What’s in Edinburgh’s 10 year transport masterplan?

Edinburgh. Image: Getty.

Edinburgh City Council has released a draft 10-year transport plan, and put it out to public consultation. The jauntily-named Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Proposed Strategy comes soon after a 20 mph zone was rolled out and the extension of the city's tram line was approved.

The council’s overriding aims are to make the city centre much friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists, and to get people out of cars and thus reduce air pollution. With the city forecast to grow larger than Glasgow within our lifetime, and with tourist numbers increasing with every year, it is encouraging that Edinburgh is making ambitious plans for a low carbon future. There is a surfeit of exciting ideas in the proposals, so even if half of them survive the consultation stage it would be a great achievement.

First off, yes there are going to be more trams. The council proposals include a a circular loop with trams going from Princes Street over the majestic North Bridge which connects the Old and New Towns. From there, it will continue over South Bridge, hook west through the University of Edinburgh area before linking back up with the current tram line at Haymarket railway station.

A summary of the plans: click to expand.

This is an exciting update to the tram network, which will provide services to the south of the city centre soon after the trams extend north through Leith. A free hop-on bus will also do a loop around the city centre, and will seek to emulate other cities, such as Talinn, which offer free transport.

North Bridge, which spans over Waverley station, will be closed to cars but will remain open to buses as this is a vital route. There will also be a new lift installed on the south side of Waverley station, to make it easier for people with prams, the elderly and the disabled to get from the platforms up to North Bridge: at present anyone doing this is required to take a lift to Princes Street, on the opposite side of the railway. Further lifts are planned to make it easier to get from the Grassmarket to Edinburgh Castle, from Market Street to The Mound, and from the Cowgate to George IV Bridge.


East of North Bridge there will be a brand new bridge for cyclists and pedestrians connecting the Old and New Towns. Although there is no crossing here at present, those with long memories will recall there was a pedestrian bridge here in the past, originally built as compensation for the fact the railway line had effectively split Edinburgh in half. However, British Rail “temporarily” closed the bridge from Jeffrey Street across the railway line to Calton Road in 1950, and never re-opened it again.

To the west of North Bridge lies Waverley Bridge, which is a lower-level crossing of the railway. At present this is open to all vehicles, and is where the bus to the airports departs from. The council’s plan is for this bridge, which runs from Princes Street to the bottom of the steep Cockburn Street, to be completely pedestrianised.

Actually, in a move that will prove popular with tourists, many streets in the historic Old Town will also be pedestrianised. The city has already began trials of this on the first Sunday of the month, allowing people to have access to Instagram-ready streets such as the winding Victoria Street, which leads to the Grassmarket, and Cockburn Street, which connects the Royal Mile with Waverley Bridge. A greater portion of the Royal Mile, the popular avenue for tourists which is packed during the Fringe, also looks set to be pedestrianised. The plan also promises more support for cyclists, with various segregated cycle lanes, such as one along a newly tree-lined Lothian Road to connect Princes Street with The Meadows.

The proposals for improved cycling access: click to expand.

Altogether, the 10 year vision is very ambitious and in Sir Humphrey-speak, “interesting”. There will surely be a lot of pressure from motorists and the Conservatives to scale back the plans, which aim to seriously reduce when and how car users can access the city centre, in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

Motorists will lose crossings into the Old Town at North Bridge and Waverley Bridge, although they will still be able to drive from the middle of Princes Street up The Mound. Aside from that, car users wishing to enter the Old Town will be forced to either come in from the west via Lothian Road, or to take a long diversion around Abbeyhill to the east.

Of course the plans could still do with improvements such as re-opening the entirely complete suburban railway which circles Edinburgh and is only open to freight at present. Nonetheless, Edinburgh has been presented with an exciting low-carbon vision of the future. Hopefully it will act on it.

You can see the full plan here.

Pete Macleod tweets as @petemacleod84 and runs Pete’s Cheap Trains.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.