South Suburban Salvation

Edinburgh’s train services suck. As a result, its public transport sucks.

Even if the trams are completed—including the abandoned original loop to Leith, Granton and Craigleith—it will still have a third-world transport system. In the absence of any underground at all, the ‘fast’ rail services that normally provide the backbone of any transport net are practically non-existent. Waverley may handle 20m passengers a year but only 5% of them are within Edinburgh. The only ‘suburban’ stations it has are South Gyle (0.5m) and Edinburgh Park (o.4m). After those two you’re in the dross, with Slateford seeing a risible 21,000 people (to AND from) per year.

Given the pigs’ breakfast of unco-ordinated 19th century rail developments that gifted the city with hopelessly inefficient rail spaghetti, it’s perhaps not surprising rail did not do well here against 20th century competition. A 1928 map says it all at a glance

So the bulk of intra-Edinburgh trips are carried on Lothian Buses—109m last year. They are a well run bus company but their speeds are glacial. Edinburgh City used to run them and in the 1960’s encouraged British Rail to close its suburban stations because ECT buses were faster and better. At the time, it took 12 minutes by train from Morningside or Corstorphine into Waverley. The numbers 16 and 26 buses now take 24 minutes for the same journeys. As the Americans say: go figure.

But what is more concerning is the number of unnecessary road journeys being made around Edinburgh because there’s no easy way to get to Waverley with luggage without dropping serious dosh on parking. The result is an interesting transport statistic on the three main city-centre stations in Scotland, shown in Table 1.

Table 1—Passenger Distance Travelled to Scottish Main Train Stations

Note how few Edinburgh people bother with rail—most (a huge 89.3%) of Waverley’s passengers) originate well outside the city. Glasgow, with its comprehensive and fast electric rail network gets 61.7% of its main line travel from within the city; Edinburgh achieves one sixth of that, despite a whopping £48m invested in Waverley over the last decade.

Given that £500m-and-counting and we still have no tram working, public transport is a touchy topic in the capital. But why are we blinded to all else, leaving the sluggish Lothian bus as the only game in town? Is there no ‘low-hanging fruit’ that could address the problem without breaking the bank and digging up more streets? Well, yes. And, co-incidentally, it would provide fast public transport to the very area of the city that trams will ignore, even when they do run.

Allow me to introduce Edinburgh’s South Suburban Railway (ESSR). It already exists. Many residents will know it and some older ones may even have ridden on it before Mr Beeching’s blade came down exactly 50 years ago. Built in 1880 it is still in use, carrying some 60 freight trains a day so that they don’t need to pass through Waverley and the congested tunnels through to Haymarket.

Transform Scotland has been campaigning to re-open the line for years and a consultant report provided several options for restoring what used to be a circular service by making this part of a “Crossrail 2” scheme, up to electrifying the line to fit in with the EGIP service plan already on the stocks. The key thing is that NONE of the options requires the kind of silly amounts of public money that have been thrown at railways for marginal improvement.

In terms of the ‘best bang’ for our buck, the Crossrail 2 is the most useful. The options were considered by the City of Edinburgh Council in 2004, and the council indicated a preference for a North Berwick-Niddrie service (Crossrail 2 option). Not only does it link up seven former and three new stations in the South of Edinburgh but it could integrate with the existing East Lothian services and complement Crossrail 1 by sharing a common terminus at Newcraighall, ready for this to be extended as Borders Rail. The proposal is shown below.

Figure 2—Edinburgh South Suburban Railway (ESSR) As a Crossrail 2 Project

New stations would serve shopping destinations at Cameron Toll and Fort Kinnaird. Morningside would be under ten minutes from Waverley by train, instead of 25 minutes by bus and, more importantly, a slew of professionals living along the line would find it a very easy way to Waverley and on to a long distance train, drastically cutting car travel.

Campaigners submitted an online petition to the Scottish Parliament, who noted that the re-opening would not require parliamentary consent as the line itself is still operational, and minimal infrastructural work was required (other than stations) so re-opening costs would be unusually low.

The new Airdrie line (3 stations) cost £300m; the one to Alloa (one station) cost £57m; the Borders Railway (6 stations) is to cost £235m. Hell, even a facelift for Waverley has cost us all £48m. Reopening the ESSR line with ten stations is estimated at a paltry £15m, with electrification at £18m. Forget the trams—compared to any other railway project in Scotland, this is a deal like no other.

Running half-hourly trains from Newcraighall (timed with existing half-hourly trains leaving there via Brunstane) gives a 15-minute service to Waverley. Half of them would follow the ESSR via Newington, Morningside and Gorgie to pass through Haymarket and Waverley roughly 30 minutes later and then provide an improved half-hourly service to Drem, where alternate services to North Berwick and Dunbar each hour would complete the service: Duddingston to Dunbar direct in under an hour; Newington to North Berwick the same; or vice versa.

It is calculated that 7,725 passengers per day would use the ESSR stations—or around 2.8m passengers a year. That compares with ridership on the popular North Berwick line already or 15% of Waverley’s total. And not all of those would be a loss to Lothian buses. Many would be new customers, attracted by the line’s speed and convenience and adding to the users of Lothian buses on the Southside to reach reopened stations. With a Benefit-Cost Ratio of 1.42, it would be a profitable asset and addition to ScotRail’s allure as a mode of transport around Edinburgh the way it already is in Glasgow.

We are already part-way there. In February 2007, the private consortium E-Rail announced that £8.5m had been pledged by land owners along the route, in recognition of the forecast that properties and land close to the stations on the line are expected to increase in value by around 10% if the line re-opens. It is understood the finance would come from The University of Edinburgh, and the Cameron Toll and Fort Kinnaird shopping centres.

So, what are we waiting for?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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4 Responses to South Suburban Salvation

  1. scapa says:

    Reopening the rail line to Penicuik would be a start, pity some local authority authorised demolishing the viaduct

  2. john Howden says:

    Please keep me posted of any developments metings etc. This is an excellent opportunity to keep the city moving

  3. Pingback: Ten of the Best | davidsberry

  4. lizann says:

    HI – this a great article about something that should have happened ages ago – why not get it run in the evening news. I know its been talked about before but now we are nearing the end of the tram debacle this seems like a good time to reopen the discussion. One benefit not mentioned is moving school children around the city cutting out all the school runs that clog up the morning and mid afternoon traffic.

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