South Edinburgh Suburban Railway

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:59 pm on 3rd December 2008.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 4:59 pm, 3rd December 2008

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S3M-1975, in the name of Gavin Brown, on the south Edinburgh suburban railway. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the wide public and cross-party political support that the campaign for the reopening of the South Sub railway has gathered; acknowledges the importance of the work carried out by groups such as Capital Rail Action Group (CRAG), E-Rail and TRANSform Scotland; observes that the most recent report on the reopening of the South Sub did not contain a benefit-cost ratio, which was positive in previous reports; believes that the reopening of the South Sub would ease the impact of traffic on the main routes into the city as well as playing an important role in the reduction of fuel emissions in the south of Edinburgh, and believes that there is a case for the reopening of passenger services on the South Edinburgh Suburban Railway.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 5:02 pm, 3rd December 2008

I thank the members of the Scottish Parliament who have stayed behind to take part and observe this debate on the south Edinburgh suburban railway. I also thank the MSPs who signed the motion that I lodged on 22 May.

For some time, the south sub railway has had support across the political spectrum, so I was pleased to see a continuation of that support in the number of members of different parties who signed the motion. I pay particular thanks to the south sub supporters and members of community groups who are watching the debate from the public gallery tonight. We have representatives from Morningside community council, Merchiston community council, Grange/Prestonfield community council, Southside community council, Craigmillar community council, Canongate community forum, E-Rail and the Capital Rail Action Group, to name just a few. Indeed, the capital rail action group has submitted a petition to the Public Petitions Committee that is due to be heard on 16 December.

I will focus on four main areas, the first three of which are the benefits in general that the south sub provides, the attraction of much of its infrastructure already being in place and the innovative funding mechanism that E-Rail has proposed. Fourthly, I will counter some of the comments that were made in the most recent report that was produced by Halcrow and which the City of Edinburgh Council has sanctioned.

On page 10 of the most recent report, we hear that the Edinburgh south suburban railway corridor

"suffers ... from the impact of road traffic on the main radial routes into the city, with the attendant issues of congestion, road safety and damaging environmental effects."

Constructing the south sub would counter a number of the problems from which the south side of the city suffers. There would also be a reduction in journey times from a whole host of parts of the city that are not connected by rail at present—for example Fort Kinnaird, Niddrie, Craigmillar, Cameron Toll, Newington, Blackford, Morningside, Craiglockhart and Gorgie. There is also the possibility of taking the south sub all the way out to Edinburgh Park and making connections into Haymarket and/or Waverley stations.

I will show members how the reduction in journey times might work. It is anticipated that a journey from Morningside to Haymarket on the south sub would take approximately seven minutes, which is impossible for someone travelling down Morningside Road. Getting people out of their cars and on to the south sub to go to and from work or into town to take advantage of retail opportunities would, of course, have environmental benefits.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The member will know that, in opinion polling on the potential use of trams in Edinburgh, it is always assumed that the travelling public would prefer to leave their cars at home in order to travel by tram. Has the same sort of sampling been done for the south suburban railway?

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

As most members will know, the project is at a slightly less advanced stage than the tram project. The report that Atkins produced in 2004 focused heavily on potential use—I will come on to the numbers that were predicted in that report and in the Halcrow report that was produced earlier this year.

Let us look at the infrastructure that is in place. I am sure that the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change is hit regularly by requests for transport projects throughout Scotland, but the south sub has particular benefits that other projects may lack. The bulk of the infrastructure—although not all of it—is already in place. The tracks are there, and passenger trains ran on the line until 1962. Even today, approximately 50 freight trains a day use it, although one or two upgrades may be required. The station locations are also there, although they will need to be converted back into stations. Because the bulk of the infrastructure is in place, costs are more modest than is the case in many transport projects. I argue that the south sub starts from a strong base.

I commend the work that E-Rail has done thus far on the funding mechanism for the project. E-Rail has looked at securing capital contributions from the private sector. It states that having an

"Innovative financial mechanism, with private funds captured through increases in development land values" gives the project a much better chance of going ahead, which makes the point neatly. At the last time of asking, E-Rail had secured pledges of approximately £8 million from the private sector, including contributions from Cameron Toll, Kinnaird Park and the University of Edinburgh. Money from the private sector is potentially available to help meet the capital costs of the project. E-Rail has suggested an innovative way forward that definitely merits further consideration.

