The Northern City Line is a commuter railway line in England, which runs from Moorgate station to Finsbury Park in London with services running beyond. It is part of the Great Northern Route services, and operates as the south-eastern branch of the East Coast Main Line (ECML). It is underground from Moorgate to Drayton Park in Highbury, from which point it runs in a cutting until joining the ECML south of Finsbury Park. Its stations span northern inner districts of Greater London southwards to the City of London, the UK's main financial centre. Since December 2015, its service timetable has been extended to run into the late evenings and at weekends,[2] meeting a new franchise commitment for a minimum of six trains per hour until 23:59 on weekdays and four trains per hour at weekends.[3]

Northern City Line
OwnerNetwork Rail
LocaleGreater London
TypeCommuter rail, Suburban rail
SystemNational Rail
Operator(s)Great Northern
Rolling stockClass 717 "Desiro City"
Number of tracksTwo
Track gauge1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) standard gauge
Loading gaugeW6[1]
Route map

The official name for this line is the Moorgate Line,[4][5] but it is rarely referred to as this due to confusion with the Widened Lines route which goes from Kentish Town to Farringdon, which until March 2009, also served Moorgate surface-level station on the London Midland Region.[6][7] The Northern City Line's name is derived from the fact that it was originally a London Underground line, where it was described or managed as part of both the Metropolitan and Northern lines (sometimes as the "Highbury Branch"), although never connected to either. Built as an isolated route with a northern terminus at Finsbury Park, reconstruction connected it to the British Rail network in 1976 and began its modern service pattern. One of London's deep-level railways, the Northern City is unlike the others in being owned by Network Rail and served by commuter trains operated by Great Northern from Moorgate to Finsbury Park and onwards to Hertfordshire.

In 2016, it was proposed that all London rail services be transferred to Transport for London to create a London Suburban Metro, which would bring the line back under the jurisdiction of TfL.[8]


Great Northern and City Railway Act 1892
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act for incorporating the Great Northern and City Railway Company and empowering them to construct a railway from the Canonbury branch of the Great Northern Railway near Finsbury Park to the city of London and for other purposes.
Citation55 & 56 Vict. c. ccxlii
Royal assent28 June 1892
Great Northern and City Railway Act 1895
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to extend the powers for the purchase of Lands and the time for the completion of the Great Northern and City Railway.
Citation58 & 59 Vict. c. cxii
Royal assent6 July 1895
Text of statute as originally enacted
Great Northern and City Railway Act 1897
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to extend the powers for the purchase of land and the time for the completion of the Railway authorised by the Great Northern and City Railway Act 1892 and to amend some of the provisions of that Act.
Citation60 & 61 Vict. c. cxciii
Royal assent6 August 1897
Text of statute as originally enacted
Great Northern and City Railway Act 1902
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to confer further powers on the Great Northern and City Railway Company and to extend the time for the completion of the authorised railway of that Company and for other purposes.
Citation2 Edw. 7. c. ccxxii
Royal assent8 August 1902
Great Northern and City Railway Act 1903
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to amend the Great Northern and City Railway Act 1902 and to authorise the Great Northern and City Railway Company to raise additional capital for the purposes of their undertaking.
Citation3 Edw. 7. c. v
Royal assent30 June 1903
Text of statute as originally enacted
Great Northern and City Railway Act 1904
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to extend the time for the completion of railways and for other purposes.
Citation4 Edw. 7. c. viii
Royal assent24 June 1904
Text of statute as originally enacted
Great Northern and City Railway Act 1907
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to revive and extend the powers for the purchase of lands and to extend the time limited for the completion of the railway and works authorised by the Great Northern and City Railway Act 1902 and for other purposes.
Citation7 Edw. 7. c. lxxvi
Royal assent28 July 1907
Text of statute as originally enacted

