Finding a Route

One of the main problems when considering introducing a light-rail metro system into a major city is finding space for this new transport infrastructure.  Mature urban areas usually have very little undeveloped land.  Sections can be built on existing roads, but usually only a few roads are wide enough to accommodate separate light rail lanes alongside existing traffic.  When built on existing roads the efficiency of the light-rail system is reduced by traffic congestion, road space and parking is reduced for other traffic, and bus lanes usually need to be removed.  The defining feature of a Metro is that it is primarily constructed on segregated routes away from road traffic and pedestrians (in contrast a tram system is primarily constructed on public roads).  As a result most metro systems in cities are constructed underground in tunnels:  this is extremely expensive.

The reason that a Metro system is feasible in Edinburgh is that the city has a significant (disused) railway infrastructure.  This was constructed around 150 years ago as the city began to go through its most rapid period of expansion.  As a result, much of the city grew up around the rail routes.  Most of these rail services were removed in the 1960s but the routes have been preserved.  They can now provide ideal routes for Edinburgh's proposed Metro system.

Edinburgh's Railways

Edinburgh's first railways opened in the 1830s and most of the development and expansion that followed was carried out by two competing companies:  The North British Railway and the Caledonian Railway.   Each operated from their own major terminus station.  The North British were based at the current Waverley Station at the east end of Princes Street.  The Caledonian were based at the west end of Prines Street, where the Caledonian Station is now a prestigious hotel.

The First Railways

Map of Edinburgh's Railways in 1850 (superimposed on a map of the road network in 2003)

The Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway opened in 1831 to link the city to the coalfields near Dalkeith, to the south east of Edinburgh.  This was needed to meet the prosperous city's growing demand for coal.  The line started from south of the old town, at St Leonards, and ran through the south east of the city via Niddrie and Millerhill.  A feature of this route within Edinburgh was the St Leonard's tunnel:  523 m long, 6.1 m in diameter and with a steep 3.5% gradient.  This steep northbound climb into the city required rope haulage, powered by two stationary steam engines.

 Passenger services were introduced on the Edinburgh & Dalkeith in 1832 and surprised everyone with their popularity.  A branch from Niddrie to Leith (via Portobello and Seafield) opened in 1838.  The northern part of this branch is still used today for freight services to Leith docks.  Services were originally hauled by horses, but steam locomotives were introduced in the 1840s.

The Edinburgh & Dalkeith was taken over by the North British Railway in 1845.  Later extensions took this route to other Midlothian towns and south into the Scottish borders.  Hawick was reached in 1849 and the extension to Carlisle opened in 1862. 

The Edinburgh, Leith & Newhaven Railway opened in 1842.  It provided a direct link from Canonmills, on the north side of the New Town to Trinity Station near Newhaven harbour, just west of Leith.  In 1846 this horse-drawn railway was extended from Trinity westwards to the harbour at Granton, and a branch was bult to the busy docks at the Port of Leith.  The terminus of the Leith branch was at Citadel Station, and there was an intermediate stop at Bonnington.

To allow services to operate right into the heart of the city a substantial tunnel was built from Canonmills, under Scotland Street, Dublin Street and St Andrew Square to Canal Street Station.  Canal Street no longer exists, but was located , just south of Princes Street on the north side of what is now the Waverley Station.   The Scotland Street Tunnel is 962m long, 7.3m wide and 5.2 m high, with a steep 4% gradient climbing towards Canal Street.  The roof of the tunnel is just below street level at Scotland Street, but is 15m deep at St. Andrew Street and 11m deep under Prince Street.  Cable haulage was required, with a stationary winding engine at Canal Street.

The Main Lines to Glasgow and London

The Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway opened in 1842 linking Edinburgh to Scotland�s largest city, Glasgow.   The line entered Edinburgh from the west and terminated at Haymarket, just west of the city center.  There was one intermediate station within Edinburgh at Saughton, 2 miles from Haymarket.

By 1846 a new terminus had been built right in the heart of the city at the east end of Princes Street.  This is the site of the current Waverley Station, in a cutting on the south side of Princes Street, some 15 m below street level.  It is reached from Haymarket by a long 923 m tunnel followed by a shorter 113 m tunnel under The Mound.  The Edinburgh & Glasgow was absorbed by the North British Railway in 1865.

In 1848 the Caledonian Railway began operating services between London and Edinburgh via Carlisle and Carstairs.  The Caledonian main line entered Edinburgh from the south west and terminated at Princes Stree Station next to Lothian Road at the west end of Princes Street.

The Caledonian main line included stations at Currie (5 miles from Lothian Rd), Kingsknowe (3 miles from Princes St station), Slateford (2 miles) and Merchiston. 

In 1846 the North British Railway opened its line from Edinburgh to Berwick upon Tweed via East Lothian.  This line entered Edinburgh from the east and reached its terminus at North Bridge Station (on the site of the current Waverley Station) via a 1.3% climb through a 364m long tunnel through Calton Hill immediately to the east of the station.  Through rail services to London only became possible when the Newcastle & Berwick Railway opened in 1847.  The North British main line included stations at Portobello (2 ¾ miles from North Bridge) and Joppa (3½ miles from North Bridge). 

The Edinburgh, Leith & Newhaven Railway became part of the North British Railway in 1862.  In 1868 the restrictive Scotland Street tunnel was bypassed by a more level route slightly to the east.  This new route headed through Calton Hill tunnel and diverged northwards via new stations at Abbeyhill (1869) 2km from Waverly,  Leith Walk (1.75 miles from Waverley), and Powderhall (1895).  The route to Leith then stopped at stations at Bonnington, Junction Road (1869) and terminated at Leith Citadel Station.  Just to the east of Calton Hill tunnel a short loop was added in 1886 to serve Abbeyhill and a new station at Piershill (1891).  Easter Rd 1891.

