Historically the line has extended further north to Manchester in the north west, Leeds in the north east and trains through to both Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. The straighter east coast main line initially saw the demise of midland trains to Leeds and ultimately Scotland due to the longer journey times. Later, electrification of the west coast mainline and the Beeching cuts, saw Manchester trains withdrawn from the midland and transferred to the west coast.
Express passenger services on the line are operated by the East Midlands Trains train operating company (toc). The section between St Pancras and Bedford is electrified and forms the northern half of the Thameslink suburban service (operated by First Capital Connect), which provides a through service from Bedford to Brighton.
The northern part of the route between Derby and Sheffield is shared with CrossCountry, whilst the route between Sheffield and Leeds is shared with, Northern, Transpenine Express and National Express East Coast. East Midlands Local also operates regional and local services between Nottingham and Leicester / Derby / Sheffield.
First to arrive was the line built by the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway from Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire (on the London and Birmingham Railway) to Derby, which opened on the 12 August 1839. This section is now known as the Cross-Country Route through Birmingham to Bristol.
This was followed on 1 July, 1840 by the North Midland Railway, which ran from Derby to Leeds Hunslet Lane via Chesterfield, Swinton, Masborough, near Rotherham (from where the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway ran a branch to Sheffield Wicker Station), and Normanton. This avoided Sheffield, Barnsley, and Wakefield in order to reduce gradients.
On the same day the Midland Counties Railway, which ran from Derby and Nottingham to Leicester Campbell Street, was extended from Leicester to a temporary station on the northern outskirts of Rugby. A few months later, the Rugby viaduct was finished and the Midland Counties Railway reached the London and Birmingham's Rugby Station. This cut 11 miles off the B&DJR route via Hampton-in-Arden.
When these three companies merged to form the Midland Railway on 10 May 1844, the Midland did not have its own route to London, and relied upon a junction at Rugby with the London and Birmingham's line (which became part of the London and North Western Railway on 1 January, 1846) to London Euston for access to the capital.
By the 1850s the junction at Rugby had become severely congested, and so the Midland Railway constructed a route from Leicester to Hitchin on the Great Northern Railway, via Bedford. The line avoids Northampton, a medium town south of Leicester, instead going via Kettering and Wellingborough in the east of Northamptonshire. This line met with similar problems at Hitchin as the former alignment had at Rugby, so in 1868 a line was opened from Bedford via Luton to London St Pancras.
The final stretch of what is considered to be the modern Midland Main Line was a short cut-off from Chesterfield through Sheffield, which opened in 1870.
Also part of the line as defined by Network Rail, is the Erewash Valley Line, Leicester to Burton upon Trent Line, Oakham to Kettering Line and sections of the Nottingham to Lincoln Line (as far east as Newark) and Birmingham to Peterborough Line (between Nuneaton and Oakham).
Partly to appease the concerns and opposition of landowners along the route, in places some of it was built to avoid large estates and rural towns, and to reduce construction costs the railways followed natural contours, resulting in many curves and bends. This has also resulted in the MML passing through some of the hillier areas of the British mainland, such as Sharnbrook (where there is a 1 in 119 gradient from the south taking the line to 340 feet above sea level). This has left a legacy of lower maximum speeds on the line compared to the other main lines. The solution to similar problems on the West Coast Main Line has been the adoption of tilting trains, Class 390 Pendolino trains introduced by Virgin in 2003.
By 1982, the line had undergone electrification from Moorgate as far north as Bedford. The introduction of the High Speed Train HST in May 1983 following the Leicester Area resignalling brought about an increase of the ruling linespeed on the fast lines from 90mph to 110mph.
Many plans have been drawn up only later to be dropped in a bid to improve speed and journey times, although more recently with investment easier to come by the line looks set to benefit from 125mph running on extended stretches, improved signalling, increased number of tracks and possible electrification further north .
Network Rail group all lines in the East Midlands and the route north as far as Chesterfield and south to London as route 19. The actual line extends beyond this into routes 10 and 11.
The line was once the Midland Railway's route from London St Pancras to Manchester, branching at Ambergate Junction along the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock and Midlands Junction Railway, now known as the Derwent Valley Line. In days gone by, it featured named expresses such as The Palatine. Much later in the twentieth century, it carried the Midland Pullman.
This line was closed in the 1960s between Matlock and Buxton, severing an important link between Manchester and the East Midlands, which has never been satisfactorily replaced by any mode of transport. A section of the route remains in the hands of the Peak Rail preservation group, operating between Matlock and Rowsley to the north.
World War I prevented the Midland Railway from finishing its direct route through the West Riding to join the Settle and Carlisle (which would have cut six miles from the journey and avoided the need for reversal at Leeds).
The first part of the Midlands West Riding extension from the main line at Royston (Yorks.) to Dewsbury was opened before the war. However the second part of the extension was not completed. This involved a viaduct at Dewsbury over the River Calder, a tunnel under Dewsbury Moor and a new approach railway into Bradford from the south at a lower level than the existing railway (a good part of which was to be in tunnel) leading into Bradford Midland (or Bradford Forster Square) station.
The 500 yard gap between the stations at Bradford continues to exist - closing it today would also need to take into account the different levels between the two Bradford stations, a task made easier in the days of electric rather than steam traction, allowing for steeper gradients than possible at the time of the Midlands proposed extension.
Two impressive viaducts remain on the completed part of the line between Royston Junction and Dewsbury as a testament to the Midland's ambition to complete a third direct Anglo-Scottish route. The line served two goods stations and provided a route for occasional express passenger trains before its eventual closure in 1968.
The failure to complete this section ended the Midland's hopes of being a serious competitor on routes to Scotland and finally put beyond all doubt that Leeds, not Bradford, would be the West Riding's principal town. Midland trains to Scotland therefore continued to call at Leeds before travelling along the Aire Valley to the Settle and Carlisle. From Carlisle they then travelled onwards via either the Glasgow and South Western or Waverley route. In days gone by the line enjoyed named expresses such as the Thames-Clyde Express and The Waverley.
As with most railway lines in Britain, the route used to serve far more stations than it currently does (and consequently passes close to settlements that it no longer serves). Places that the current mainline used to serve include
The following on the original North Midland Railway line
Traffic levels on the Midland Main Line are rising faster than national average, with continued increases predicted. The now defunct Strategic Rail Authority produced a Route Utilisation Strategy for the Midland Main Line in 2006 to propose ways of meeting this demand ; Network Rail started work on a new study in February 2008 and is expected to be finalised in summer 2009.
The Midland Main line has for many years been thought of as a 'Cinderella' line and, with the increasing capacity constraints on other lines, it is inevitable that this route will be upgraded in the not-too-distant future. Plans for the line include: