Let’s talk about some Scottish transit! I took a bunch of pictures of all the stuff we rode, so I figured they shouldn’t go to waste. We begin with Scotland’s two largest cities and their respective transit systems…
There are two main ways of getting between Edinburgh Airport and the city center: the first is the Airlink bus, which we’ll discuss later, but because of total rail bias, we took the Edinburgh Trams (yes, plural, it’s weird) to the city upon our arrival. Well, actually, it wasn’t just rail bias – we bought Spirit of Scotland rail passes for £189, which give eight days of rail travel over fifteen days, and one of the services they cover is the tram. Might as well use one of our travel days to save £6 each! For what it’s worth, though, it’s only that expensive if you go to the airport – a ticket in the “City Zone” is just £1.70.
You can tell they had airport passengers in mind when they designed the inside of the tram, in that there is a lot of luggage space. The trams also have Metro newspapers and clear automatic announcements. We only rode once, but there was constantly a ticket inspector on board, essentially acting as a conductor; he would walk his way through the car after every stop to check tickets. He didn’t like the fact that our Spirit of Scotland passes were on a smartphone, but he let us stay on anyway.
The outer section of the tram is twisty and middle-of-nowhere. It curves its way through open fields, serving a park-and-ride and a huge bank, then it passes the tram depot and stops at Edinburgh Gateway (with a connection to commuter and intercity rail lines). There’s a stop for the huge Gyle Shopping Center, then it’s more fields and office parks.
The tram eventually parallels a rail line, entering a residential area. It goes by a golf course (lots of those up here) and a rugby stadium, then at Haymarket (one of Edinburgh’s main rail stations), the line’s street-running section begins as it enters the city center. Most of it is in reserved lanes, but it was still slow-going. We passed Waverley, Edinburgh’s largest train station, then made a few turns to York Place, the final stop.
Okay, let’s talk about the bus now. Lothian Buses is Edinburgh’s main bus provider, and they operate four specialized services to the airport. Three of them are half-hourly and operate to various points outside the city center, while the fourth is the Airlink, an express route straight into the city that runs around the clock every ten minutes (every fifteen overnight). It costs £4.50 to ride one of these, and drivers actually give change, unlike every other bus in the city.
Although the Airlink buses don’t have the novelty of being a rail-based service, they do offer one major touristic advantage: double decker buses, baby! Nothing beats sitting at the front seat on the top deck, especially when you’re just visiting a new city. We took these to get back to the airport on the last day, so it wasn’t quite as exciting, but it was still a great experience. The buses have automatic announcements saying the next stop, and screens up front show departure statuses, as well as (this was so cool) the length of the security line!
We rode this bus on a Saturday morning, so the streets were dead. The limited stops made the trip even more of a breeze. We sailed out to Haymarket in no time, and it was residential west of there. There was a stop at the Edinburgh Zoo, after which it started getting steadily more suburban. It was basically a highway after we sailed under the Gogar Roundabout, and we made the airport exit off of that soon after.
So, between the bus and the tram, which is better? Honestly, there are good arguments for both. The tram is more expensive, but it’s more frequent (every 7 minutes), generally doesn’t have to deal with traffic, and accepts rail passes. However, the bus offers that double decker view, plus it’s faster than the tram during less busy periods and it runs all night. If you’re flying both in and out of Edinburgh, I say try both! They offer totally different experiences that are both worth it.
Of course we rode some regular buses, too. We started at the bus station next to Waverley Station, where we purchased our £4.00 day passes. These cover every non-airport bus operated by Lothian, as well as the city zones of Edinburgh’s two exurban bus systems; a day pass for everything is £9.00. But…why is it a scratch-off? Yeah, you get this weird lottery ticket thing where you just scratch off the day you’re traveling and show it to drivers. Better have a coin handy!
Most of inner Edinburgh is really touristy, so my dad and I’s decision-making process for deciding where we wanted to go was “What runs the furthest?” We decided to head out to Gorebridge, since there are two routes that run there – we could get a different experience on the way back. The one that came first was the 33, so we hopped on that. Something that’s really nice about Edinburgh’s bus system is that it very reliably uses double deckers on most of its routes – there are definitely more of them than there are singles, as far as I could tell.