The Great Northern & City Railway (GN&CR) was planned to allow electrified trains to run from the Great Northern Railway (GNR, now the East Coast Main Line) at Finsbury Park to the City of London at Moorgate. Despite being built using similar methods to the tube network then under construction, the tunnels were built large enough to take a main-line train, with an internal diameter of 16 feet (4.9 m), compared with those of the Central London Railway with a diameter less than 12 feet (3.7 m). For this reason the line was popularly known as the "Big Tube" in its early days.[9] However, the GNR eventually opposed the scheme and cancelled its electrification plans, and the line opened in 1904 with the northern terminus in tunnels underneath Finsbury Park GNR station. It was originally electrified using an unusual fourth-rail system with a conductor rail outside both running rails.[10]

The GN&CR was bought in 1913 by the Metropolitan Railway (MR), which operated what are today the Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines and the former East London line. The MR had plans to link it to the Circle and Waterloo & City lines, but these were never fulfilled.[10] During this period, the line remained an isolated branch, without through services to any other part of the rail network. Carriages were brought to it through a connection into a freight yard near Drayton Park station, where a small depot was built to service trains.

The GN&CR generating station closed when the MR took over, and became the studio of Gainsborough Pictures. After lying derelict for many years, it became a temporary venue for the Almeida Theatre. It has since been redeveloped as apartments.

After the formation of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, the MR was amalgamated with the other Underground railways and the line was renamed the Northern City Line. In 1934 it was re-branded as part of the Edgware–Morden line (which was renamed the Northern line in 1937), and in 1939 operations were transferred from the Metropolitan to the Northern. As part of London Transport's New Works Programme, the Northern Heights plan was to connect the Northern City Line at Finsbury Park to existing main-line suburban branches running to Alexandra Palace, High Barnet and Edgware, which would be taken over by London Transport and electrified. The Highgate branch of the Edgware–Morden line would connect to this network north of Highgate. Only parts of this plan were completed: when the Second World War started, the Highgate link and electrification of the Barnet branch were well under way and ultimately completed, but the Northern City connection to Highgate was first postponed and finally cancelled after the war.

The planned 1930s Northern Heights extensions, showing the diversion of the Northern City Line to Alexandra Palace, Bushey Heath and High Barnet. Sections marked in solid green were ultimately taken over. The line from Highgate to Finsbury Park already existed but was to be absorbed by London Transport; this never happened and it closed to passengers in 1954. After being used to transfer tube trains from Highgate depot to the Northern City line, it closed permanently in 1970.

After the war there were proposals to extend the Northern City Line north and south. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed several new lines and suburban electrification schemes for London, lettered from A to M. The lower-priority routes J and K would have seen the Northern City Line extended to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K), retaining the "Northern Heights" extensions to Edgware and Alexandra Palace. The lines would have run in small-diameter tube tunnels south from Moorgate to Bank and London Bridge.[11] The "K" branch would have run under Peckham to Peckham Rye, joining the old Crystal Palace (High Level) branch (which was still open in 1949) near Lordship Lane. Nothing came of these proposals, and the Edgware, Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace (High Level) branches were all closed to passengers in 1954. As a result, the Northern City Line remained isolated from the rest of the network.

In 1964, the Northern City Line (low level) platforms at Finsbury Park were given over to become the southbound platforms of both the Piccadilly line and (then new) Victoria Line, the former Piccadilly line platforms becoming the northbound Piccadilly and Victoria lines' platforms. From this time the NCL used Drayton Park as its terminus. At the same time a change was made at Highbury & Islington, with the northbound Northern City line diverted to a new platform alongside the northbound Victoria line, and the southbound Victoria using the former northbound Northern City platform, both providing cross-platform interchange. Passengers from Moorgate to Finsbury Park took the Northern City line to Highbury & Islington and then changed onto the Victoria Line.

In 1970 the line was connected (as intended by its original promoters) to the mainline via the high level platforms at Finsbury Park as part of a wider plan to electrify ECML suburban services. The line was renamed Northern line (Highbury Branch) and the following year an agreement was made to transfer it to British Rail. Commuter trains were run to/from Moorgate instead of King's Cross, relieving congestion at King's Cross.

