Andrew M. Hajducki
In 1945 there were almost 80 miles of railway line in use in East Lothian, with twelve passenger stations and a multiplicity of public and private sidings and goods depots; by 2000, the route mileage had been halved, the number of passenger stations reduced to seven and a mere handful of private sidings remained. On the face of it these figures would tend to suggest that the county has mirrored the almost universal decline and disintegration of Scotland’s once flourishing railway network but mere statistics can, of course, be misleading.
The backbone of the East Lothian system remains the 35-mile stretch of main line between Inveresk and Dunglass, part of the Edinburgh to London East Coast route. Electrified in 1991, this section now carries freight traffic, an ever-increasing burden of inter-city trains and, as far as the junction at Drem, the local service to North Berwick. There are currently nineteen southbound passenger services through Dunbar, eleven of which stop there in contrast to the position half a century earlier when the figures were 16 and six respectively and the average journey time between Edinburgh and Dunbar has been halved to around 20 minutes, albeit that trains call in an irregular and not altogether convenient pattern. On the North Berwick branch, journey times to Edinburgh have been reduced to around 30 minutes and the line now enjoys its best ever service of hourly electric trains which, although not always reliable, carry a vastly increased number of local commuters and shoppers to Edinburgh and day-trippers to the coast.
Elsewhere passenger services have contracted. The lightly loaded Haddington to Longniddry trains were withdrawn at the end of 1949, a victim of faster and more convenient bus services. The little-used station at Innerwick was closed to passengers in 1951 and Dirleton, the only intermediate station on the North Berwick branch, closed three years later. In 1964 both the Musselburgh branch trains and the Dunbar to Edinburgh local service were withdrawn, leading to the closure of the stations at Musselburgh, Inveresk, East Fortune and East Linton. The remaining stations at Prestonpans, Longniddry, Drem and North Berwick narrowly escaped closure in 1969 but in a remarkable turn round in fortunes the local service was greatly improved and new stations were opened at Musselburgh in 1988 and Wallyford in 1994. One much missed facility, though, are the sleeper trains that used to call at Drem and Dunbar en route to Kings Cross – in the 1990s overnight services were diverted to the rival West Coast route.
Also long gone is the once heavy coal traffic that originated from the Fleets, Carberry and Prestongrange pits and the various smaller mines on the edge of the Lothian coalfield and when the false dawn which followed the nationalisation of the coal industry faded away, the associated rail traffic ceased too. Concomitant with this decline the unrestricted but heavily subsidised competition of the motor lorry led to the withering away of wagonload traffic and the closure of wayside public sidings and yards on the mainline and the abandonment of the goods lines that wandered their way through the more rural parts of the county. East Lothian’s only light railway, the Gifford and Garvald, which had lost its passenger service as long ago as 1933, died in stages – the destruction of the Gilchriston bridge in the floods of 1948 led to the closure of the line between Humbie and Gifford, although the latter place was served by a railway-owned road service until 1959. In 1960 a further two-mile cut-back meant that the lightly loaded pick-up goods trains ran only as far as Saltoun and at the same time the moribund line from Ormiston to Winton and Macmerry was abandoned. By 1965 even the remaining traffic of coal, potatoes and Glenkinchie whisky was insufficient to save the pitiful stub of the Gifford and Garvald and the line passed into history. Similar declines were evident on the Tranent branch (closed in 1958), the Fisherow line (1961), the Aberlady and Gullane branch (1964) and the Haddington and Musselburgh branches (1968 and 1970); the sad fact in all cases being that the services had locally ceased to be of any real relevance and were merely helping to increase the already inflated annual losses being incurred by the British Railways Board.
Present day freight facilities are limited to coal traffic for Cockenzie power station, nuclear fuel for the plant at Torness, and block trains serving the cement works at Oxwellmains. A recent addition has been the new flow of containerised bulk household refuse which travels by rail several times per week from Powderhall depot in Edinburgh to the landfill site adjacent to the cement works.
The greatest human change has been the dramatic reduction in the number of railwaymen still employed in the county. In 1945, several hundred men were employed at local stations and depots and as train crews, signalmen and permanent way workers. With successive waves of modernisation, the once labour-intensive industry has been metamorphosed and the replacement of the steam locomotive, the rationalisation of trackwork and its maintenance, the closure of lines and depots and the de-manning of the stations that remain have all taken their toll. Perhaps the best example of all is the complete disappearance of the local signalmen brought about by the total eclipse in 1977 of mechanical signalling and by the replacement of the manual signal boxes in the county by a new signalling centre in Edinburgh.
As for the future, it is difficult to make predictions. In 1945 the local system was owned and operated by the ailing London and North Eastern Railway. Nationalisation in 1948 brought the chance of an integrated national transport system but this promise was never properly followed through and eventually the controversial programme of privatisation of the industry led to a illogical split of resources with track and infrastructure owned by Railtrack, a private concern, rolling stock owned by international banks, local freight services operated by a subsidiary of an American railway company, Dunbar services provided by the romantically-named Great North Eastern Railway subsidiary of a conglomerate and the North Berwick service operated by Scotrail, part of the National Express bus group. With Railtrack now in administration, little significant capital investment in recent years and an almost complete lack of a coherent transport policy from either the Westminster or devolved parliaments, it will be interesting to see what the authors of the Fifth Statistical Account of East Lothian will make of it all.
FURTHER READING & REFERENCES
- Hajducki, Andrew M, (1992) The North Berwick & Gullane Branch Lines
- Hajducki, Andrew M (1994) The Haddington, Macmerry & Gifford Branch Lines
- Macgregor Town Development and transport: North Berwick and Haddington, Scottish Geographical Magazine (September 1949)