I want to counter one or two comments in the Halcrow report, which was not wholly positive about the south sub. It contained no benefit-cost analysis. Previous reports included such analyses, which proved positive—the figure was 1.2 under one model and 1.64 under the best model. By failing to provide a benefit-cost analysis, the writers of the Halcrow report ignored the benefits that would come from less congestion, a lower rate of accidents and a decrease in journey times. A previous report put numbers on those benefits, suggesting that there would be time savings of £1.2 million, decongestion savings of £1.4 million and accident savings of £0.5 million.

The Halcrow report reckons that the line would be used by 822,000 passengers a year, but the Atkins report suggests a figure of 1.5 million. Those estimates are based on marginally different routes, but the disparity between the figures—one is almost double the other—suggests that further investigation is needed. If 1.5 million, rather than 800,000, is correct, it would have a massive effect on the amount of revenue that can be brought into the south sub.

The people of south Edinburgh and groups who are promoting the south sub have certainly waited their turn. The first campaign started probably a couple of weeks after the line was closed in 1962. In 1993, Lothian Regional Council recognised formally that reopening the line might be a good idea. Something is required, and it is fairly clear that little or no benefit will come to south Edinburgh from the tram system—certainly not in the short term and probably not in the medium term.

There are key plus points for the south sub: quicker journey times; much of the infrastructure is in place; an innovative funding mechanism exists; cutting congestion has environmental benefits. The scheme has popular support, and we strongly urge the City of Edinburgh Council and the Government to work together to overcome the obstacles and get the south sub back on track.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party 5:10 pm, 3rd December 2008

I thank Gavin Brown for securing this debate on an old, familiar friend, the Edinburgh south suburban railway. I stand before you, Presiding Officer—there are probably some in the public gallery, too—46 years on, as a former commuter between Morningside Road station and the Royal high school. Like other members, I wish to make good the folly of the 1960s which, symbolically, started with the closing of the sub in the autumn of 1962 and ended with the closure of the Waverley route in 1969. Incidentally, I think that I can congratulate the Scottish Government on bringing forward the first tranche of works on the Borders line as part of its public works programme. That is an excellent start.

There is a problem with the south suburban, which was vividly impressed on me during my youth. I was rarely in Royal high in time for assembly because our trains would gallop merrily along the south suburban line only until they reached the junction near Murrayfield, where they would stand for 10 minutes while the commuters from Glasgow and Fife, and a magnificent 12-wheel sleeping car that came down from Inverness, were given precedence going into Waverley station. That reminded us that the Edinburgh suburban railway was what I would call a raised pinkie railway. Awful genteel, it was built in the 1880s out to ultra-genteel Morningside at a time when very few Edinburgh workers, who lived in the banana of working-class housing between Gorgie and Abbeyhill, travelled by any means other than Shanks's pony. Indeed, very few of them travelled by tram until the 20th century. Many journeys were, however, made from Colinton, Morningside and Davidson's Mains, with the goals being solicitors' officers or Jenners in the centre of town.

The delays were real, and they got worse—or they would have got worse had the south suburban survived—when trains to and from the west stopped being terminated at Caledonian station and were concentrated instead into the west end of Waverley. Trains have since made the west end of Waverley station almost totally congested.

I have great sympathies for the idea that has been put forward, but I think that another type of terminal facility in Edinburgh is needed. If we are anticipating a threefold increase in general rail travel by about 2020, Waverley station is utterly inadequate. It was inadequate in 1948 when Sir Patrick Abercrombie settled on having a quite new station, which was to be served by an underground line running under the Meadows, at Morrison Street, near Haymarket. I think that that siting still holds good.

Why not think of the suburban railway in the way that the people who planned the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras thought of the north London line? We could keep the solum but build an underground route to the main area and use the area above for passenger transport purposes. We should be contemplating a solution on that scale. It has been done on the north London line, and it has enabled trains from the continent to run directly into St Pancras station. Only thus could we get the basic capacity that an Edinburgh terminal would need. All wise European countries are doing something of that sort, and they are preparing for railway passenger levels far higher than those that we have now. In Switzerland, Zürich station is now on three levels, has 26 platforms and handles 340,000 passengers a day using nearly 3,000 trains—roughly double the number Waverley serves.

What of the south suburban line? What of trams? One would best leap over the existing lines to the west and terminate the trains along the tramway line, carrying the services on to Princes Street and Waterloo Place. The vehicle of the future, all over Europe, is the tram-train, and the south suburban line services would fit very well as an experimental tram-train in Scotland.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:15 pm, 3rd December 2008

I have been involved, one way or another—on the sidelines, so to speak—in supporting the Capital Rail Action Group in its campaign for the south sub for almost as long as I can remember in politics and certainly over the past 10 years. I pay tribute to the work of CRAG, and Lawrence Marshall in particular. He has been a tireless campaigner for the south sub. The fact that we are having a debate on it in the chamber today is very much due to his tireless work.