The last London Underground services ran in October 1975 and British Rail services commenced in August 1976, replacing services to Broad Street via the city branch of the North London Line. These British Rail services used the name "Great Northern Electrics". The track and tunnels are now owned by Network Rail. Services are provided by Great Northern to Welwyn Garden City and, via the Hertford Loop Line, to Hertford North (with some extending to Stevenage, Hitchin or Letchworth). The name "Northern City Line" has been revived to refer to the underground part of the route.



From Finsbury Park to Drayton Park traction current is supplied at 25 kV AC via overhead line, controlled by York Electrical Control Room.[12]

Network SouthEast branding at Essex Road station.

From Drayton Park to Moorgate traction current is supplied at 750 V DC via third rail. There are two electrical sections,[12] separated by a gap at Poole Street:

  • Queensland Road to Poole Street
  • Poole Street to Finsbury Circus

Trains change from AC to DC traction supply, or vice versa, whilst standing at Drayton Park station.[12] The platform starting signal on the Up platform at Drayton Park is held at danger (red) as the train approaches. This ensures that all trains stop to lower the pantograph before going into the tunnel.

In the 1970s the original London Underground fourth-rail traction current supply was converted to a third-rail 750V DC system. The redundant centre fourth-rail was disconnected and left in situ since it was difficult to remove in the narrow tunnels.[13]

Signalling is controlled from Kings Cross power box.[12] Between Drayton Park and Moorgate, there is no Automatic Warning System or Train Protection & Warning System equipment provided, due to the position of the auxiliary return rail.[12] All signals are multiple aspect colour light signals fitted with train stop arms.[12]

Works to commission new ETCS digital signalling on the line, along with the first test train under the new system, took place during the Early May Bank Holiday in 2022.[14] The new signalling system was approved by the Office of Rail and Road in March 2023, and used on passenger services from 27 November 2023.[15]

Operational procedures

NCL Start of Procedures sign & Up platform starting signal at Drayton Park

Because mainline trains operate over the infrastructure inherited from London Underground, there are some practices on the NCL which differ from Railway Rulebook instructions, and these are contained in an additional publication.[12] These include:

Passing signals at danger


If a train is standing at a signal at danger inside a tunnel and it is not possible for the driver to contact the signaller, the driver is permitted to pass that signal under their own authority. As soon as the train starts to move, the tripcock on the train will automatically operate and bring the train to a stop, so the driver must reset it before continuing. They must then proceed with caution, be prepared to stop short of any obstruction, and not travel any faster than 3 mph (4.8 km/h).[12] When they reach the next signal they must stop and attempt to contact the signaller, to inform the signaller of what has taken place regardless of the aspect that it is showing.

Platform starting signals, which let the train into a tunnel, can only be passed at danger with the signaller's authority.[12]

Assisting a failed train


Unlike surface lines, the driver of a train which fails on the NCL is not required to leave the train to lay detonators and then wait for the assisting train. The driver remains with the train and the signaller will authorise the driver of the assisting train to proceed to the rear of the failed train at a maximum speed of 3 mph (4.8 km/h).[12] To ensure that the rear of the failed train is always visible, all trains working over the NCL are required to display three red lights at their rear: two tail lamps plus the red portion of the destination roller blind.[12]

On reaching the failed train, the assisting driver will stop short then clip their tunnel telephone onto the tunnel wires so that they can discuss with the driver of the failed train how to carry out the assistance in order to get the trains moving again. Then the two trains are coupled together and the drivers can talk to each other over the usual cab-to-cab handsets before proceeding.

Rolling stock

Class 313 unit at Moorgate

As part of its contract to supply electrical equipment during the construction of the line, in 1901 British Thomson-Houston provided 35 sets of traction control equipment to Brush Electrical Engineering Company and Dick, Kerr & Company. The original plan was for 11 seven-car trains (33 motors and 44 trailers) and one shunting locomotive. Initially 26 motorcars and 32 trailer cars were built. They were known as the 'wooden' cars because they were fabricated of teak and mahogany on steel underframes. In 1906 Brush delivered another five motors and 13 trailers. There were of all-steel construction and naturally-enough referred to as 'steel cars'. The GN&CR converted one trailer to a motor car, bringing the fleet to 32 motors and 44 trailers. (The remaining sets of traction control equipment were used as maintenance spares.) Normal operation was six-car formations at peak times, reduced to two-car sets at other times. Cars were 56 ft 6 in (17.22 m) long over buffers, 9 ft 4 in (2.84 m) wide, and 12 ft 2 in (3.71 m) in height. Seats were provided for 58 passengers in the wooden trailers and 64 in the steel ones. Motor cars seated 54 because of a 2 ft 10 in (86 cm) equipment compartment behind the driver's cab. Uniquely in England, coupling between cars was by means of link and pin on the centre-line.[16]

