(Image: Kim Traynor. Gated entrance to the disused Scotland Street Tunnel)
Opposite Platform 19 at Edinburgh Waverley railway station, a gated portal leads to a tunnel that disappears into the gloom beneath Princes Mall. A sign above the discrete entrance reads: “Site of the original Edinburgh – Leith – Newhaven Railway.” This may not come as a surprise to railway enthusiasts or Edinburgh natives interested in local history. But for many of the tens of thousands of passengers using Waverley each day, the historic portal remains hidden in plain sight.
This piece of hidden history tells the story of an older railway terminus called Canal Street, which opened in 1847 on the site of the modern-day Princess (now Waverley) Mall. Built by the Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven Railway, Canal Street station was connected to nearby Canonmills by the 1000-yard-long Scotland Street Tunnel, a now-abandoned wonder of Victorian engineering that once routed trains beneath the city’s Georgian New Town and onward to Granton harbour. From there, ferries carried passengers across the Firth of Forth to Fife. It’s to this long-disused tunnel that the Platform 19 portal leads.
(Image: Ebsworth via Subbrit. Edinburgh’s Canal Street station)
The tunnel, which was driven deep beneath Scotland Street, Dublin Street and St Andrew Square, was an ambitious and controversial project that suffered financial setbacks and opposition from residents who didn’t want a gas lit railway tunnel beneath their homes. Its steep 1-in-27 gradient also meant that trains had to be cable-hauled from Canal Street to Canonmills, where they were coupled to a locomotive for the journey to Granton via Trinity.
(Images: Martin Briscoe “ website)
Changing hands several time over the decades, the line was absorbed into the North British Railway in 1862. When the latter built a new line to Abbeyhill and Trinity, trains could be re-routed into Waverley and avoid the cable-haul tunnel, which was soon closed to passengers. In 1923, when the North British became part of the mighty London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), the end of passenger services between Edinburgh and Granton Harbour loomed on the horizon. They were withdrawn completely two years later.
(Image: Martin Briscoe “ website. Echoes of World War Two in the Scotland Street Tunnel)
The LNER, meanwhile, had other plans for the abandoned Scotland Street Tunnel. Subterranea Britannica writes that: “During WW2 the tunnel was used as an air raid shelter serving parts of central Edinburgh. The LNER also used the tunnel as its wartime emergency headquarters, building a series of brick and wooden buildings in the northern end. Because of the natural protection afforded by the tunnel it was eminently suitable to house a protected control centre comprising a traffic office with centralized traffic control.”
(Image: Martin Briscoe “ website. Access to the forgotten Waverley portal)
These derelict wartime relics are still extant deep within the disused railway tunnel, which has also been used over the years as an underground mushroom farm and a storage facility for vehicles.
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