The vast majority of Lothian routes run from one side of the city to the other via the center, so many of them are long. The 33 takes almost two hours from end to end, but even from the city center to Gorebridge took a while! The bus cruised through the Southside on the A7/A701 (the actual street name kept changing), passing vibrant businesses with apartments on top. It got residential when we made our way onto Dalkeith Road, though.
We traversed a rotary near a shopping center, and it was a lot more suburban after that. Suddenly, we approached the giant Royal Infirmary hospital complex, which a ton of routes serve. We were one of them, deviating to the bus station within the complex. It was a lot of farmland from there (in a double decker bus, remember!), with a few small villages and a park-and-ride deviation in between.
We travelled through the mining villages of Dalkeith, Easthouses, and Mayfield, the last of which got a sizable deviation through the development. The next town was Newtongrange, another mining town, but this one had a proper Main Street, a train station, and the National Mining Museum Scotland. Gowkshill was a tiny village before Gorebridge, which got a housing development deviation before we made our way down Main Street to the little bus turnaround at the end of town.
The 29 is the route back from Gorebridge, and it runs slightly more direct. The routing was the same until Newtongrange, where we ran up towards Eskbank instead. We deviated into its Tesco (a huge UK supermarket chain), but then the road just ran straight through the middle of nowhere. We didn’t hit civilization again until Gilmerton, and then it was pretty consistent suburban development until we rejoined the 33 for the rest of the trip into the city.
Our next trip was to Leith on the 34. There are a number of frequent bus routes between the city center and Leith, most of which terminate at the Ocean Terminal mall. Interestingly, because of construction on Leith Walk, the route had to be detoured. The buses’ destination signs actually reflected this, showing “Route Diverted” above the regular destination.
Even without the detour, the 34 is still one of the more roundabout routes between Edinburgh and Leith. A couple of Swedish tourists sitting next to us up front found this out the hard way – they had a set tour time at the Royal Yacht Brittanica in Leith, and they ended up being late for it. The bulk of the route was a nice jaunt through urban residential neighborhoods, including along a few roads that seemed too small for a big ol’ bus, although it got more commercial by the end.
We would’ve ideally gotten a 35 back, since that route runs closer to where our hotel was, but we just missed one when we arrived at Ocean Terminal. The next best option would’ve been a 22, since that’s the fastest route back to Edinburgh, but I felt like doing another twisty one. Thus, we hopped aboard an 11, which…left five minutes late. And the route runs every 10. Uh-oh.
The start of the route was beautiful, as we got to run alongside the harbor for a bit. We soon returned to regular residential roads, picking up higher-than-average amounts of people since we were late. But we would get later: there was construction that required running Newhaven Road as a signal-controlled single lane with very long wait times. We barely missed the green light, and to add insult to injury, another 11 passed us and made it through.
The traffic was even worse when we came to the closed Leith Walk; this detour was affecting almost every route that runs to Leith. We had to make our way through the New Town with a ton of other buses, sitting in what felt like endless traffic. When my dad and I finally got off the bus, there was another 11 close behind. Oof.
Still, these problems were beyond Lothian’s control. I thought this was a great bus system overall – there are a ton of bus lanes all around the city, the stop spacing downtown is really good (but worse outside of it), and the frequent network is expansive. Sunday service is often much worse than weekdays and Saturdays, though, with routes that run every 15 minutes the rest of the week suddenly becoming every half hour. That’s probably my biggest gripe with Lothian overall (that and the weird scratch-off day tickets), but I was pretty impressed otherwise!
Edinburgh Waverley is the city’s main train station. Scotland’s second-busiest after Glasgow Central (which we’ll get to), Waverley is in a perfect downtown location and has a ton of tracks with frequent service all around the country. It’s also a complete mess. Some parts of it are way too small and others are way too big, and what should be a simple through station ends up having all these weird stub-end tracks and platforms in random places with awful signage trying and failing to link it all up.
