The South Suburban Railway – an Edinburgh rail by-pass?

The South Suburban Railway – an Edinburgh rail by-pass?

by Fred Mackintosh
article from Monday 30, November, 2020

TO EVERYTHING there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.  In Edinburgh the months running up to a Scottish Parliament election is the time for MSPs to raise the prospect of the return of passenger services on the Edinburgh South Suburban Railway – known as the ‘Sub’.  This time around questions have been asked in the Parliament by Conservative list MSP Miles Briggs and Edinburgh Southern Labour MSP Daniel Johnson, back in February 2016 the then MSP for Edinburgh Southern, Jim Eadie, sponsored a debate at Holyrood.   

When asked by Mr Briggs and Mr Johnson the Transport Minister Michael Matheson was able to assure us all that the re-opening of the Edinburgh South Suburban Railway for passengers “is being considered as part of an option to expand Edinburgh’s mass transit network within the second strategic projects review (STPR2)”.  The STPR2 process has always felt like an attempt by the SNP Government to push difficult decisions on expensive transport infrastructure programmes into the long grass and no public list of the projects being considered exists.  Remember that no new railway has been opened by the SNP that was not already in planning when they came to power thirteen years ago in 2007.  There is a real question of whether an SNP government will ever fund the expansion of ‘Edinburgh’s mass transit network’ or if it did whether that will actually include the return of passengers to the Sub.

I should declare an interest.  Not only was I one of those who launched the last serious attempt to re-open the sub (back in 2007 when I was a City Councillor), but I am also the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh Southern in the elections in May.  I write this article in the hope that everyone who wants passenger services on the Sub will come together to generate a realistic and innovative scheme that goes beyond warm words and parliamentary questions.

Building a coherent, practical and overwhelming case for the return to passenger services requires clarity about what the Sub is for.  Should be it be a circular service within Edinburgh – rather like the Circle line in London or the Glasgow Subway?  Should it be connected to Edinburgh's growing tram network?  Or, as I argue, should it be a strategic route designed to offer better connections from south eastern Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian to the west of Edinburgh and the central belt – a rail alternative to the City by-pass in-fact?  

It is worth remembering that even during the pandemic every morning thousands of people drive to work around the congested A720 Edinburgh City by-pass.  Traffic levels are high in the morning and evening peak and they will keep growing.  The Scottish Government is already committed to spending £140 million to build a new junction and fly-over at Sheriffhall.  What will come next – a third lane?  How much would that cost, both in cold hard cash and pollution?

The Edinburgh South Suburban Railway opened in 1884 and passenger services to its six stations ended in 1962.  Over the past sixty years there have been a number of attempts to bring back services.  These have been led by the Capital Rail Action Group, E-Rail, a petition to the Scottish Parliament and prior to 2009 the Lib Dem City council group.  Any renewed attempt must address the reasons why previous attempts failed.

The most recent coherent study into the ‘Sub’ was a report by transportation consultants  Halcrow in 2008.  Halcrow studied eight options and did not find favour with any of them.  The primary reasons the options failed were lack of capacity on the railway entering Haymarket/Waverley from the west, high capital costs (to build new stations or convert to tram/trains), relatively low passenger numbers that mainly abstracted passengers from buses and subsidy requirements (only three options covered 50% of their operating costs).  Since 2008 the Borders Railway has been finished and trains run from Edinburgh to Glasgow again via Airdrie and Bathgate. We know that when railways are opened – passengers come.

It is a reality that must be faced that the lack of capacity between Haymarket and Waverley has got worse since the Halcrow report was written.  With eight or nine trains an hour between Edinburgh and Glasgow over three routes and frequent trains to Fife, Stirling and Carlisle a circular service around the Sub simply can’t get onto the tracks between Waverley and Haymarket Central Junction where it branches off to the south.  This means there will never again be a circular heavy rail service linking Morningside to Waverley like there was in the 1950s .  