What attracted me, and still attracts me, to the project is that, as Gavin Brown so ably demonstrated, it ticks just about every box we can think of for transport and accessibility. The train paths exist. In fact, once upon a time—I do not know whether this is still done—there was a Christmas trip round the south sub, which Lawrence Marshall managed to arrange just to show that the track is there and can be used.

It looks as though there is now finance for the project. The south sub would be incredibly useful because there is a demand for it. In addition, it would play its part in reducing Edinburgh's contribution to climate change and add to accessibility and social equity in Edinburgh by providing direct transport links between communities that do not currently have them. Edinburgh is one of the many cities that it is easy to get in and out of along radii, but someone who wants to travel from one place on the periphery of Edinburgh to another place on the periphery must come into town and go back out again, which is wasteful of time and resources. The circular route of the south sub would go some way to set that right. It would also increase links with all sorts of other networks, such as the new tram network that will go out to Edinburgh airport. It would also link with the rail system, and thus to the rest of Scotland.

Christopher Harvie must be taken seriously as a learned member who knows a lot about transport, and I did take what he said seriously. Part of our problem in Scotland, and in the UK as a whole, is that our signalling system is antiquated. In London, tube trains can be operated at two-minute intervals. In fact, on some lines, they can be operated at one-minute intervals. They travel at 30mph or 40mph with no danger of colliding with each other, but we seem to fear that if there is less than 15 minutes between trains they might run into each other.

There are modern radar-guided signalling systems that have the added advantage of being virtually vandal proof. I know that they are expensive, but this is a national UK issue, not just a Scottish one. If we could employ a modern signalling system, some of Christopher Harvie's objections or concerns would be solved at a stroke.

I commend Gavin Brown for initiating the debate and hope that it will help to progress the cause of the south sub.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative 5:18 pm, 3rd December 2008

I congratulate Gavin Brown on securing his member's business debate—his first—on the south sub, which he has campaigned for over a long period. I join him in welcoming to the public gallery people from south Edinburgh.

As we have heard, passenger services ceased to run on the south sub line in 1962. Being an Edinburgh eastender rather than an Edinburgh southsider, I did not travel on the line as a boy, so I was fascinated by Christopher Harvie's recollections of his journeys to school on that railway. I could not help thinking, however, that he could have got up earlier and got an earlier train; perhaps assemblies at the Royal high school were events worth missing in his day.

Although I did not travel on the line as a boy, I had the great pleasure of travelling on it in July 2000 in the company of Robin Harper and Margo MacDonald. We were the first passengers on the first passenger journey to be undertaken on the line for nearly 40 years. On that day, I thought that reopening the line was an exciting concept—I still think so, even though many people have sought to pour cold water on the idea in the intervening period. I hope that tonight's debate will play a part in getting the campaign to reopen the line back on track—to use the best, or worst, of puns.

In recent years, several studies have considered the viability of the project. In December 2002, Atkins undertook a consultation on the options for reintroducing passenger services on what is currently a freight-only line. The Atkins report indicated that a half-hourly service from Waverley via Niddrie, Cameron Toll and Morningside to Gorgie would be operationally feasible, as would a half-hourly service from Waverley via Haymarket, Gorgie, Morningside and Cameron Toll to Niddrie and Newcraighall. After assessing the overall costs and benefits, the report concluded that there is a case for reintroducing passenger services on the line.

However, the findings of that report contrast starkly with those of the most recent report, by the Halcrow Group, to which Gavin Brown referred. One must acknowledge that the Halcrow report is far less favourable than the Atkins report. One of the main criticisms of the Halcrow report is that it does not contain a cost benefit analysis, which previous calculations for the project had suggested would be favourable.

As has been demonstrated by the signatories to Gavin Brown's motion, cross-party support exists within the Scottish Parliament—it also exists within the City of Edinburgh Council—for reopening the south suburban railway line to passenger services. I struggle to think of many transport projects in this city that enjoy such universal and unequivocal cross-party support. I believe that there is a case for such a passenger service, which would complement the tram network that is slowly, incrementally and expensively being developed.

