Glasgow has the best suburban rail network outside London but a report now calls for more.

The report comes from the city’s connectivity committee, headed by David Begg, who has spent his career calling for better public transport.

Begg writes: “On rail, we have seen enviable levels of investment, improvement and passenger growth, helping to support Glasgow’s strong economic performance.

“But our largely inherited Victorian network includes some significant gaps, most notably in the area to the south west of the city including Glasgow Airport, where economic development has recently been concentrated, and in the lack of provision for large areas of the city which are underperforming economically.”

His answers are radical but not necessarily new. He calls for three major projects. The first is to prepare for HS2 by rebuilding Central station across the River Clyde. The second is to dust off 30-year-old plans to tunnel a heavy rail link between Central and Queen Street stations. Finally, he calls for a return of trams to the city with a new light rail network.

Pricey but worth it

This will not come cheap – £10bn is the suggested price. Even Begg admits: “It would be easy to baulk at their scale. But we were persuaded by evidence that this could deliver a step-change in the performance of Scotland’s economic powerhouse, delivering a more prosperous, sustainable and inclusive city region at the heart of a thriving national economy. We need to raise Glasgow’s levels of ambition if such a transformation is to be achieved.”

The commission’s report covers roads and buses as well as rail. It uncovers a complicated web of transport planning bodies. All must work together if Begg’s ideas are to have any hope of delivery. There’s an alternative if the Scottish Parliament accepts the report’s call to create a ‘Glasgow City Region Development Agency’. This agency should have precept powers to raise local money and combine transport and planning powers. Even with this new body, the report says that Transport Scotland should assume responsibility for the three major rail projects.

Begg’s report suggests that it’s not beyond the Scottish government’s coffers to foot its share of the bill. It has recently funded Queensferry Crossing, and the Edinburgh-Glasgow rail electrification. It is committed to increasing infrastructure spending by 1% of gross domestic product by 2025. There is also Scotland’s share of spending in England produced by the Barnett Formula.

Digging new tunnels under Glasgow

The commission reckons that Scotland will receive £6bn as a consequence of the British government’s spending in England on HS2 under Barnett. It suggests spending half of this money on Glasgow Central station and the first phase of a high-speed line to serve it. It aims to give a journey time to London of under three hours.

Central station is chiefly a terminus for Glasgow’s suburban network south of the Clyde and trains from England. It’s a short walk from Queen Street which has electric services to Edinburgh and trains to northern Scotland. Train operator ScotRail provides a bus link between the two termini which are around a 10-minute walk from each other. 

The report suggests: “The most straightforward option is for the tunnel to run from a southern portal on the Ayrshire and Inverclyde lines in the vicinity of Shields Junction via a single underground station in the city centre located in between Central and Queen Street so that the escalators from each end of the station meet the surface inside or immediately adjacent to the two existing high level stations.

“From the city centre, the tunnel would then continue north paralleling the tunnel from Queen Street high level station, rejoining the existing network near Cowlairs Junction.”

It reckons this could give 20 trains per hour each way across the city (11,000 seats in eight-car trains). There are further options to provide 12-car trains and tunnelled junctions. They would provide a southern link towards Kilmarnock and East Kilbride and a northern one towards Springburn and Cumbernauld. This link would use the disused tunnel that once served Buchanan Street station. (The Caledonian Railway’s north-facing terminus which closed in 1966.)

According to the report, such as tunnelled link is viable but planners always found cheaper, shorter-term solutions. It says: “But the list of such interventions to increase city centre rail capacity is now almost exhausted, and so it is time to plan for the kind of transformational change the tunnel would bring so that it will be ready when needed.”

No call for Glasgow’s City Union Line

The commission specifically rejects calls to return passenger services to the City Union Line as a cross-city link. It argues that this option doesn’t serve Central station and says that it would need “difficult engineering and possibly significant demolition” even to provide a low-speed link into Queen Street.

This line served St Enoch station (closed in 1966) via a triangular junction that allowed north-south trains to reverse in it. It had been a Glasgow and South Western Railway terminus.

If building a tunnel sounds challenging then rebuilding Central station for HS2’s 400m trains is also difficult.

By the commission’s analysis, Central is the only option to cope with HS2. It dismisses the city council’s option of a station east of the city at Collegelands. It says this is too remote from the centre and too difficult to connect with existing public transport. Extending Central across the river has echoes of work to London Blackfriars station. Network Rail extended it across the Thames and it now how entrances on both sides of the river.

So too would Central which it claims could regenerate Buchanan Wharf, provide a bus interchange and an M74 park-and-ride.

Returning trams to Glasgow

The report’s first priority for improving fixed public transport provision for Glasgow is to build a light rail network. This would be initially between Paisley Gilmour Street station and Glasgow Airport by 2025. It recommends extending it towards the city centre to serve Renfrew. (This is the largest town in Scotland with no rail connection.)

Glasgow Metro would copy other networks like Manchester. It would convert heavy rail lines, reopen old ones, add new sections and run on streets.

Thus it suggests converting the Cathcart Circle and the low-level lines under Central. It promotes reopening the low-level route to Maryhill via the Botanics and London Road tunnel to reach Parkhead.

New routes might include one to the airport. Street running could take place on Edinburgh Road and Great Western Road. 

Joining Glasgow’s missing parts

Begg’s commission justifies calling for all this investment in Glasgow (as well as changes to promote buses and remove cars from the city centre) by saying that fixed public transport misses many parts of the area.

“One of the ironies of the history of Glasgow’s rail network is that many of the closed routes in the city are where better transport opportunities are most urgently needed,” it says.

It adds: “Important areas to the east such as Strathclyde University, the Cathedral Precinct, Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Glasgow Cross and Glasgow Green are a significant distance from any station”.

It continues: “Maximising the number of people that have access to the fixed public transport network is crucial not just for reasons of social inclusion, but also for economic growth.”

This article first appeared in RAIL 879, published on May 22 2019.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.