The Innocent Railway path runs from the Newington/St Leonard's area under Holyrood Park via Duddingston and Craigmillar to Brunstane in the East of the city. It is one of Edinburgh's extensive off-road pedestrian cycleways and part of the UK-wide, National Cycle Network's Route 1 (NCN1).
A good starting point is the massive Innocent Railway Tunnel itself. The Edinburgh side entrance at a new-build residential close at St Leonard's is not obvious unless you are looking for it. It looks just like another suburban cul-de-sac.
A gapped railing is at the entrance to the tunnel. Inside it is cool and damp, but once you've descended to the bottom of the long tunnel you exit into the pleasant green surroundings of Holyrood Park and the Bawsinch Nature Reserve. This green corridor then continues onto Duddingston, along paths at Niddrie Mains, out to Brunstane and beyond the coast or on routes to Midlothian.
The route is signposted. There is also a railway station at Brunstane if you wanted the option of putting your bike on the train for the less-than-10-minute return journey to Edinburgh Haymarket or Edinburgh Waverley.
History of the Innocent Railway
The Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, opened in July 1831, originally as a horse-drawn tramway built to haul agricultural produce and coal from the mines of Lothian up to the Edinburgh terminus at St Leonard's. Designed by engineer James Jardine (1776-1858), it was Edinburgh's first railway line.
The main financial backers of the new railway were the local coal pit owners. Construction of the railway allowed them to deliver coal at a much reduced cost compared to transport by road. After opening, the railway was carrying some 300 tons of coal per day at a time when Edinburgh's industries and residences had developed a voracious appetite for the fuel.
The line, much to the surprise of its promoters, became popular as a mode of travel, when a horse-drawn passenger service was offered from 1832 by an enterprising businessman, Michael Fox. The railway carried 150,000 passengers in the first year of operation for a revenue of £4,000.
It converted to steam locomotives after it was taken over by the North British Railway in 1845.
The line is thought to have earned its nickname "the Innocent Railway" due to the fact that it was initially horse drawn in an era when where steam engines were become more ubiquitous. It's also been suggested that the nickname stuck due to the slow pace of travel and its perceived safety record (even if the record doesn't bear this out). Certainly, today, it seems an apt name for a simpler form of travelling.
When it originally opened in 1831 the railway line was the Scottish gauge 4'6'', used by mines at the time. It changed to a stronger 4' 8½'', a stronger standard for carrying locomotives, when the company was bought out by the North British Railway in 1845. The route became part of the Waverley line, providing a route between Edinburgh and Carlisle in England.
The Innocent Railway Tunnel
At 517 metres, the Innocent Railway tunnel under Holyrood Park is an impressive one, particularly when you consider it was the first railway tunnel in Scotland. Before 1845, trains were winched by cable drawn by horse, with stationary steam engines used to haul the laden carriages of coal up the steep gradient of the tunnel to the terminus station at St Leonard's. The 25 hp engines took 5 minutes to draw a typical, full 30-ton train load up the St Leonard's "inclined plane".
The tunnel is one of three engineering features of the original 9 mile line. The other two being a cast iron beam, 18ft (5.4m) bridge and an impressive timber beam viaduct on Masonry Piers. The viaduct at Thornybank in Dalkeith was demolished in the Sixties, but you can still see the bridge at the SE end of Bawsinch Nature Reserve.
The railway line closed in 1968 and the section between Newington / St Leonard's and Craigmillar re-opened in 1981 as a pedestrian bike path. The route of the old railway running between St Leonard’s and Brunstane has been part of the National Cycle Network’s Route 1 since 1994.
The tunnel's long incline of 1:30 is a strenuous one when biking uphill into Edinburgh, but conversely the hill and the smooth tarmac surface will give you plenty of momentum when heading out to Duddingston, as you can see in the video above. Another video of the Innocent Railway tunnel in 2008 shows the inside of the walls before they were covered in graffiti.
Video, Map and Resources
- Innocent Railway Tunnel Video Video showing the tunnel by bicycle.
- RCAHMS entry for Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway
- Cyclestreets OpenStreetMap system for Edinburgh (note - link will be updated from general map to specific ride map).