We need a definitive report on the project and the options—such as the tram-train option to which Christopher Harvie referred—that takes into account the cost benefit ratio of the project, its environmental benefits, such as the reductions in fuel emissions and traffic volumes on the main roads into the city, the positive impact that such a line would have on businesses in and around the proposed stations and—let us not forget—the private finance that would be available for such a project. In total, the capital costs of the project would be modest by comparison with the tens of millions of pounds that are being expended on trams and on the other projects about which we will hear next week in the minister's statement on the strategic transport projects review.

I very much hope that tonight's debate will give the minister some food for thought and I hope that he will, like his predecessor Tavish Scott, agree to meet the City of Edinburgh Council to discuss the case for reintroduction of services on the south suburban line. If nothing else, a little nudge in that direction would be a most positive outcome to our discussion this evening.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 5:23 pm, 3rd December 2008

I join colleagues in congratulating Gavin Brown on securing this timely debate and I welcome the campaigners in the public gallery who have worked so hard for the project.

As a Lothians MSP, I am whole-heartedly behind any plans to reopen the south suburban railway because I know full well the tremendous congestion on Edinburgh's roads. That congestion is getting worse, so it is difficult to see any solution to it other than a bold strategy such as the campaigners propose. The fact that the rail lines already exist and are used is very positive for the campaign. Little extra in the way of signalling would be needed to make the project feasible.

However, at the risk of asking for one further report, I agree with David McLetchie's request for a more up-to-date assessment of the situation. I would like to have the following questions answered, for my own satisfaction at least, before putting shoulder to the wheel completely. First, why was there a big variation in the figures for the number of potential users? Such a huge variation represents quite a bit of difference in terms of the revenue of the project and, therefore, its feasibility.

Secondly, we are talking about reopening six or seven stations if we use the Niddrie to Waverley line, and there are now very stringent regulations about station facilities, such as on provision of lifts. The cost of opening stations might be quite a lot more than was estimated, so I would like more information.

I would also like more information about the £8.5 million that E-Rail said was pledged, in view of the fact that we have since then seen financial turmoil in the markets and property values have plummeted, so the circumstances in which £8.5 million was pledged might have changed radically. I would like reassurance on that point.

I also seek information about the single line and the junction between Haymarket central and Gorgie junction. I gather that, although about 50 freight trains pass along the line that the south suburban railway would use, they hive off before going onto the single line. Also, if we count trains to Glasgow and Bathgate, something like 24 trains per hour use the lines—all those journeys might be disrupted if trains from a reopened south suburban line had to cross without more up-to-date junctions and railway line infrastructure. I am not an expert on railways, but the problem has been brought up and I do not think that it has been tackled in the current debate.

I would therefore like either the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change or the supporters of the proposed programme to settle those issues for me, and to reassure me and my colleagues that our fears are groundless and that the project has a future and is sustainable. If that is the case, the project will get my whole-hearted support, because the line is needed.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 5:27 pm, 3rd December 2008

I had no intention of taking part in the debate but, having listened to Christopher Harvie in particular, I have one or two things to say.

Ian McKee's reservations are shared by many people, but the reopening of the south suburban line is a challenge that can be overcome by engineering and planning. We might not have had the cost benefit analysis that we should have had or the sampling of the public that was done for potential tram use, but that does not mean that it cannot happen. I urge on the minister the meeting with the council that was suggested so that the proposals can be discussed in a strategic fashion. The south suburban line is essential if we are thinking about the strategic development of transport in Edinburgh to meet the needs of a population that has grown and will continue to grow once we are through the recession and depression.

However, I think that it is a bit rich for a unionist party member to describe the benefits of such capital investment when the minister is deaved at the moment with all the promises that have been made for capital development in transport systems, and he well knows that the money is not likely to come from Westminster as might have been expected even 18 months ago.

Although we all have grand plans and what Christopher Harvie talked about should be the template for our thinking—we should be thinking as big as anyone is doing in a comparable European city—where is the money coming from? That is the question that someone has to answer.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 5:29 pm, 3rd December 2008

I begin by congratulating Gavin Brown on securing the debate. My personal experience as transport minister is that between 17 May 2007, when I came into office, and 5 November 2008—I do my counting monthly—I have made 436 ministerial rail journeys and 116 ministerial bus journeys, so I speak not from the position of the abstract theoretician but as an engaged user of Scotland's public transport network.

The Government's economic strategy makes it clear that the aims of our focus on transport are to make better connections across Scotland, to improve reliability, to reduce journey times, and to maximise opportunities for employment, business, leisure and tourism. Members will hear a great deal more about transport in the statement that I will make to the Parliament next week on the strategic transport projects review.

