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.

 
 
 
 

Are Britain’s political parties finally taking housing seriously?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

For more than 20 years we have been researching and writing about the downgrading of public housing in the UK. Thankfully, the tide finally appears to be turning.

Government failure can be seen most clearly in the form of homelessness, but the problems are bigger – high prices, high rents, housing insecurity and its high toll on mental health, overcrowding, beds in sheds and so on. For decades, financial support for public housing has been cut. Politicians have referred to estates of public housing as “sink” areas, marring the reputations of places and people.

While homelessness and rising prices and rents fill conversations about the housing problems of today, government action has focused on helping existing and new home owners. In the meantime, private landlords reap profits from an insecure, frequently poor quality and high cost sector.

But finally, several British political parties – Labour, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats – are offering evidence-based and convincing analyses of the problem and pledging to improve non-market housing provision.

It is perhaps not surprising that recent decades have generated this new position on how to fix the broken housing system, where the state – local and central – takes a more active role. It is increasingly clear that the market, often lauded as the most efficient way of providing and allocating housing, is actually a key driver of the failure to provide decent homes for many hundreds of thousands of households.

New homes

So what are the parties offering at this stage? The Conservatives focus on overseeing the construction of a million homes in the next five years. Social housing, it seems, will continue to be neglected under a Tory government.

Labour, meanwhile, have pledged to build 100,000 council homes a year by 2024 for those most in need. It also wants to fund a further 50,000 homes a year to be built by Housing Associations who also target those needing a home and will put a stop to Right to Buy: a scheme which has led to over 40 per cent of former council homes now being rented out by private landlords.

The Liberal Democrats propose 300,000 homes a year by 2024, to include 100,000 for social rent (by housing associations). The Greens match the Lib Dems while stressing the need for zero-carbon homes.

This social housing project won the Stirling Prize 2019.

The Conservatives stand out here, with their continued focus on offering public money to help aspirational owners rather than providing housing for those most in need. Their costly Help to Buy scheme, which they plan to extend, has been widely criticised for inflating prices, bolstering developer profits and doing nothing to help those in most need. The party’s election manifesto does not provide any details as to how it will increase the supply of social other than to state that “it will bring forward a social housing white paper”.

Talk of austerity, poverty and inequality may be tiring for some to keep hearing, but it is critical that we understand how bad things are for many people. Many older homeowners find it hard to understand the pressures of simply finding a place to live, let alone the ongoing challenge of funding that space, heating it or accessing it if disabled. Paying rent to help secure someone else’s retirement is particularly galling for many.


A social system

A system is needed that is designed for the needs of all people. Research shows that yes, of course a regulated market in owned housing is needed (controls are needed to ensure it is high quality and built in the right places). But this needs to exist alongside a high quality, professionally managed public housing sector capable of helping people to find decent homes. Increasingly, the shortfall in supply has enabled private landlords to offer low income households sub-standard properties.

The argument that public housing does not work is locked in a vision of large-scale estates that became increasingly unpopular as funding has been drained from them. Most analysts today envision a for-life option (the ability of tenants to stay for as long as they like so that they can feel secure) at a cost that allows other areas of life to be better enjoyed (health, education, access to work). Only home ownership and public rented housing can provide these kinds of outcomes.

Whatever our personal politics, it is vital that we understand that powerful interests circulate to promote housing as a market commodity, rather than a critical social good to be enjoyed by all. The pathway to this vision is littered with the profits to private landlords and the shattered dreams of the homeless and ill-housed.

It is precisely not in the interests of market providers to resolve the housing crisis. This may sound like heresy, but it is the evidence of many years of analysis.

Hope for the future

Looking to a future in which social housing forms a basis for social and economic investment offers genuinely thrilling prospects. There is no reason that a new council building programme cannot be enjoyed in partnership with private builders, and indeed using smaller companies, many of whom have been threatened or busted by the current crisis.

On the environmental front, social homes can be built or retrofitted to enhanced standards that are warm, safe, flood resistant and carbon neutral.

To say this will cost a lot of money is stating the obvious. But housing is a major component in the reproduction of wealth inequalities, private profiteering and carbon emissions (energy use in homes accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s total). The fact that political attention is being focused more clearly on challenging these problems and getting traction on a home-building programme for citizens should be welcomed by all.

The housing crisis of today is an enduring problem, one that goes back more than a hundred years, when walking through the slums of the growing industrial metropolises, Friedrich Engels asked why more housing wasn’t provided when so many people were in need. The question today is, why are we still asking the same old question?

Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies, University of Sheffield and Keith Jacobs, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania.

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