The Lost Edinburgh Tunnel was the very first underground railway line in Scotland


Edinburgh’s lost Innocent Railway was the first underground line ever to be built in Scotland.

The St Leonards Tunnel, built between 1827 and 1830, is used today by locals as a passageway for runners and cyclists, but its historic beginnings are sometimes forgotten.

The underground tunnel was built as part of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway to transport coal from the pits and ended at Edinburgh’s very first station, St Leonard’s Station.

Today, the old station is a modern residential development, but the Lothian Regional Council saved the tunnel when they bought it in the 1980s as part of a deal with British Rail to buy railways from disused railway north of Edinburgh.

The Atmospheric Tunnel is now part of the Edinburgh Cycle Network and Route 1 of the UK National Cycle Network, but at its peak it was part of the Industrial Revolution.

Edinburgh isn’t known as Auld Reekie for nothing and the capital was consuming 350,000 tons of coal per year in 1830.

Getting coal to Edinburgh by horse and cart along paved roads proved problematic.

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A consortium of Midlothian pit owners came together to try to resolve the issue and came up with a horse-drawn tram to connect their pits to Edinburgh.

Engineer James Jardine took charge of the project and the terminus was identified in the Saint-Léonard sector of the city.

The public body Historic Environment Scotland explains on its website that the name Innocent Railway comes from horses.

They said: “From its inception, the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway was commonly referred to as the Innocent Railway because of its horse traction.

“In an era when early steam engines were viewed with suspicion as being too dangerous and too fast, this horse-drawn version was seen as a safer alternative. “

The 518 meter long tunnel opened in July 1831 and was only a limited track from the terminus of St. Leonards to Craighall.

However, it was soon extended to Dalhousie Mains and Newtongrange.

The line carried at least 200 railcars of coal per day and more than 14,000 passenger trips were made in the first month alone.

Over a million passengers traveled on the lines between 1824 and 1844 and it was said to be a busier passenger operation than the more famous Liverpool and Manchester railways.

Its success was short-lived, however, and new technology quickly rendered the Innocent Railway useless as steam took over.

Historic Environment Scotland continued: “The St. Leonard branch and the tunnel were closed to passengers in 1847, but continued to be used for coal and goods.

“The use of steam locomotives meant that the rope-drawn slope was no longer necessary, and a series of weigh stations, tracks and warehouses (including the largest bonded warehouses in the world) saw during the day at the St Leonards depot.

“It was not until 1968 with the closure of the last coal depot (Hugh Leckie & Sons) that the line became redundant and was closed.”

The tunnel has now been a community space for 30 years and the trail is open and accessible 24 hours a day.

The entrance to the tunnel at St Leonard’s

Entrance can be hard to find in the new residential area of ​​St Leonards, but for anyone who hasn’t, it’s worth finding it.

The winding tunnel trail takes you 500 meters below the surface of the capital, with lights installed above to let you see the graffiti lining the walls, before civilization opens up again at the entrance near of Holyrood Park.

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