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.

The first Lothian Structure Plan statement, May 1978, specified that some “disused railway tracks” within Edinburgh “may, in the future, have a role to play in the context of a Light Rapid Transit system” – also observing that they “can form attractive walkways, cycleways or bridleways” – and the ”Regional Council wishes to be consulted on any development proposals that would involve the severance of disused railway tracks”.  The Structure Plan alteration, 1984, stated that “within the city a number of tracks” may “have a role to play in the long term for other transport uses, such as light rapid transit, or for a Combined Heat and Power network” and the Region “will meanwhile lay out walkways and cycleways on land in its ownership”.

At a time when local rail services had almost completely disappeared, there was strong public opposition to an Inner Ring Road plan in 1965.  In January 1967 the Scottish Railway Development Association (from 1973 the Scottish Association for Public Transport) published a proposal for a cross-city rail service. 

A Development Plan Review led to the Buchanan-Freeman Fox Edinburgh Planning and Transport Study, which in the “Recommended Plan” of 1972 (which public comment regarded as still a road-based approach) discarded light rail in favour of an “enhanced bus system” but said “the judgment had been a difficult one”.  The (non-member) Edinburgh and Amenity Transport Association effectively opposed the proposed road construction. 

Nevertheless, the Study introduced awareness of the concept of light rail, and anyone active in considering scope for a rail-based system enhancing public transport in Edinburgh had the opportunity from that time to examine tramways in continental European cities being upgraded into light rail systems, a concept embracing vehicles and infrastructure.  As an example of that underway, Frankfurt in October 2018 celebrated 50 years of tram subways.  That permitted the perception of the validity of light rail as the optimum primary public transport mode in Edinburgh. 

In informal discussion with the four members of the Edinburgh committee of what in 1973 became the Scottish Association for Public Transport, two junior members of the study team said that, if Edinburgh’s first-generation tramway had still been in existence, the Study would have recommended light rail.

Accepting that the public transport choice in the Recommended Plan of 1972 was “finely balanced,” Edinburgh Corporation in 1974 – a significant example of responsiveness to public comment – commissioned a review of the public transport elements of the “Recommended Plan” from consultants De Leuw Chadwick O hEocha who reported in the “Review of the Public Transport Elements of the Recommended Plan” in February 1975 that a light rail transit system “would be feasible in Edinburgh, would be likely to attract high passenger volumes and might offer significant advantages to an all-bus system”.

This endorsed, as did later studies, what in March 1972 Professor Arnold Hendry, Professor of Civil Engineering at Edinburgh University, first put forward for rail-based development – first reported in “The Scotsman” on 20 March 1972.  Prof Hendry adapted his proposals but the core remained a north-south sub-surface light rail route, using the Scotland Street tunnel from Canonmills to the city centre and new tunnel south from there. 

There was meaningful dialogue between Lothian Regional Council – formed in 1975 – at Chief Officer level and the Scottish Association for Public Transport, including the case for pursuing light rail.

Among transport decisions in December 1979 Lothian Regional Council resolved “that the prospects for alternative longer term transportation systems be kept under review, and in particular investigations into the potential of Light Rapid Transport [i.e. light rail] be thoroughly examined”.

The Council eventually initiated comprehensive study in the Edinburgh Area Public Transport Study (EAPTS), 1987-90, which assessed the potential of enhanced bus and light and heavy rail modes and designed an optimum network of N-S and E-W light rail lines, with the marketing term of “Edinburgh Metro” adopted. 

The Technical Analysis of the Option Networks of 14 June 1989 stated that the N-S “Light Metro is more successful than the ‘East-West’ Light Metro due to its enhanced passenger time savings and reduced traffic costs” – i.e. reduced impact on other traffic (including servicing and parking), with the segregated routeing of the underground section and use of trackbeds in the north Edinburgh section.

The Regional Council Public Transport Strategy for the Edinburgh Area of 16 June 1989 therefore stated: “The North-South Light Metro offers the greatest balance of advantage for the future, and would therefore be the best new rail element to be developed as the first phase.”  With the recommendation that the N-S line should be progressed first because of its better rate of return, it was taken forward to detail design.  However, Edinburgh District Council said the E-W line should have as much priority as the N-S line.

In 1991, the “Edinburgh Metro” development group reported that the N-S line, first proposed to be on the surface from Minto Street to Cameron Toll, “generated comments from the greatest number of respondents” with residents concerned about prohibition of on-street parking, likely difficulties with vehicular access to properties during both construction and operation, and “guest house owners, hoteliers and business people” concerned “that the loss of on-street parking and servicing would be detrimental to the operation of their businesses”. The underground section, in improved design, was extended as far as Cameron Toll.