The Edinburgh, Loanhead and Roslin Railway opened in 1873.  From a junction at Millerhill, in the south east of the city,  the line climbed south and west to the neardby town of Loanhead and into the western side of the Midlothian coalfields.

Edinburgh Suburban Lines

Map of Edinburgh's Railways in 1900 (superimposed on a map of the road network in 2003)

The South Suburban Railway was opened by the North British Railway in 1884.  This line headed south from the main line to Glasgow, just west of Haymarket.  After continuing south to Morningside the line headed east through the city until it joined the East Coast main line on the western edge of the city.  Trains could then complete their circular route back to the city centre.

There were stations on this line at Gorgie, Craiglockhart, Morningside Road,  Blackford Hill, Newington, Duddingston, Portobello, Piershill, Abbeyhill..

A double track branch from the Edinburgh & Glasgow line north to Corstorphine opened in 1902.  An intermediate station was added at Balgreen in 1934.  A further railway line opened in 1903 to link Waverley Station to the south of Leith via a new route.  This new line branched off the existing line at Abbeyhill at terminated at Leith Central Station.

The opening of the magnificent Forth Bridge in 1890 was accompanied by the opening of a new railway from the bridge into the east of Edinburgh.  From Saughton this new line ran parallel with the main Edinburgh to Glasgow line into Haymarket and Edinburgh Waverley, creating a four-track railway.  This opened up journey opportunities to Fife and the north of Scotland.

Note that the first lines of the London Underground (the world�s first underground railway) opened in 1863.

The Caledonian Railway opened the first of its braches into the north of Edinburgh in 1861.  Originally this was a freight only line, but passenger services were introduced in 1879.  After leaving the main line  from Princes St via Dalry Road Station (opened 1900) this branch headed over the Edinburgh-Glasgow line west of Haymarket and then continued northreet Station via Murrayfield Station, Craigleith Station (south of Queensferry Road) to Crewe Toll, Granton Gasworks and then eastwards along the coast to Granton Harbour.  Here there was a connection with the Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven line.

In 1864 another branch was opened from Crewe Toll eastwards to Leith.  Passenger services were only introduced in 1879 when stations were built at Granton Road, Newhaven (Craighall Rd) and terminated at Leith North.  In 1934 a station was added at East Pilton.

Balerno branch opened in 1874.  It diverged from the Caledonian mainline from a junction miles west of Princes St Station.  This was followed by Colinton Station.

In 1876 a link was provided from Caledonian line to the westbound Edinburgh & Glasgow line.  An additional branch opened in 1894 diverging from Craigleith to the north west to Davidson's Mains and Barnton.  An additional station at House O'Hill opened in 1937.

A short-lived additional branch from Newhaven (on the Leith North Branch) to the docks at Seafield opened in 1903.  This ambitious line was built on tall viaducts.  Passenger stations were planned at Newhaven, Ferry Rd and near the foot of  Leith  Walk, but these never opened. The line was singled in 1917.  The line closed in 1966.

Map of Edinburgh's Railways in 1950 (superimposed on a map of the road network in 2003)

Distances Between Stations
From Waverley to
Morningside Rd
Blackford Hill
Waverley (via main line)
From Waverley to
(Portobello via loop)
Easter Road
Leith Walk
Junction Road
Leith Citadel
From Princes St to
Dalry Road
(House o' Hill)
(Davidson's Mains)
East Pilton
Granton Road
Leith North
Granton Gas Works

From Prince St to
Journey Times
Leith Central
Blackford Hill
Morningside Road
Waverley (arr)
Waverley (dep)
Leith Central

The Present Day

Map of Edinburgh's Railways in 2003
Street running trams were introduced into Edinburgh in the 1870s.  These proved successful until the 1950s when car ownership increased dramatically.  The car brought unparalleled flexibility and journey times.  The car also required enormous amounts of the city�s road space.  This resulted in the withdrawal of tram services in 1956 and their replacement with buses.  Buses proved less of an obstacle to other road traffic.

In the 1960s competition from road transport also killed of most of the suburban rail services in Edinburgh.  In fact the multiple track Caledonian main line into Princes Street was converted into a major road link into the city centre: the West Approach Road.  This concentration on private car transport was hardly surprising as the car appeared to be the perfect mode of transport for the future.  Now, of course, there are so many cars, and so much congestion, that car's original advantages have gone.

Fortunately the majority of the closed railway lines were safeguarded for future transport development.  Most are now operated as cycle routes, with a narrow asphalt strip being laid down the middle of the double-track railway formation.

The most recent rail closures were the line from Powderhall to Granton Gas Works in 1986, and the line from Millerhill to Loanhead in 1993.  An addition to the rail network was the spur to link Haymarket to the Caledonian main line near Slateford in 1964.  This allowed the closure of Princes Street Station a year later.

Today the rail network consists of

  • the east coast main line to London via Berwick
  • the main line to Glasgow
  • the west coast main to London via Carlisle
  • the line via the Forth Bridge to Fife, Aberdeen and the north
  • the south suburban line (freight only)
  • Piershill to Powderhall (freight only)

  • Portobello to Newcraighall and Millerhill
In more recent times new stations have opened at South Gyle (1985) and Wester Hailes (1987).  In June 2002 two new stations opened at Brunstane and Newcraighall to allow trains from West Lothian to to extended across  to the east side of Edinburgh and a park-and-ride site at Newcraighall.  A further station is planned at Edinburgh Park, and this may open during 2003.

© Dr David Low (Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh)