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.