkshire intermediate stations and London. The services are provided by; three 6-coach Mark3 HST sets powered by six off-lease Porterbrook, class 43 buffered power cars, initially 43065/7/8/80/4 and 43123; and five Class 180 'Adelantes'; 180101/105/107/112 and 114. The HSTs were refurbished for the opening of the 2007 Wearside service following storage at Devonport; but over the last year the power cars have been fitted with new MTU engines in line with the East Coast and Great Western 43s and have been renumbered as 43423/65/7/8/80/4 in consequence. All trains are based on Heaton depot. The 'Grand Central' livery is all over black set off with a vivid orange lower body stripe, particularly striking on the class '180's - 'Grand Central Railway', it is said, does not wish the units to be known as 'Adelantes'! The West Yorkshire service has its own brand name, 'Grand Northern Trains', while both 'Grand Central Railway' and 'Grand Northern Trains' are components of the parent company, 'Grand Union Railway', formed after the launch of 'Grand Central Railway' and dedicated to the promotion of open access passenger services. 'Grand Union's' website asks us not to be confused by these several 'Grand' names!

Freight Traffic.

During the last five years Hitchin up yard, adjacent to the London bound platform and the site of Hitchin steam shed, (British Railway's 34D, closed in 1961 after 111 years' service) has served as the concentration depot for two freight flows; stone and scrap metal.

Between 2005 and 2010 stone trains from Peak Forest terminated here. The stone trains first ran during the construction of the Baldock by-pass during 2005 although trains continued to bring stone after the completion of the road in March 2006. At first The Peak Forest trains were worked by 'Freightliner Heavy Haul' class '66s'; briefly during the Summer of 2009 locomotives of the short lived 'Advenza Freight' company, sometimes 47s, and shortly before the company's demise, ex-DRS 66841 and 66842 worked several stone trains. The last trips were worked by DBS '66s'.

The scrap metal trains have run intermittently since 2006, their frequency governed by metal market prices. Williams Bros. car crushing plant provides this metal which was - as in the case of the stone trains - initially moved by 'Freightliner Heavy Haul'. Again, 'Advenza Freight' briefly moved scrap metal trains from Hitchin to Sheerness during 2009 but these trains have subsequently been moved by DRS, often worked by a pair of their loyal old '37's in multiple, when the trains have attracted particular attention. There have been regular scrap metal workings from Hitchin during 2010 and the early part of 2011.

At Hitchin, Cambridge Junction Sidings, leading north from the up yard and adjacent to the Cambridge branch are used to divide and marshall the Hitchin freight trains and until 2010 provided the only access into the up yard by reversal into the Junction Sidings from the up platform road. This resulted in some long empties trips, sometimes down as far as Peterborough and back, in order to gain Hitchin up side. This has been alleviated during the last year by finding a mid-day path onto the Cambridge Branch, thus allowing a set-back into the north end of Cambridge Junction Sidings. Recently scrap metal trains have run less frequently and, indeed, during mid June 2011 the usual waiting mountain of scrap has actually disappeared.

Through freight on the south end of the ECML is relatively scarce; notable, and advertised as daily, is 4E32 empty steel containers from Dollands Moor to Scunthorpe, due into Peterborough at 16.55 (16.25 Sats if required) and rostered for '92' haulage; the southbound loaded working leaves Peterborough at 22.40; a regular Sunday working is DBS '66' powered 6H67 self-discharge train which leaves Peterborough for the Lafarge depot, just south of Stevenage station up side, at 09.10. Departure of the empty train, 6M33, is booked for 13.08 when it is necessary to run up to Welwyn Garden City up yard in order to run round before returning to Peterborough and Mount Sorrell.

Network Rail's HST powered 'measurement train' is rostered to visit the south end of the ECML on Mondays, booked to leave Peterborough in the up direction at either 14.25 (Heaton to Ferme Park run) or 16.55 (Doncaster West Yard to Kings Cross run); both return trips leave London around 19.10, either Ferme Park to Leeds or Kings Cross to Derby via Nottingham.

Other Traffic

Apart from the gaudy daily passage of the replacement East Midlands HST set mentioned above other regular traffic on the south ECML at the moment (June 2011) sees the weekly exchange of Ilford based 'National Express East Anglia' BREL '321' units travelling between Ilford and Doncaster WABTEC which is in the midst of an Ilford '321' refurbishment programme when the units exchange their First Great Eastern green and grey livery for NX white.

Norman Hill
28 June 2011

last updated: 20/09/11