The realisation that the train paths for a circular heavy rail service do not exist has helped encourage the idea that tram/trains could run on the Sub.  Surely, went the argument, a tram could run around the Sub between Gorgie and Portobello with as many stations as you like and then neatly run-on street through the city centre?  The Sheffield and Rotherham Tram/Train project shows that, eventually, trams can run on heavy rail tracks in the UK.

The sad fact it there a real obstacle to such a solution; the railway itself.  The Sub joins the main Edinburgh Glasgow railway line on the southern side of the four-track electrified mainline railway directly opposite Haymarket Depot.  The Edinburgh Tram line runs to the north of the depot.  Any tram/train must either go over the depot and railway or under both.  The cost of a double track tram bridge or tunnel would be huge.  Edinburgh knows too well how expensive tram infrastructure can be, but a tram bridge over a four-track operational railway and depot would be eye-wateringly expensive.   It is the same to the east.  The closest that the tram comes to the heavy railway is where Leith Walk crosses the Powderhall Branch at Shrub Place.  It would be necessary to construct a mile of new tramline from Leith Walk down to Meadowbank to connect to the heavy railway.  A tram branch along that route would be a good idea in itself, but to reach the Sub 

the tram/trains would still have to cross the east coast mainline at Portobello East junction.  Can anyone doubt the cost of those two connections would be substantial?

The rail network in Scotland is owned by Network Rail and a huge number of different projects compete within Network Rail’s approval systems.  Any scheme to re-open the Sub must attract the support of Scottish Ministers, but also has to run with the grain of the  

many strategic infrastructure projects that Network Rail has in development.  A scheme for the Sub that interferes with train paths for existing services entering Waverley from the west or east will never get off the ground.

That said there is some good news that needs to be recognised.  Since 2009 there has been work by Network Rail to increase the utility of the Sub for freight traffic by improving signalling and widening the loading gauge.  There is now a Network Rail project called ‘Growing Lothian and Borders’ and that could end up increasing capacity on the sub and more importantly electrify the line and perhaps even the Borders railway.  If that happens – and it would be done to increase the use of the Sub for freight services – then there is a real opportunity for new passenger services in southern and south eastern Edinburgh and Midlothian.

Imagine a fast, direct service running from the Borders Railway stopping at Eskbank, Shawfair, Newcraighall, Kinnaird Park, Craigmillar, Newington, Morningside and then running down the Shotts line to Glasgow Central?  This would be a real alternative to the City by-pass and trains could whisk travellers direct from Eskbank to Glasgow in a little over 90 minutes and Morningside to Glasgow Central in a little more than an hour, all without travelling into Haymarket or Waverley for the train to Queens Street.   How many drivers could be persuaded to leave their cars at home and avoid the by-pass?  Just think of the benefits to Craigmillar – still one of the most deprived parts of our capital city – to give it direct access to the heart of Scotland.

This sort of project only works if the Sub is electrified.  The route now sees up to fifty freight services each day and back in 2008 Halcrow assessed there to be six train paths each hour in each direction.  Electrification enables stopping services to slow more quickly and accelerate faster from station stops.  More trains could use the line.  With electrification those intermediate stations in southern Edinburgh could be built.  The service could start with a couple of stations, there would be no question of interfering with the busy Edinburgh Glasgow railway and with the service designed as a strategic route there would be no issue about abstracting passengers from local bus services.

Glib slogans and pictures of steam trains from the 1950s in the Evening News will not bring passenger services back to the Edinburgh South Suburban Railway.  My hope is that our city’s politicians will unite to demand that ‘Growing Lothian and Borders’ includes electrification of the Sub and the Borders Railway and that the Sub should be used for fast, frequent electric services from the south and east of our capital to Glasgow avoiding Waverley.  It could happen, it fits in with all the other plans for rail in Lothian, and would remove the demand for an eventual third lane (and maybe a fourth lane) on the City by-pass.  That is the sort of credible, coherent campaign that the people of south and east Edinburgh and Midlothian can get on board.

 Fred Mackintosh QC is an Advocate and Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh Southern and on the Lothian Regional List. He was City Councillor for Newington from 1999 to 2007.

Photograph of freight train on the South Sub from the ELR website 

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