The original fleet of 76 carriages was withdrawn and replaced by London Underground Standard Stock on 15 May 1939.[16] These became the last pre-1938 trains running on the Underground, being phased out during the last weeks of October 1966 through 3 November. 1938 tube stock serviced the line, in variously three-, four- and six-car formations, until its temporary closure on 4 October 1975.[17]

Services are currently operated by dual-voltage Class 717 electric multiple units (EMUs), which replaced Class 313 units as part of a franchise commitment when Govia Thameslink Railway took over management of the line and its services.[18] The Class 717s began to enter service in March 2019.[19] To comply with regulations for trains operating in single-bore tunnels where there is not enough clearance space for side evacuation, they have emergency doors at both ends of a unit. When operating on 750 V DC, the two motor coaches of a Class 313 collected traction current from their own shoe gear only; there was no traction bus linking them together as found on most Electric Multiple Units. All of the Class 313 units when operating on the NCL had their Driving Motor B vehicle at the London end, and whilst on 750 V DC were electronically limited to 30 mph (48 km/h),[20] which is the maximum line speed.[4] All stations are long enough to accept six-car trains.[21]

Accidents and incidents


Moorgate tube crash


The Moorgate tube crash, the most serious peacetime accident on the London Underground, occurred at Moorgate on 28 February 1975, when a Highbury Branch train ran through the terminus at speed and crashed into the dead end of the tunnel beyond. The cause of the crash, which killed 43 people, was never determined. A report found that there was insufficient evidence to say if it was a deliberate act of the driver or due to a medical condition.

Tunnel penetration incident


On 8 March 2013, pile boring operations from a building site in East Road, Hackney, 13 m (43 ft) above the tunnel, penetrated and obstructed the line between Old Street and Essex Road stations. A serious accident was averted by the actions of an observant train driver, and the line was restricted for several days for repairs. A subsequent investigation by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch was highly critical of carelessness on the construction companies involved and the planning approval process.[22]

Passenger volume


This is the number of passengers using stations on the line from the year beginning April 2002 to the year beginning April 2019. These numbers include all passengers using the station, not just Northern City Line users.

Station usage
Station name 2002–03 2004–05 2005–06 2006–07 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 2010–11 2011–12 2012–13 2013–14 2014–15 2015–16 2016–17 2017–18 2018–19 2019–20 2020–21 2021–22 2022–23
Finsbury Park 3,006,865 5,021,634 5,041,828 5,875,109 5,545,881 5,492,164 6,566,019 7,337,297 6,448,792 6,430,270 6,429,584 6,263,994 5,656,786 7,032,726 6,781,272 7,614,996 7,669,706 2,013,500 4,600,424 8,559,032
Drayton Park 164,459 129,849 118,426 288,324 279,243 261,164 338,246 478,144 505,230 552,840 572,418 625,436 690,750 791,700 859,130 860,124 784,628 174,134 358,386 516,734
Highbury and Islington No data No data No data 4,809,098 4,751,391 4,173,338 5,668,133 7,625,235 11,800,800 14,695,098 15,840,018 19,975,522 28,166,440 29,852,702 29,507,772 30,439,574 29,398,624 8,660,736 17,186,284 20,601,096
Essex Road 356,425 118,145 115,680 274,645 384,504 336,338 401,718 474,340 482,764 521,464 572,332 627,430 715,984 810,518 861,234 856,598 768,438 197,416 407,786 556,966
Old Street No data No data No data 733,612 813,166 827,762 1,326,797 1,434,785 1,336,722 1,396,260 1,455,920 1,682,134 3,611,484 5,323,546 5,756,246 7,119,730 6,768,052 2,230,872 3,672,524 5,437,172
London Moorgate 832 7,135,238 7,263,068 9,235,925 10,108,616 9,373,435 6,736,698 7,187,012 7,860,382 7,997,460 9,051,956 9,397,890 8,849,564 10,833,978 10,433,502 11,508,936 9,993,570 1,934,826 3,346,156 5,587,716
The annual passenger usage is based on sales of tickets in stated financial years from Office of Rail and Road estimates of station usage. The statistics are for passengers arriving and departing from each station and cover twelve-month periods that start in April. Methodology may vary year on year. Usage from the periods 2019-20 and especially 2020-21 onwards have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic

