Great Northern route

Suburban rail service in Great Britain

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
  • 38 Class 387 Electrostar sets
  • 25 Class 717 Desiro City sets
Stations called at54
Parent companyGovia Thameslink Railway
Reporting markGN
Track gauge1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge
Electrification25 kV 50 Hz AC OHLE
750 V DC third rail
Other Edit this at Wikidata
Route map
Route map
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Great Northern Route
King's Lynn
Downham Market
Cambridge North
St. Neots
Ashwell and Morden
St Neots South/Tempsford
A1(M) motorway
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 London 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 the south of London.

Since September 2014, the services have been operated by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). The Thameslink and Great Northern service brands were maintained and separated from each other.[2]


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.[3] In 2018, with the completion of the Thameslink Programme, many services on the route became part of the Thameslink network, running through central London to destinations south of the River Thames.


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

The July 1922 Bradshaw's Railway Guide stated a typical rail service on the Cambridge Line as follows:[4]

  • London King's Cross to Cambridge - Six stopping and two (three on Saturday) semi-fast services from Monday to Saturday, one northbound and two southbound stopping services on Sunday. The fastest service took about 1 hour 30 minutes.
  • London King's Cross to Royston - Two (three on Wednesday) additional services from Monday to Saturday, one additional service on Sunday.
  • London King's Cross to Baldock - Seven additional services from Monday to Saturday.
  • London King's Cross to Letchworth - Three additional services from Monday to Saturday. The last service on Wednesday ran past midnight into 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 had 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.[5]

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.[5] 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 Garden City; prior to this DMUs 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 further electrification of the East Coast Main Line between 1986 and 1988, 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[6] it was decided to electrify the line between Royston and Shepreth Branch Junction, a junction on the West Anglia Main Line north of Shelford, allowing the reinstatement of through services to Cambridge from London King's Cross via the East Coast Main Line, which was faster than the conventional route 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,[7] 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

Together with the two-track Digswell Viaduct (Welwyn Viaduct) some ten miles to the south, the flat junction just north of Hitchin was a major bottleneck,[8] 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[9] and subsequent application for an order[10] 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.

Thameslink programme

As part of the Thameslink Programme,[11] the Great Northern Route has been 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) 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.[13] 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.[13]


The Great Northern off-peak service pattern, with frequencies in trains per hour (tph), consists of the following:[14][15]

Route tph Calling at
London King's Cross to Ely 1
London King's Cross to King's Lynn 1
Route tph Calling at
London Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City 2
London Moorgate to Stevenage via Hertford North 2

Rolling stock

As of 2021, the Great Northern fleet consists of Class 387s and Class 717s, the former operating services from London King's Cross and the latter from Moorgate. Class 700s also operate on the route on Thameslink services.

Prior to the introduction of Class 387s and Class 717s in 2016 and 2019 respectively, Class 313s, Class 317s, Class 321s, and Class 365s were used. Of these, Class 365s lasted until 15 May 2021,[16] at which point they were replaced by Gatwick Express Class 387/2 units which were being used by Southern while the service was suspended.

Current fleet

Family Class Image Type Top speed Cars Number Routes operated Built
mph km/h
Bombardier Electrostar 387/1 387115 Shepreth Branch Junc 210619.jpg EMU 110 177 4 29 Express services between London King's Cross & Peterborough / Ely / King's Lynn 2014–2015
Great Northern Class 387 Diagram.png
387/2 387204 Gatwick Airport.jpg 110 177 4 9 Semi-fast services between London King's Cross & Peterborough / Ely 2016–2017
Gatwick Express Class 387-2.png
Siemens Desiro City 717[17] 717009 OKL.jpg 85 137 6 25 Northern City Line: Services between London Moorgate & Welwyn Garden City / Hertford North / Stevenage 2018
Great Northern Class 717.png

Future Fleet

From 2022, Great Northern will operate 6 Class 387/3s, which will allow for some Class 387/2s to be sent to Southern.[18]

Family Class Image Type Top speed Number Cars Routes operated Built In service
mph km/h
Bombardier Electrostar 387/3 Thatcham - c2c 387306 approaching from Newbury.JPG EMU 110 77 6 4 TBA 2016 2022
C2c Class 387-3.png

Past fleet

In 2015, the following rolling stock were used for the Great Northern route.

Family Class Image Type Top speed Cars Number Routes operated Built Withdrawn Notes
mph km/h
BREL 1972 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 1976–1977 2019 Replaced by Class 717
313 First Capital Connect and Great Northern.png
BR Second Generation (Mark 3) 317 Stevenage railway station MMB 02 317345.jpg 100 160 4 12 Semi-Fast and Express services between London King's Cross and Peterborough / Cambridge 1981–1982 2017 Replaced by Class 387
Class 317 Great Northern Diagram.png
321 Great Northern 321418, King's Cross (16475785242).jpg 100 160 4 13 Semi-Fast and Express services between London King's Cross and Peterborough / Cambridge 1989–1990 2016 Replaced by Class 387
Class 321 Great Northern .png
Networker 365 Class 365 Networker Express in Great Northern livery by Hugh Llewelyn.jpg 100 160 4 40 Semi-fast services between London King's Cross and Peterborough / Ely 1994–1995 2021 Replaced by Class 387
Great Northern Class 365.png

Future developments

East-West (Varsity) line

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.


  1. ^ "National Rail Contract awarded to Govia Thameslink Railway". Go Ahead News. Retrieved 25 March 2022.
  2. ^ "GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) Presentation" (PDF). Govia. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
  3. ^ Department for Transport. "New rail franchising deal set to transform passenger services across London and south east". Retrieved 28 May 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. ^ Bradshaw's July 1922 Railway Guide. Manchester: Henry Blacklock & Company. 1922.
  5. ^ a b British Railways Board. "Your New Electric Railway: The Great Northern Suburban Electrification" (PDF). Retrieved 15 April 2010.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  6. ^ "Major rail closures ruled out". Home News. The Times. No. 61815. London. 26 April 1984. p. 4.
  7. ^ "Cambridge Capacity Study". First Capital Connect. Archived from the original on 2 April 2010. Retrieved 14 March 2010.
  8. ^ "APPENDIX 2: Issues in defining and measuring railway capacity" (PDF). Office of Rail Regulation. 13 February 2006. p. 2. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  9. ^ Network Rail. "Hitchin Flyover". Retrieved 28 February 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. ^ Network Rail. "The Network Rail Hitchin (Cambridge Junction) Order" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 15 April 2010.
  11. ^ First Capital Connect. "2016 (Thameslink & Great Northern routes)". Archived from the original on 2 April 2010. Retrieved 15 April 2010.
  12. ^ Network Rail (December 2006). London North Eastern Sectional Appendix. Vol. Module LNE. p. 12 LOR LN101 Seq002. NR30018/02.
  13. ^ a b "Class 700s make Great Northern debut". Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  14. ^ Table 24 National Rail timetable, May 2020
  15. ^ Table 25 National Rail timetable, May 2020
  16. ^ "👋 Today we bid farewell to our Class 365s". Great Northern. Archived from the original on 19 May 2021. Retrieved 15 May 2021.
  17. ^ "New Govia Thameslink Railway trains to be Class 717s". RAIL magazine. RAIL magazine. Retrieved 9 June 2016.
  18. ^ "More '387s' for GTR". Modern Railways. No. August 2022. p. 101.

Further reading

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

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