Rail line celebrates 175th anniversary

Falkirk High Station pre-1915
Falkirk High Station pre-1915

It’s Scotland’s busiest passenger railway and a vital link between the nation’s capital and its largest city.

Now the Edinburgh-Glasgow mainline, which runs via Linlithgow and Falkirk High, is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its opening to regular traffic on February 21, 1842.

A nostalgic image of how Linlithgow station used to look

A nostalgic image of how Linlithgow station used to look

The route is a pillar of the Scottish economy and used by thousands of commuters on a daily basis.

A typical weekday on the railway sees 62 services travelling along the 47 mile stretch between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 2016, more than seven million passenger journeys were made.

But when the line opened - five years after Queen Victoria had ascended the throne - there were just four services travelling in each direction from Monday-Saturday. Controversially, two services also ran on Sundays - provoking strong opposition from sabbatarians. In 2017, that number had risen to 32.

Passengers taking the first trains to Glasgow Queen Street in 1842 would have boarded at Haymarket - the short extension to North Bridge wasn’t built until four years later, and work on the present Waverley station didn’t begin until 1868. Residents of the capital were less than impressed with this state of affairs and looked enviously at the more convenient location of Queen Street. The Scotsman reported in February 1842 that “it rarely happens that a railway can be brought into the centre of a great city” and called for the new line to be promptly extended beyond Haymarket.

‘We’ve come a long way from the days of coal and steam engines’

Scotrail Alliance

Now the railway is preparing for a new era as the £742m Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) enters its final stages.

A spokesman for the ScotRail Alliance said: “We’ve come a long way from the days of coal and steam engines. Back then, the carriages were divided into compartments, the tickets were made of cardboard, and there was a two to four hour wait for a train.

“Fast forward to today and it’s turn up and go with a service every 15 minutes, and with new faster, longer, greener trains just months away. We are immensely proud that this flagship line, and the stations along its route, has become one of the most important arteries between Edinburgh and Glasgow, bringing people and communities together.”


Falkirk high Station today

Falkirk high Station today

The building of a railway between the two cities was finally authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1838 following several years of public discussion. The success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, opened in 1830, had led to demand across Britain for new inter-city routes.

Construction took almost four years and was no easy task. To ensure an almost perfectly level route, numerous cuttings were dug, four substantial viaducts were built and three tunnels were driven through hills and solid rock.

Such was the huge level interest in the project, members of the public were invited to walk through the completed Queen Street tunnel on New Year’s Day 1842. A ceremonial opening ceremony was held on February 19 and the line opened for business two days later.

The railway put an end to the slow and cumbersome stagecoach services that had linked Glasgow and Edinburgh for more than a century, and would soon drive business away from the established canal network.

Linlithgow train station

Linlithgow train station


There were several high-profile crashes on the route in the 20th century. The last occurred on July 30, 1984 when a Glasgow-bound rush hour service struck a cow that had gained access to the tracks west of Polmont via a damaged fence. The resulting collision caused all six carriages to derail, killing 13 people and injuring 61 others. A memorial to the victims was unveiled at Polmont station in 2009, the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.

The worst accident in terms of loss of life took place on December 10, 1937 at Castlecary. During a snowstorm, the 5.30pm Waverley to Queen Street express collided with a late running local train from Dundee to Glasgow. The locomotive hit the rear of the standing local service at the now-closed Castlecary station at an estimated 70 mph. Four carriages were completely destroyed by the collision, killing 35 passengers and injuring 179 more.

The future

The £742m Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) is the biggest works project on the route since it opened 175 years ago. It will lead to all-electric trains operating on the line, offering faster journey times and more seats for passengers.

As part of EGIP, a new passenger hall at Haymarket station opened in 2014 and the Grade A-listed Waverley was refurbished in the same year. At the other end of the line, the entrance to Queen Street will be comprehensively rebuilt by 2019 to accommodate growing passenger numbers.

The modern Waverley station

The modern Waverley station

Platforms at Croy, Falkirk High, Polmont and Linlithgow have also been extended to accommodate the longer electric trains due to enter service.

Essential engineering works on the line, such as the temporary closure of the Winchburgh tunnel in summer 2015, have caused major disruption for passengers, but the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland and train operators ScotRail all believe the end result will be a greatly improved travel experience.