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My name is Isla Whateley, and I'm an MA Journalism student at Edinburgh Napier University.

Read on to learn a little more about me and how this site came about...


I’ve always enjoyed trains. Growing up in the north-west of Glasgow, there was no shortage of them. I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I got into town by car or bus as a teenager, because the train was by far the fastest and most convenient route — the journey of four miles taking less than 15 minutes . A cornerstone of adolescence was when your parents finally let you take the train into town with your friends without adult supervision. With trains every 15 minutes to both Glasgow Queen Street and Central stations on the “low-level” lines, it was easy and comfortable to get around. As a teenager I always felt safe travelling on these trains, even on Old Firm match days.


When I moved to Edinburgh nine years ago, I was a student and lived centrally so I didn’t notice the shortage of suburban rail services in the city. I also felt that Edinburgh was more compact and less sprawling than Glasgow, and much more walkable. However, upon graduating and moving further afield like Slateford and Leith I began to question why there wasn’t the same rail provision in the capital as there was in my home city. Furthermore, there was a dense network of old cycle paths around my new Leith home that I quickly realised were old railway lines. I also heard about the suburban train line in the south of the city that was only being used for freight, and I wondered why it had no passenger services.


I wanted to learn more, so I chose this topic for my Major Project as part of my MA degree in Journalism at Edinburgh Napier University — this website is its outcome. Here, I aim to document the role of the railways in Edinburgh's history, and what role rail will continue to bring looking forward (including trams). 


Some background to the rail network: in the UK, railways developed to transport goods for industry, and passenger services quickly followed. The first railways were generally horse-drawn waggonways which began to appear across the country in the 17th century. Edinburgh’s first railway was the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, which carried coal from Dalkeith coal pits to Edinburgh and was initially horse-powered. It opened in 1831 from St Leonards to Dalhousie Mains and became known as “the Innocent Railway”. In the 1840s steam locomotives replaced horses. The portion of the line beyond Brunstane is now part of the Borders Railway, reopened in 2015.


The nationwide railway boom of the 1840s began to connect local lines across the country, and competing companies were often racing to get to certain areas. In Edinburgh, these two companies were North British Rail and Caledonian Rail. This goes part of the way to explaining why there were six stations that included the word “Leith”, including two called Leith North and two called Leith Walk — they were run by separate companies, until nationalisation in 1948. Read more about these companies and the lines they ran in Leith here.

A 1960s image looking over the former railway line at Newhaven, Edinburgh

Looking west to Newhaven in 1965. Photo taken from a (now demolished) tower block on Lindsay Road, and the train line is the former Caledonian Line's Leith North branch. At this point it would have been already closed to passengers, but still open for freight. Today, it is the Hawthornvale cycle path. © Edinburgh City Libraries, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

The railways were running at a significant financial loss following the Second World War, and the government wanted to do something about it. Dr Beeching, chairman of British Railways from 1961 to 1965, is a much-vilified figure among rail enthusiasts, as his 1963 report was responsible for the closure of a third of the British rail network. This was to save on costs. His "Beeching cuts" were highly controversial, but the majority of his recommended closures went ahead.


Many are under the impression that all former railway lines were closed as a result of Beeching — I certainly thought similar before doing this project — but other factors in the post-war era were often at play too. Only six stations in Edinburgh were named in Dr Beeching’s first report, The Reshaping of British Railways — Edinburgh Princes Street, Abbeyhill, Piershill, Joppa, Merchiston and Portobello. Closures had began in Edinburgh in the 1920s and continued throughout the Second World War.  Both the South Suburban Line and the Caledonian’s Leith North branch were closed to passengers the year prior to the Beeching report’s publication, in 1962. North British Rail's North Leith branch was closed in 1947 as a result of a coal shortage. The line to Corstorphine was closed in 1968 as a later addition to the Beeching report. Non-Beeching factors that contributed to the end of Edinburgh’s suburban rail network included the proliferation of trams (particularly the end of the Pilrig Muddle on Leith Walk), and increased car ownership and usage. Personally, I would argue that Dr Beeching’s decisions had more of an impact on rural communities, who lost their rail link and became dependent on cars, than on bigger cities like Edinburgh.

Edinburgh relied on predominantly buses after the trains and trams disappeared, which caused a conundrum as traffic levels increased over the second half of the 20th century: congestion meant that buses were taking longer and were more frequently delayed, which caused more people to choose to use their car than take the bus, thus adding to the problem. A motorway or inner ring road was not built in Edinburgh during this time either (unlike many other British cities), and the city was struggling. This conundrum is still a factor today, although it has been helped by the re-introduction of trams.


The front page of the Edinburgh Evening News the day the new tram line opened in 2014

Edinburgh Evening News front page from 31 May 2014, the day the trams returned to Edinburgh

Some of the closed railway lines were demolished and became cycle paths, some remained open for freight and became paths later, and a couple of lines have since reopened. There has also been the addition of new stations such as Edinburgh Park, Brunstane and Edinburgh Gateway. To ease the city's congestion, talks of creating an “Edinburgh Metro” system have been going on since the late 1980s, and this project eventually became Edinburgh Trams in the 2000s. Now Phase 1a of the tram project is finally complete, the council are looking ahead to the next line from Granton to the BioQuarter, which could be partly built on these old railway lines turned cycle paths. You could say history is repeating itself.


Rail was a cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution in the UK and played a huge part in the development of empire and the Victorian British psyche. Swathes of people became able to travel outside of their local area, a privilege previously reserved for the upper classes. Trains suffered as a result of increased car and road usage in the 20th century, but bringing them back is something that would not only benefit the population but the environment too. Whether in the form of trams or trains, rail undoubtedly has a place in 21st century Britain — especially Edinburgh.


It has been an absolute joy learning more about Edinburgh’s rail history. I’ve loved exploring the future of rail in Edinburgh, especially with the Newhaven tram extension opening in my area. I hope you learn something from this website too.

Thanks to:

Contributors and collaborators:

Chris Belous

Daniel Johnson MSP

Cllr Scott Arthur

Hannah Ross

Dougie Ratcliffe

John Yellowlees

Andy Arthur

The Living Memory Association (THELMA)



Capital Collections


Edinburgh Collected



Hunter, D. L. G. (1992) Edinburgh's Transport: The Early Years.

Hunter, D. L. G. (1999) Edinburgh's Transport: The Corporation Years.

Klapper, C. F. (1974) The golden age of tramways.

Maclean, A. A. (2006) The Edinburgh Suburban and South Side Junction Railway.

Mullay, A. J. (1991) Rail Centres: Edinburgh.

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