Edinburgh Light Rail – How the Axis Turned

It is difficult now to believe that Edinburgh once had a suburban railway system comparable with Glasgow’s. However unlike in the west there was no hinterland of large satellite towns, and the capital’s challenging topography made routes indirect, with the South Suburban taking passengers on a great loop only to deposit them at the foot of the Waverley Steps. In the northern half of the city, the cable-worked Scotland Street Tunnel was soon replaced with a conventionally-graded but less direct route that lost its main purpose on the opening of the Forth Bridge. Rivalry between the Caledonian and the North British Railway left Leith with too many lines, one of which had stations that never opened to passengers.

Fast forward to modern times, and local trains running solely within Edinburgh are but vaguely if fondly remembered, with the South Suburban long reduced to its original purpose as a bypass of congested Waverley for freight and empty stock movements, while elsewhere the old networks have found a new vocation as railway paths for shared use by cyclists and walkers.

From the late 1980s the success of the Tyne and Wear Metro and the Docklands Light Railway led to a wave of schemes for light rail to be the congestion-buster of Britain’s big cities. Edinburgh was no exception, and Lothian Regional Council led a consultation on an Edinburgh Metro linking the city with its peripheral housing estates that would run north-south, from Muirhouse and Davidson’s Mains along old lines and through the Scotland Street Tunnel to head down Nicolson Street and Minto Street for Burdiehouse and Ferniehill. Frontagers’ objections that they did not want trams running past their garden gates pushed up the length of tunnel and hence the cost, at a time when the economy was in a downturn. In 1991 the Edinburgh Metro was summarily cancelled, and when the next wave of confidence brought light rail back to the fore it was to be on a different axis.

The JATES study for the Scottish Government and local authorities in Edinburgh the Lothians and Fife identified an east-west corridor stretching from Leith with its new government offices through the city centre and westward via business parks to the Airport and towards Fife as the one where transport investment would yield the greatest return. A proposal for a guided busway faltered over running costs and was displaced in the heady early days of the Scottish Parliament by the Edinburgh Trams, Britain’s first and only new light rail network since Nottingham, which had been approved at the end of the Major years. The irony was not lost on observers that the route served the constituency of Labour’s long-serving (2002-6) transport secretary Alistair Darling, who was responsible for axing light rail in Liverpool, Leeds and Portsmouth but powerless to stop Edinburgh because it was a devolved matter.

Ambition was soon reined in, a line to the south falling victim to the “no” vote in a congestion-charging referendum in 2005, while what remained of the Granton loop went into abeyance with the collapse of redevelopment plans following the banking crisis of 2008.  The SNP  had come to power as a minority administration committed to cancelling both the remaining Tram line and the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link, but were outvoted by the opposition parties on the Tram which thus became the only prospect for the Airport gaining rails to and from the city centre. For a time even that nearly didn’t happen as the wrangles between the City’s arms length company and the contractor seemed set to have the route from the Airport run only as far as Haymarket, but with the tracks already laid to much accompanying disruption along Princes Street wiser counsels eventually prevailed and the terminus since opening in 2014 at York Place has proved quite temporary as work is already under way on an extension to Leith and Newhaven. Meanwhile Lord Hardie’s inquiry into what went wrong with the original contract is taking longer than the building of the first line!

If the present line can be dismissed by some as a vanity project because it is slower and more expensive than the Airport bus routes, even such critics will have to admit to the Tram coming into its own when it starts to provide the high-capacity transport needed to sustain the social and economic regeneration of  the City’s waterfront area around the Port of Leith. But readers of railway atlases from the early 1990s showing the north-south Edinburgh Metro linking the centre with peripheral estates may have cause to puzzle as to how the route eventually delivered came to be at right angles to that, leaving the old lines of North Edinburgh as the haunt of cyclists and walkers.

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