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© Colin Pyle

West Midlothian Has an Infrastructure Problem

Roadworks on the A701 (the low road) have rendered the morning rush hour as a scene of chaotic madness for the past month, however as Midlothian Council continue to offer land up to housing developers, could west Midlothian be heading for a permanent standstill?

If you have attempted to travel into Edinburgh via the A702 (the high road) between 7:30 and 8:30am recently, you were probably met with a sense of deep regret upon joining the tail-end of a very long tailback somewhere around Easter Howgate. The game then begins to find an alternative route. What happens if I take a right here? Should I just make a U-turn and try the other road? After asking yourself these questions you’ve probably already drifted past the last possible turn off and are now stuck on the long straight of the high road. A similar situation is happening in the head of a driver on the low road (A701). This poor soul is stuck at three-way temporary traffic lights somewhere near Loanhead; the repeating question of “would the high road have been quicker” bouncing around in their head. And all this because of one smallish set of roadworks. What would happen should either the A701 or the A702 have to close? Would we all buy tractors and trundle across the fields of Damhead? Unlikely, impossible even, but the legal challenge to allow such trundling would conclude faster than the time taken to traverse the tailback on the remaining road.

The point: If there are problems now, before extra development, what will it be like five hundred or one thousand new homes from now? The backbone of the county’s infrastructure is about to break so we need to analyse how we can relieve the excess pressure.

Firstly, I have to mention the elephant in the room, the A701 realignment, or the Bilston Bypass if you will. It has been discussed, and campaigned against, for years but with the onslaught of a new Midlothian Local Development Plan, the motion to realign is to be tabled again.  What’s different this time is the realignment is likely to get the go ahead. This will allow Midlothian Council to open up swathes of greenfield land for development at Straiton. I know, one could confuse the council with caring about the infrastructure but in fact the likelihood is that it is about the money. In theory the council will just offer long term lets on compulsory purchased land and will make a quick buck exploiting the region’s natural beauty. Anyway that’s a different matter but they are one in the same. These plans stand a pretty good chance of materialising in the next ten years and when they do, the traffic generated by extra car journeys to and from the new sites will resort in the need for a new road. Alas the council have their reasoning for the realignment. Preliminary plans show that this carriageway, from the Straiton A720 junction to just north of the Edinburgh University Bush Campus, could either be single or duelled with junctions for Loanhead and Bilston. A four lane carriageway could cause a problem when narrowing into two lanes but it would be the best option to combat the lack of an alternative route, should the high or low road be put out of action. Unlike the city bypass however, I would anticipate that the council would have a cycle and path network neighbouring the new road, and perhaps even a corridor for buses.

It is my view that the A701 realignment is the best (and easiest) way to elevate the region’s problems however the route must not become a boundary for the unnecessary expansion of Straiton. Straiton Retail Park is complete, there is nothing that could be added that would be financially viable considering the number of similar developments in the vicinity.

Moving on and I approach a contentious area of discussion. Trams. When the roads are full we have to look at other modes of transport. Yes we could look at heavy rail and the possibility of reopening the old Penicuik railway line, but then again we could discount this for being timelier and likely more expensive than the vast bus network which serves the town already. With heavy rail discounted, we now have only three options, light rail or tram, or perhaps even an amalgamation of the two. These solutions involve the placement of tracks on roads or throughout the countryside and as such the vehicles are not capable of the same speeds as heavy rail trains. I envisage that a light rail/tram system could operate from the “new town centre” (somewhere in a field north of Rullion Road) to Easter Bush and then along behind Bilston and onto Straiton Park and Ride. This route would miss the majority of the traffic but could still tap into the large housing developments along the fringes. Obviously a competitive service would need to run in tandem with the buses but a regular tram service into the city could prove very lucrative during peak hours. Theoretically the trams could run down the side of the new A701, creating this transport corridor for pedestrian, bicycle, car and tram. A communal park and ride facility could then be expanded to include an exchange for the tram with the bus service. This scheme, minus the realignment, could be quite cost effective due to the lack of alterations required to routes within Midlothian,  however come the entrance into Edinburgh, the picture of where the route could go becomes more confusing.

Finally having analysed the controversial bypass and the fairytale tram story, it is now time to look at what could be done relatively soon. There are some pretty major infrastructure changes already planned for Penicuik due to the allocated housing developments. The largest change will be the introduction of a roundabout between Mauricewood Road and the high road (A702). It is believed this will take about three months to complete however it is unknown whether the A702 will be closed during the construction period. Developer Taylor Wimpey are kindly paying for the construction (subject to a legal agreement) and will start as soon as possible (due a planning restriction which states that they are unable to fill their first house until the roundabout is built.) The roundabout itself will be a major improvement and should help ease congestion during peak times. At the other end of Mauricewood Road, plans are also afoot to signalise the T-Junction meeting the A701. Whilst an additional set of traffic lights on this road could prove bothersome to drivers, the controlled nature of the system should allow traffic to flow easier during rush hour. In the north of the town a relief road is also to be constructed connecting Mauricewood and Rullion Road. It would reduce the time taken to get to Rullion Road dramatically, however the road could become somewhat of a rat-run. Overall though, it will be a positive relief for those in Deanburn and Cornbank who only have the one route out of their area.

Changes to the infrastructure are coming. They may be slow at the moment but the wheels are in motion. First we can expect a new roundabout onto the high road, then a new set of traffic lights onto Mauricewood Road. After this a relief road to Deanburn will be created. If the council gets their way, an A701 bypass will follow this. We may even be able to through in a smattering of a light railway line here or there but that is something that needs investigated throughly before any decisions are made.  Despite all these promised changes, I can’t help but think the pace will not match that of the new housing developments. We only need to look at the state of the current roads to see that developers are reluctant to pay for expensive infrastructure programmes. Perhaps the council will actually put investors off should try to fix and expand at the same time? There’s one thing for sure, something needs to be done and it needs to be done soon or the region is going to grind to a halt.