Most of the station is architecturally bland, save for the main waiting area that doesn’t have nearly enough seats or space to accommodate everyone. There is a ton of retail here, though, from fast food places within the station to the Waverley Mall, a shopping center that gets direct access. I’ll end on this amusing note: coming down from one of the escalators, they have a screen that exclusively shows security footage of people humorously falling down the escalator and explains how you can avoid doing what they did. Alright, I may dislike this station, but it gets points for that.
There are four ways of getting between Edinburgh and Glasgow by train. The fastest route (via Falkirk) runs every 15 minutes and takes 45 minutes; the slowest route (via Shotts) runs every hour at best and takes 90. Well, Shotts it was! Plus, this would let us see Glasgow Central, which we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to take a train into. This line was very recently electrified, back in April, and our train was the newest one Scotrail has.
Compared to the standing-room only Falkirk trains, our Shotts one wasn’t busy at all, especially considering that it was the evening rush. The train was super nice, boasting automatic announcements, free Wi-Fi, and outlets. But the highlight had to be the bathroom, which was beautiful. It even talked to you, reminding you to lock the fancy sliding spaceship door after you got in!
Like almost every other rail service in Edinburgh, we first traversed the wide semi-underground right-of-way to Haymarket, the city’s other main station. From there, we had a few stops in the suburbs, each one draining a few more people from the train. After a few stations, though, we were in farmland.
The stations along the line were mostly in very small, self-contained villages. The biggest town along the line is Livingston, a sprawling mess where all the houses look the same and the town center is a mall. And the line doesn’t even run through Livingston proper – the station is called “Livingston South” and it’s on the edge of town, not that Livingston really has a “center” to begin with. One of the other Edinburgh to Glasgow lines serves Livingston North.
The line is called the Shotts Line, and Shotts is probably the largest town exclusively served by it. That’s not saying much, though – it has less than 9,000 residents. Carfin was the first station located within Glasgow’s vast suburban reach, and we joined up with more lines as we travelled through it. Cambuslang was a major stop, and here we split off from the Argyle Line, which makes frequent stops in a tunnel beneath Glasgow’s Argyle Street. Meanwhile, we took a nonstop aboveground route to Glasgow Central.
I gotta say, it was so refreshing to come here after Edinburgh Waverley. Not only was the architecture absolutely incredible and the station awe-inspiringly grand in scope, but it flowed so well. The waiting area was huge and had plenty of seats, while shops and bathrooms were laid out on the outside walls. The underground area where the Argyle Line stops wasn’t nearly as great, but the main station was just fantastic.
Glasgow’s bus system is much more in line with the rest of the UK. There are a bunch of different private companies running the show (sometimes even sharing routes), and while there is one clear standout (First Glasgow), you’ll see a parade of different companies around the city. It doesn’t help that First doesn’t even have a consistent livery – they paint their buses however they want, in some cases giving specific routes their own wraps. Talk about sacrificing operational flexibility…
First does operate a pretty good bus network, though. It has a huge arsenal of routes that run every 10 minutes or better, called the “simpliCITY network” (although they’re often much worse on Sundays). Sometimes that means a single route and sometimes it means a trunk line with a million branches, but they’re very well-labelled on the map, and often VERY long. There are fare zones, although they’re relatively easy to figure out, and a day pass within most of the urban area is just £4.40 if you buy on a phone (£4.60 on the bus).
My dad and I started with the 2, or at least the western half of it, since it runs from one side of First’s service area to the other. It’s a direct trip down straight roads, running to a town called Clydebank on the western end. Two buses in a row showed up at the stop we were waiting at, and the one we chose had a broken farebox, so…yay, I guess!
Something that’s interesting about Glasgow is that it’s actually a very American city. The downtown is encircled by freeways, much of the city center is in a grid formation, and for a European city, it’s really sprawled out. Riding on the 2 felt a lot like being in Philly, and there was even one side street that had super Philly-esque rowhouses. The route sometimes had abysmal stop spacing, but it was pretty straightforward, minus a deviation to serve the major bus/train hub at Partick.
It was generally urban the whole way down, and it got more residential the further we went (sometimes in the form of apartments and sometimes in the form of rowhouses). We went by a really bizarre little ferry across the River Clyde at one point, and soon after that we made a right and a left, entering a more suburban neighborhood. After a few more twists and turns, we made it to the Clydebank bus terminal, in a downtown that’s dominated by an indoor mall.