With the purpose of a more strategic view of the city and transport needs, there was also a Joint Authorities Transportation and Environmental Study, with a Joint Steering Group of officers of Lothian Regional Council, the Scottish Office and the City of Edinburgh District Council.  In 1991 JATES corroborated an overall transport strategy including the N-S and E-W light rail lines, affirming that the N-S line specifically was “a worthwhile community project in economic efficiency terms, which meets the essential requirements of Central Government for such a project,” and “would justify inclusion in the strategy, however little finance was available”.  JATES reaffirmed the merit of E-W light rail.  A busway showed “unfavourable comparison,” with investigation of a busway option as an alternative to light rail aimed at comparative testing sought by central Government.

After initial encouragement from central Government – with the Scottish Office supportive of the Region’s light rail plans – Treasury restrictions impeded progress, which affected light rail schemes in English cities also at the same time.  However, with the conclusion from cost-benefit analysis, the Region’s will was to continue advancing plans in the hope of funding becoming available, rather than abandon plans because of a present lack of resources.

A month after JATES was published Edinburgh District Council, which had been a participant in it, proposed a busway from the end of the existing Western Approach Road to the Airport access road, with the idea of this as an interim solution in the absence of funding available for light rail.  The busway idea seeped into Regional Council policy, and it became associated with the “Setting Forth” studies for a second Forth road bridge.

The Lothian Structure Plan 1994 (approved 1997) on light rail transit stated “the Structure Plan will safeguard both routes and the locations of associated depots and park-and-ride sites to allow further evaluation of the concept,” and there was specific route safeguarding.

The Lothian Regional Council brochure for its Moving Forward strategy, 1994, describing the intention of “a purpose built route for buses” from “Edinburgh Airport, South Gyle, Edinburgh Park and Wester Hailes to the city centre,” stated also: “A light rail metro system remains our long term objective for providing Edinburgh with a public transport system which significantly improves the service to the user and is a viable alternative to the private car.  The main problem is the availability of finance and it is important that every opportunity is taken to make these proposals achievable.”

Much reduced in scope, a guided west Edinburgh busway eventually operated only from December 2004 to January 2009.

With major housing development in Leith, Newhaven and Granton appearing certain the Council’s Waterfront body in 2001 proposed a light rail route aimed at serving that new development.  There is reason to consider that the Waterfront scheme distorted a perception of the needs of the whole city – in the interests of the greatest number of public transport users – and supplanted established Council policy, resulting in ad hoc ideas coming together in a less than comprehensive way.  Housing development on the waterfront materialised far more slowly than anticipated.  On the other hand, the population in the city as a whole has increased leading to higher movement demand, with an increase also from travel from surrounding settlements.

With the resulting Edinburgh Tram scheme adopted, the specific route safeguarding in the Structure Plan for the “Edinburgh Metro” E-W and N-S light rail lines was abandoned in 2003.

As a result of implementation mismanagement, an Edinburgh Tram line only from Edinburgh Airport to York Place opened in 2014 (and which made use of the west Edinburgh busway alignment), totally failing to serve the waterfront area, though line extension should reach Leith and Newhaven by 2023.

Edinburgh Tram Line 3 to the south-east of the city, proposed in 2004, was envisaged as to be on the surface with shared operation from High Street to Cameron Toll.  Misgivings about this as a surface route in the Bridges corridor providing public transport infrastructure of adequate quality were endorsed by Steer Jacobs in their Strategic Sustainable Transport Study dated October 2019.  With no evidence of awareness of the previous assessment in 1990-91, they identified “significant challenges in securing attractive journey times and reliability,” that “segregation would not be feasible (acceptable – property take), and effective priority would be difficult to achieve,” and “consideration would need to be given to how a combination of bus rationalisation and traffic reduction could facilitate attractive journey times”. 

Article by John Yellowlees with additions and corrections by John Wilson


  • “even such critics will have to admit to the Tram coming into its own when it starts to provide the high-capacity transport”

    Ha ha ha!

    What a load of rubbish. It’s still a pointless and unused vanity project, but now a £2BN one rather than ‘only’ £1BN. Meanwhile Edinburgh’s schools have collapsing walls. Shameful.

  • Scottish Government funding for the long-running inquiry into the Edinburgh tram line fiasco is to be increased because it had been expected to have finished by now. For the £12M you have bought quite a bit more tram!

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