Fifty years after rail track fell silent, trams offer new lease of life

Newhaven Station on the Old Northern Circular Railway. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Newhaven Station on the Old Northern Circular Railway. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Have your say

IT WAS popular with commuters and those who liked to get home for lunch, but that wasn’t enough to save one of Edinburgh’s most significant railways, which shut down 50 years ago today.

However, half a century on, the old lines are being viewed as having potential in future – for the city’s trams.

The death knell for the northern route between Princes Street station and Leith North was sounded by transport minister Ernest Marples, who excluded season ticket holders who went home by train for lunch when he judged its viability – so halving the total passenger numbers.

However, the writing had been on the wall for such lines for years because of their roundabout routes into the city centre and competition from more direct buses and trams.

The network has since been largely converted into cycle and footpaths, now charted on a rail-style “Innertube” map.

Sustainable transport campaigners have suggested the lines could return to rail use over the next half century, as part of the future expansion of Edinburgh’s tram network.

Line 1b of the original scheme was to have used part of the Princes Street-Leith North route, between Roseburn and Granton, but was shelved because of cost in 2009.

Transform Scotland said such old lines would be ideal for trams, building on the initial Edinburgh Airport-St Andrew Square stretch, which is due to be finally opened in 2014.

Board member Paul Tetlaw said: “It is good the city council has protected the track bed, so we can now look to see how they can be brought back into use as public transport routes in the future.

“There is enough space for both a tram line and a cycle track, which is why cycling groups supported the tram scheme .”

Mr Tetlaw said other routes that could be brought back into passenger use included the south suburban line, which has been used only for freight since 1962.

He said hybrid “tram-trains” could run on other tram and rail routes as well, connecting the west and south of the city.

Capital Rail Action Group (Crag) chairman Lawrence Marshall said: “On this 50th anniversary of the closure of Edinburgh’s north suburban rail service to what is now the Ocean Terminal area, it’s clear the corridor left behind is an under-used asset.

“Crag very much hopes that plans to run trams over part of this route will eventually be realised.”

Rail experts said the capital had lost its suburban network because it didn’t serve enough people while other cities, such as Glasgow, retained theirs. In addition, Edinburgh’s hilly landscape, such as the Royal Mile, necessitated indirect routes to the city centre which could not compete with buses and trams.

The Leith North line, built in 1864 by the Caledonian Railway, ran from its Princes Street station behind the Caledonian Hotel, via Murrayfield, Craigleith, Granton Road and Newhaven.

The line was used by 2,200 commuters a day, but Mr Marples did not think making them travel by road instead would increase traffic congestion.

City council transport convener Gordon Mackenzie said: “We are not assessing potential future tram line extensions until the first phase is up and running.”

A spokesman for Transport Scotland agency said: “Any proposals would be a matter for the council.”