I acknowledge the clear support for the proposal that exists in many parts of Edinburgh. Gavin Brown named eight groups, and I recognise the commitment and sincerity of those people. He also made a point about the impact on road traffic, and that point is certainly made in the report. He mentioned a seven-minute journey time from Morningside, and clearly there are advantages to such provision for passengers.

Gavin Brown also highlighted the fact that, at present, 50 freight trains use the railway each day. That is not an inconsiderable issue in thinking about what can be done. He mentioned that the station locations are already known. That is true, although, as Christopher Harvie said, there might be issues about bringing the stations back into use. In particular, as much of the route is elevated, there are issues in relation to disability legislation that would substantially increase the cost from what one might imagine and what might previously have been thought. The option is not as cheap as it would appear to be, given that it involves a working, fully signalled railway that is joined to the network.

Why does the most recent report not provide a cost benefit ratio? The report was produced using the Scottish transport appraisal guidance, which is primarily about identifying what transport problem exists and, from that, seeking to identify the appropriate solution. It is not about evaluating whether we should have a railway through south suburban Edinburgh. The study has not yet developed to the point at which it would be reasonable or appropriate to update the cost benefit ratio. Having said that, I am not going to pick at or criticise the previous figures that have been produced.

I turn to the issue of resources and where they can best be deployed. Chris Harvie said that, in a sense, the big issue is the switches that join the south suburban loop to the main line. There are substantial costs in upgrading such switches.

Recently, we went through an upgrade in connecting the Bathgate line to the main line, taking a dual line and merging it into a single connection to the main network to be a fully doubled connection. That closed the line for a week last Christmas and cost a substantial amount of money. We would certainly need to do such work for the project that we are discussing tonight. Furthermore, the Bathgate line has a much lower level of use than the one that is talked about in relation to the south suburban line.

More fundamentally, the big problem is capacity at the two main stations in Edinburgh and the use to which we should put that scarce capacity. I will return to that shortly.

Robin Harper is obviously a former pupil of the Royal high school. I am not sure where David McLetchie went but, given his remarks I suspect it that was a rival school in Edinburgh. He suggested that I should sit down and talk to the City of Edinburgh Council. As an enthusiast for public transport, I am always happy to do that sort of thing. If that is helpful, I will do so.

Robin Harper latched on to the key issue of the carbon contribution—and quite properly so. There would be a carbon benefit in getting more people off the roads and on to the south suburban line. However, we have to compare that with the carbon benefit of using the slots at Haymarket and Waverley for longer distances, which is likely to be greater.

Robin Harper highlighted the issue of signalling. We in the British isles are looking at the European signalling system, which is essentially a moving-block system that improves the utilisation of rail lines. However, the new timetable for Kirkcaldy has about 12 trains an hour, proving that we can do quite well in the existing system. The European system will be piloted on the Cambrian network quite soon, and we would expect to see the system here. We need investment in rail signalling if we are going to improve services.

Ian McKee suggested that

"Little extra in the way of signalling would be needed", and he asked a number of questions, some of which I can answer. One of the reasons why the estimates of potential users are variable is because the routes that were being considered were somewhat different. Further, we must take into account that if we get people on to rail, we get them out of the bus. Considering the system as a whole, I think that the situation is not as clear cut as some might suggest. With six or seven rail stations, the cost might be quite high.

Margo MacDonald said that the problems can be overcome by engineering. Engineering can solve almost every problem but, as she suggests, that approach may be constrained by the fact that this transport minister is deaved.

The key difficulty is that the Halcrow study has not identified a transport problem that requires to be solved. There are already significant changes to our network: the adjacent corridors, supported by the development of Edinburgh Park services through to Newcraighall; and the Edinburgh tram link—there was not huge enthusiasm for that on the part of the Scottish National Party, but nonetheless it will be part of Edinburgh's transport infrastructure. Joining tram and train—those are all things we are doing. Other developments include the Waverley line to the Borders and recent improvements to Edinburgh to Glasgow connections, with increased frequency and speed.

For the moment, the bottom line for the Government is that, on the basis of the information available, opening the Edinburgh south suburban line would not be the most cost-effective use of our scarce resources. However, as an enthusiast for expanding the rail network, I hold out an olive leaf. If there are issues that the City of Edinburgh Council wishes to discuss with me, I am very happy to sit down and discuss them. However, I do not want to raise expectations to the point where they simply cannot be filled. With scarce resources, we have to make choices.

Meeting closed at 17:37.