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The Future of the South Suburban Line

For years, local politicians have discussed the reopening of the Edinburgh Suburban and South Side Junction Railway — colloquially known as the South Suburban Line (my preferred term), the South Sub Loop, the Southern Sub, and many other variations. It closed to passengers in 1962 but remained open for freight, unlike most of the other suburban lines in the city. As the rail infrastructure is still there, it would hypothetically be easier to reopen it to passengers than any other line, and local residents have also championed its reopening.

To find out more about its future, I spoke to Daniel Johnson, MSP for Edinburgh Southern, and Cllr Scott Arthur, convenor of the Transport Committee on the City of Edinburgh Council. Watch the video below! (Interviews conducted in January and February 2023)


Daniel Johnson MSP

Cllr Scott Arthur

Background and context

The South Suburban line was built in the late 19th century as the "Victorian equivalent of today's ring road," taking pressure off of Waverley station. Much of the area covered was on the outskirts of the city at the time, but the population of Edinburgh was growing so a passenger service was launched soon after freight began using the line.

It was built by an independent company but was under control of North British Railways. To see a 1923 map of the railways and competing companies in Edinburgh, click here.

When Leith Central opened in 1903, the South Suburban line linked up with it and you could get from Leith to Morningside in 21 minutes — nowadays, it would be double that by bus.

It ran with an "inner" and "outer" circle (similar to the Glasgow Subway) and stopped at stations:

  • Leith Central (terminus 1903-1952)

  • Abbeyhill

  • Waverley (terminus 1884-1903 and 1952-1962)

  • Haymarket

  • Gorgie (renamed Gorgie East in 1952)

  • Craiglockhart

  • Morningside Road

  • Blackford Hill

  • Newington

  • Duddingston & Craigmillar

  • Portobello

  • Piershill

By the time of its closure in 1962, the railways had been nationalised under British Railways. Many railways in the UK closed around this time as a result of the Beeching cuts, but the South Suburban was earmarked for closure by Edinburgh councillors before Dr Beeching's report was even published. This was largely due to road competition and the passenger service running at a financial loss.

Below is the poster announcing the withdrawal of the passenger service on the South Suburban Line, as well as some examples of tickets used.

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

In March 1963, six months after the closure of the passenger line, a survey by the Edinburgh Suburban Travellers Association and the Scottish Railway Development Association found that the majority of those who had used the line before closure were worse off in nearly every way. 80% of those users were now making their journeys by bus, which increased both the length of their working day and their expenditure (Maclean, 2006).

What's next?

Now, the South Suburban line is primarily used for freight and very little of the old station infrastructure still exists. Up until May 2023, one passenger train a day would travel along the line (the 2105 from Glasgow Central to Edinburgh Waverley), and trains are sometimes diverted on it if the line between Waverley and Haymarket is disrupted.

As you can see from my discussion with Scott Arthur, the council are seriously considering reopening at least part of the line for passenger use. Page 29 of 2021's City Mobility Plan names the South Suburban line as a "strategic freight route," and adds that "the Council will continue to engage with Network Rail to keep the possibility of its reinstatement as a passenger line under review." The draft Public Transport Action Plan published in January 2023 by the council promises a renewed feasibility study for the re-opening of the line too.


Daniel Johnson MSP considered the use of tram-trains to link up with the existing tram line (which looks set to be extended south in the future according to the City Mobility Plan). However, just because the track is still there and in use doesn't mean it will necessarily be easy. Station infrastructure will have to be rebuilt and many of the station locations have no car parking provision. We also don't know the cost vs benefit scenario yet, and the council may decide to focus on expanding the tram network.

A campaign group on Twitter (see below) has been calling for the re-opening of the South Suburban Line since 2018, launching a petition in 2020, which has nearly 5,500 signatures at the time of writing. Many local residents and transit enthusiasts are in favour too.

The line could link various city locations such as:

  • Tynecastle, for Hearts stadium

  • Two Edinburgh Napier University campuses (Craiglockhart and Merchiston)

  • King's Buildings

  • Royal Edinburgh Hospital

  • Cameron Toll

  • Portobello Beach

  • Meadowbank Stadium

...not including various densely-populated residential areas from Newington to Abbeyhill.

Edinburgh is one of the few British cities without a motorway running through the middle of it, meaning road congestion is commonplace. We are lucky to have a great bus network, but they are often slowed down by traffic. The recent opening of the Newhaven tram extension shows how necessary off-road rail and light rail is for Edinburgh's growing population, and to encourage people out of their cars. Reopening the South Suburban line could be a perfect opportunity to capitalise on this, improving travel times in the city and decreasing car usage — ultimately benefitting both residents and the environment.

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