See also



  1. ^ Network Rail: RUS, ECML Page 57 Archived 29 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine Accessed 19 Feb 2011
  2. ^ "Great Northern timetable changes from 13 December 2015". Govia Thameslink Railway. Archived from the original on 11 March 2017. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  3. ^ "East Coast Mainline Routes & Branches part 2". London Reconnections. 29 September 2013. Archived from the original on 22 December 2015. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  4. ^ a b Network Rail (December 2006). London North Eastern Route Sectional Appendix. Vol. Module LN2. p. 41. LN105 Seq 001.
  5. ^ Quail Map 2 – England East [page 14] February 1998 (Retrieved 2016-03-10)
  6. ^ Network Rail (December 2009). Kent Sussex & Wessex Sectional Appendix. Vol. Module KSW2. p. 136. SO280 Seq 001.
  7. ^ Quail Map 4 – Midlands & North West [page 1R] June 2015 (Retrieved 2016-03-10)
  8. ^ A new approach to rail passenger services in London and the South East (PDF) (Report). Transport for London. January 2016. Archived (PDF) from the original on 28 January 2016.
  9. ^ Martin, Andrew (2012). "Chapter 6: Three more tubes". Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube. London: Profile. ISBN 9781846684784.
  10. ^ a b "Northern line". Clive's UndergrounD Line Guides. 3 March 2012. Archived from the original on 11 February 2015. Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  11. ^ J. Glover, "London's Underground", 7th edition, Shepperton, Ian Allan, 1991, p.61.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Work Instructions for D.C. Electrified Lines on the Northern City Line. London, UK: Network Rail. June 2007.
  13. ^ Stephen, Paul (4 May 2022). "Signal of intent: a key milestone in the switch to digital". Rail. Vol. 956. p. 22.
  14. ^ "Northern City Line enters new phase as East Coast Digital Programme prepares to commission new equipment". Archived from the original on 30 April 2022. Retrieved 30 April 2022.
  15. ^ "Commuters look forward to more reliable services as first passenger trains run to City of London using digital signalling". Mynewsdesk. 27 November 2023. Retrieved 16 December 2023.
  16. ^ a b Bruce, J. Graeme (1976). The Big Tube: A short illustrated history of London's Great Northern & City Railway. London: London Transport. pp. 27–32. ISBN 0853290717.
  17. ^ Connor, Piers (1989). The 1938 Tube Stock. Harrow Weald, Middlesex, England: Capital Transport. pp. 85–86. ISBN 1854141155.
  18. ^ Topham, Gwyn (23 May 2014). "FirstGroup loses Thameslink franchise to Go-Ahead joint venture". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 23 May 2014. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
  19. ^ "Great Northern Class 717s finally enter passenger service". Archived from the original on 27 March 2019. Retrieved 27 March 2019.
  20. ^ First Capital Connect: Class 313 Conversion Training Guide p.9 General Information "75 mph maximum speed AC Mode– Automatically regulated to 30mph when in DC Mode" 2009.
  21. ^ Network Rail, Rules Of The Plan, 2009, London North Eastern Region
  22. ^ "Rail Accident Investigation Branch – Penetration and obstruction of a tunnel between Old Street and Essex Road stations, London. Report name: 0213_R032014_Old_Street". Archived from the original on 16 April 2014. Retrieved 15 April 2014.