While I appreciate the multimodality of the Clydebank bus terminal (it’s right next to the train station, which gets half-hourly service), it’s not great as a bus terminal. It’s basically just a few bus shelters on the side of the road, because I guess they couldn’t turn one of the many parking lots in the area into a real terminal. Still, you can’t beat the connection to the railroad, and a lot of the important routes here are frequent enough that you won’t have to wait too long.
The bus we took out of Clydebank was the 60, which takes a rather roundabout route back into Glasgow. More importantly, though, it uses double decker buses! Also, the farebox was working, meaning we could buy our day passes – they’re these awful little receipts with QR codes on them that you have to shove into a scanner on the bus. Yeah, you know what, I’ll take Edinburgh’s scratch-offs.
North of Clydebank, it got suburban quickly, and the 60 took a winding route through it all. I’m not sure why this route gets double deckers while some of the more urban routes don’t, but I can’t complain – it was an interesting ride, including some sections of purely undeveloped areas. Ridership was light.
An awful freeway interchange meant that we were getting into the city center, which the 60 passes through and continues onward. We decided to stay on, despite the overwhelming heat up on the top deck, so we made our way through Glasgow’s congested downtown and out the other end. The other side of the route was similarly twisty, eventually ending in a suburb called Easterhouse (with a full-on shopping center deviation along the way).
The Easterhouse bus stop was at the very edge of the town. It was just a little turnaround at the side of the road, almost in the middle of nowhere (well, the edge of nowhere, I guess). From here, we got a 41 back into town, which was much more of a straight shot. Maybe because of that, its ridership was higher.
But of course, there’s no way to close off a post about Glasgow transit other than talking about the subway. The third underground metro system ever built, this fifteen-station loop hasn’t been expanded once since it opened in 1896. Although it’s only open from 10 AM to 6 PM on Sundays (ugh), it’s actually a useful circulator at other times, connecting much of the inner portion of Glasgow with a much better service span (6:30 AM to 11:40 PM) the rest of the week.
Our Spirit of Scotland passes were supposedly valid on the subway, so we decided we would take the loop just to say we’ve done it. As fun as it would’ve been to get a smartcard (they use CharlieCard readers!), we couldn’t pass up on the free ride. Unfortunately, the subway employee at Buchanan Street had a problem with the fact that the pass was on a mobile phone, and directed us to the Scotrail office at Queen Street nearby. They directed us back to the subway, and luckily a manager came out and gave us free tickets for one loop. But it was an ordeal, and I guess the moral of the story is that you should probably get paper Spirit of Scotland passes if you want to ride the Glasgow Subway. Or the Edinburgh trams. Just get them on paper.
The stations are all tiny because the trains are all tiny. They originally all had super narrow island platforms, but the modernization converted some of the busier ones, like Buchanan Street, into a two-platform arrangement. The service is split into two “lines”, Inner and Outer, but it really just dictates the direction in which they travel the loop.
Well, I don’t want to imagine what this thing is like at rush hour, but late in the evening, it was very pleasant! The seats are super comfy, making the cramped experience feel a lot nicer. Unfortunately, because the cars are so small, wheelchairs are only allowed on board if they’re folded. The trains are also quite short, at just three cars long. I wonder if people get left behind during the busy periods.
The whole thing is underground, and the stops are generally close together. Some of them have park-and-rides, and they vary wildly in terms of ridership. Buchanan Street and St. Enoch are the two busiest, since they’re right in the center of town and connect to Glasgow’s two main rail stations, while the third busiest, Hillhead, is close to the large University of Glasgow. West Street is by far the least-used station, since a recently-built highway tore through the neighborhood around it and destroyed most of the buildings. It gets about 265 riders per day, while Buchanan Street gets around 6,650.
We got off at St. Enoch, the closest stop to our hotel. The Glasgow Subway is a fantastic little service, and they’re constantly modernizing – their new driverless trains are expected to go into service in 2020. Will it ever expand, though? It seems like every proposal to expand has fizzled out thus far, but maybe one day. Until then, Glaswegians should certainly be proud of their little Clockwork Orange.