HERITAGE watchdogs and one of Edinburgh's most famous hotels have attacked plans for a major revamp of the Waverley Steps into the city's main railway station.
The 6.6 million scheme would result in the windswept stairs being replaced with escalators and lifts encased in a dramatic steel and glass canopy.
However, Historic Scotland and the neighbouring Balmoral Hotel have objected to the proposals, which they claim would ruin views of and from the hotel. Network Rail, which runs Waverley, now faces a planning battle to win approval for the scheme, which it said is vital to improve access to the fast-growing rail hub.
The steps, which were completed in 1867, have been a favourite meeting place for generations, but they also act as a wind tunnel, presenting a formidable obstacle for passengers laden with luggage, or those with disabilities, even in good weather.
Two sets of escalators and a glass lift would be installed beside the refurbished flights of steps, with passengers protected from the wind and rain by the floodlit canopy, which has a tree-like frame.
The plans include a single "up" escalator for the 40ft ascent from the station's mezzanine walkway to a new paved plaza off Princes Street.
A series of three "down" escalators would carry passengers in the other direction, and also give access to two entrances into the Princes Mall shopping centre between them.
Jefferson Sheard, the architects, said the design would transform the current "dark canyon" into a sheltered environment that would provide a landmark entrance and beacon for the station in Princes Street.
Historic Scotland has expressed serious concern at the "significant visual impact" of the plans. Fiona Mackenzie, its head of planning and strategy, said they would affect the setting of the hotel "and wider views within the World Heritage Site".
She said removing part of the original steps and stone entrance portal "seems unnecessary and is a major concern."
A spokeswoman for the government agency said it was discussing revised plans with Network Rail to reduce the scheme's visual impact by lowering the canopy and separating one of the escalators from the lift shaft.
Debbie Taylor, the general manager of the Balmoral Hotel, said it backed improvements to the steps but the plans would have a serious impact.
She said: "We are very much in favour of developing the Waverley Steps, which is very necessary and will be fantastic for the city.
"However, the design is obstructive because it impairs the panoramic views across the city - and we are the second most photographed structure after the castle.
A spokeswoman for Network Rail said: "We are considering options to resolve the concerns of the objectors."