A history of Edinburgh’s Innocent Railway line

The Innocent Railway Tunnel. Picture: Gareth Easton/Evening News
The Innocent Railway Tunnel. Picture: Gareth Easton/Evening News
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BUILT to serve a carbon-starved capital city, it was Edinburgh’s earliest railway, and boasted the nation’s first railway tunnel to boot.

The Innocent line, was a horse-drawn railway line connecting St Leonard’s and Dalkeith. Completed in 1831, it was Edinburgh’s debut railway, and its tunnel is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom.

The St Leonard's coal depot entrance to the Innocent Railway tunnel. The line ceased carrying rail traffic in 1968. Picture: Lisa Sibbald.

The St Leonard's coal depot entrance to the Innocent Railway tunnel. The line ceased carrying rail traffic in 1968. Picture: Lisa Sibbald.

Inception

In the early part of the 19th century, the city of Edinburgh was in desperate need of affordable coal. The mineral was coming in from collieries in the west via the Union Canal and by sea from pits in Fife and Northumbria, but this proved very expensive. Good quality coal could be sourced locally from the Lothians, unfortunately, the rut-ridden roads to Edinburgh were not up to the task.

The solution arrived in 1826 when a group of Dalkeith pit owners formed the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway Company and invested in a horse-drawn goods line linking the rich coal seams of Dalkeith with carbon-hungry central Edinburgh. Later branch lines were added to the coast at Leith and Fisherrow near Musselburgh.

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Innocent railway walk at Niddrie. Picture: Julie Bull/TSPL

Innocent railway walk at Niddrie. Picture: Julie Bull/TSPL

An innocent image

A plaque at the entrance to the line today claims that the ‘Innocent’ moniker was coined as an attempt to reflect the genteel image of the horse-drawn railway compared with the ‘dangerous’, all-hissing, all clanking steam engines of the modern age. However, some contemporary sources say that the railway’s unusual nickname is derived from the fact that there were no casualties while building it. Perhaps it’s a mix of both.

Challenges

One of the big challenges facing the engineers was the section of the route at Arthur’s Seat as it approached the terminus at St Leonard’s. The lay of the land at this point prompted the creation of a 520 metre long tunnel. Coming in at a cost of £12,000, it would be the first public railway tunnel in Britain. Carriages were rope-hauled into the terminus via a steep incline. Two other impressive engineering feats along the route included the cast iron beam bridge across the Braid Burn at Duddingston, and the timber viaduct at Thornybank, Dalkeith - the latter sadly demolished in the 1960s.

The completion of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway saw demand for coal in Edinburgh treble over the next decade, and consumers benefitted massively from the great reduction in prices.

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An unexpected result

In 1832, one shrewd local businessman, Michael Fox, decided to capitalise on passenger traffic, making use of the Innocent Railway’s connection to Fisherrow close to Portobello. With no stops on the Innocent route, passengers could alight the train at any point of the journey, but of course the big selling point was the fact that you could be ferried from the city centre out to the coast. It wouldn’t have been particularly fast, but for many this would have been their first ever experience of the railways. Mr Fox’s venture proved to be a big hit, carrying over 150,000 passengers to Edinburgh’s seaside in its first year.

The Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway Company eventually purchased and ran the enterprise themselves. Incredibly, it wasn’t long until passenger receipts outstripped the returns from coal transportation!

Acquisition and demise

In 1845 the Edinburgh to Dalkeith line was acquired by the much larger North British Railway Company. Following the acquisition, one of the company’s first acts was to withdraw all horse-drawn carriages and convert the track for steam traction. The Edinburgh-Dalkeith railway’s short-lived age of ‘innocence’ was over.

Cycle route

After more than 135 years of operation, the Innocent Railway was scrapped in 1968 following the closure of the coal depot at St Leonard’s.

In 1994, a long section of the Innocent Railway running between St Leonard’s and Brunstane became part of National Cycle Network’s Route 1 which runs from Dover to the Shetland Isles. The resurfaced route is used by several hundred pedestrians and cyclists every single day.

Innocence regained.