John McLellan: Why Edinburgh needs a new rail station

Imagine the outcry if someone today proposed driving a railway line through historic streets, destroying a medieval church and a famous garden, and getting rid of a loch at the same time.

Thursday, 29th March 2018, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 29th March 2018, 3:23 pm
The number of people using Waverley Station is soaring dramatically

As most Edinburgh residents know, that’s pretty much what happened here in the 19th century, with the advent of steam and the construction of not one but two stations which eventually became Edinburgh Waverley.

It simply wouldn’t happen, but we’re stuck with it and ever since the city has wrestled with the problem of having a major transport hub in a valley at the heart of an ancient town.

Now another masterplan is to be produced to find ways for the station to cope with both population growth and the boom in numbers drawn to the East End when the new St James Centre opens in just over two years’ time.

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As the old Irish joke has it, “Ah well, I wouldn’t start from here”.

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For as long as I can remember, station access has been a problem and in trying to maximise Waverley’s potential for both platform expansion and retail growth, Network Rail has proved a law unto itself, which in planning terms it is, by driving forward reconfiguration with seemingly little regard to the impact on the streets above.

Market Street in particular has become a warzone between taxi drivers and private motorists vying for pick-up space after cabs were banned from the concourse, and it’s a similar story on Waverley Bridge since the road narrowing and the boom in sight-seeing buses.

Now management of Scotland’s railways is moving in a new direction under the ScotRail Alliance, a joint venture between Network Rail and Abellio, perhaps things will be different?

The Alliance managing director Alex Hynes said last week that “more trains mean more people and that inevitably adds to the pressure on station infrastructure and the surrounding streets”, pointing out that in the past ten years Waverley’s annual footfall has soared from ten to 24 million and by 2024 will have reached 40 million. You don’t have to be a transport guru to recognise the streets around Waverley can’t cope with 16 million more people in the next six years, but with the city’s population predicted to reach around 650,000 by 2040, that will only be the start.

Where those 150,000 new Edinburgh people will live is the biggest challenge facing the city right now – unless your view is that there should be no more growth – and the transport focus is on existing untapped capacity. The Borders rail link is the driver behind the new communities which will spring up in the South East and developers are already eyeing relatively under-used stations like Curriehill and Kirknewton as opportunities.

But all trains go to Waverley and even with the undoubted success of Haymarket – I got an East Coast train to London there this week because it’s a lot easier than the city centre from where I live – the entire network is dictated by Waverley’s capacity.

It’s one of the reasons the South Suburban revival is a non-starter, because it would take up badly needed track and platform space but going through mature areas would do little to prime house-building. Hynes acknowledges that sustained success needs more investment and the masterplan will be drawn up in consultation with the City Council, Chamber of Commerce and others, but Waverley is only part of the answer, not the whole solution.

Haymarket points the way forward, but Edinburgh Gateway has so far proved to be a dead end and demand for fast links to Glasgow limited Edinburgh Park’s effectiveness.

What is needed is a new terminus independent of Waverley, as the old Princes Street station used to be, but where is the money, opportunity and vision? Without a modern equivalent of draining the Nor’ Loch the problems won’t go away.

Political rivals can, sometimes, bear to be in the same room

The perception of politicians is they can’t stand to be in the same room as opponents, which might be true for some but most can rub along and respect differences of opinion.

This week members of all parties attended a Westminster reception hosted by Tommy Sheppard MP for the Scottish Newspaper Society (of which I’m director) to hear about the challenges papers like the Evening News face.

All the Edinburgh MPs, Christine Jardine (Lib Dem), Joanna Cherry and Deidre Brock (SNP) and Ian Murray (Labour) were there, plus Conservatives such as David Mundell and John Lamont. The SNS thanks them all for their support.

Can pay, will (probably) pay the garden tax

With council tax going up by three per cent on top of last year’s hike, perhaps it’s not surprising Edinburgh council is forecasting that 67,000 households will not pay for their garden waste bins to be emptied when the £25 surcharge is introduced in July. Rather than dumping the stuff over the back wall or using the landfill bin, I’ll probably be one of the 57,000 who’ll trouser up, along with the resident’s parking permit charge. But will the service be better?