Here’s the case for reopening Edinburgh’s lost circle line

The disused Newington station. Image: Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons.

What if I told you there was a perfectly good railway line that circled your city and was not open to passengers? Most cities would jump at the chance to use such a system – but that is not the case in Edinburgh, where many locals are completely unaware of its existence. The double track Edinburgh Suburban & Southside Railway (ESSR) that loops around the city is currently only used by freight transport and the odd diverted passenger train. Apart from that, this great asset lies empty and forgotten.

A very small portion of the ESSR has been used for the Borders Railway in the east of the city. After that the line runs through various suburbs in the south of Edinburgh, from deprived Craigmillar and Niddrie to wealthy Morningside and Newington, before skirting north through Gorgie and joining Haymarket station in the west of the city. The line was shut to passenger traffic in 1962 and the six stations – at Duddingston & Craigmillar, Blackford Hill, Newington, Morningside, Craiglockhart and Gorgie – were all shut. Luckily, unlike most stories of the Beeching Report era, the line was left entirely in place and actually kept in use for the purposes of freight transportation so there are few obstacles to re-opening it to passengers. 

Those living in deprived areas on the outskirts such as Craigmillar would be able to travel much more quickly if they had access to the ESSR. The prosperous areas in the south like Morningside would have a far faster commuter service to their offices, and they could leave their highly polluting 4x4s in the driveway. The last time the passenger service ran, the journey time from Morningside to Waverley was 14 minutes; trying doing that in a car at rush-hour. That bus journey today takes 22 minutes.

 

A map of Edinburgh’s rail network, 1885. Image: AfterBrunel/Wikimedia Commons.

Hearts supporters would benefit from having a station at Gorgie close to their Tynecastle stadium, as opposed to having to walk in from Haymarket. A station in Newington would allow people visiting the busy Cameron Toll shopping centre to leave their car at home. Re-opening the line would also make getting from one peripheral area of the city to another much easier instead of having to travel by bus to Princes Street and then out again.

Delivering a passenger service on the ESSR would give commuters the choice of sitting in traffic or having a quick trip by train to their place of work. Research by TomTom has found Edinburgh to be the second most congested city in the UK, worse even than London. The cost of congestion to Edinburgh's economy has been estimated as £225m and drivers at peak travel times spend 19 per cent of their time at a standstill. Even if the ESSR did take some passengers away from buses, it would still be a more efficient method of moving people around the city. 

A map of the route, 1891. Image: Lmkgeo/Wikimedia Commons.

In political terms, the ESSR is one of those ideas that is talked about every few years and then forgotten about, much like the second circle of the Glasgow subway. In 2004, transport planners were commissioned to investigate the case for re-opening the line. Despite finding that upgrading the railway and adding new stations would cost under £30m, and that the benefit-cost ratio would be 1.64, higher than the 1.01 for the Borders Railway, the report stated a business case was not found.

And yet, £776m was spent on Edinburgh's trams. Even factoring in inflation, the cost of a re-opened ESSR pales in significance.


In 2016, the managing director of the Scotrail Alliance, Phil Versters, spoke in favour of re-opening the ESSR, albeit with the caveat that tram-trains be used instead of heavy rail. This would allow the line to connect with the trams at Haymarket, and then travel along Princes Street, thus avoiding the challenge of running more trains through Waverley, already Scotland's second busiest station after Glasgow Central. The Sheffield-Rotherham Tram-Train is the first example of this concept in the UK although there are other successful cases across Europe. However, it would necessitate further tram work east of Princes Street in order to avoid Waverley.

In the past the re-opening of the ESSR to passengers has been backed by members of all parties of the Scottish Parliament and yet the issue is always kicked into the long grass. Edinburgh is poorly served by trains, in contrast to Glasgow, whose suburbs enjoy fantastic rail connections second only to London within the UK. With the project being good for commuters, great for the environment, a boost for regeneration and a drop in the ocean compared to other transport project costs, there is reason for everyone to get behind the idea of re-opening the ESSR to the people of Edinburgh.

Pete MacLeod tweets as @petemacleod84.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.