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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.