Obituaries: Roy Perkins, railway preservationist

Roy Perkins, railway preservationist and author. Picture: Contributed
Roy Perkins, railway preservationist and author. Picture: Contributed
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KEY figure in the campaign to save the Waverley Route

Roy Perkins, railway preservationist and author.

Born: 8 December, 1946, in London.

Died: 25 April, 2015, in the Wirral, Merseyside, aged 68.

Roy Perkins may have been born a Londoner and settled on Merseyside but his spiritual home was the Liddesdale area of the Scottish Borders.

His mother’s roots were in the village of Newcastleton, otherwise known as Copshaw Holm, and it was this connection, allied with his lifelong passion for railways, that led to his involvement in a unique chapter in British railway history, played out on the 98-mile stretch of track from Edinburgh to Carlisle.

The line, the Waverley Route – named after Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels and first opened in 1849 – was axed during the swingeing cuts of the 1960s and, in some eyes, was the worst of the closures orchestrated by Dr Richard Beeching following his 1963 report on the restructuring of Britain’s rail network. It took six years for his recommendation to come to fruition and the closure was accompanied by furious reaction from locals – when the last train left, on a bitterly cold night in January 1969, there were protests at Galashiels, Melrose and Hawick where a coffin was loaded on bearing the name of the transport minister.

Then at Newcastleton the train was halted by villagers who closed the level crossing gates and stood across the line. A local minister was arrested during the blockade and it took the intervention of a young local Liberal MP, David Steel, now Lord Steel, who was a passenger on the train, to persuade the crowd of demonstrators to disperse.

Though it appeared to be the death knell for the route, a defiant Perkins was already beavering away behind the scenes, planning an ambitious project which he was determined would save the line.

A few weeks earlier, in December 1968, Perkins, a market research worker with Michelin in London who had previously worked for Steel’s 1965 by-election campaign, had been out celebrating his birthday with his neighbour, Martin Symms, when a chain of events was put in motion that would lead to the plan to take over the Waverley Route as a going concern.

According to David Spaven, author and transport consultant, over that birthday drink in Perkins’ local Wellington Arms in Woolwich, the impending closure of the Waverley Route was discussed. Coincidentally, around the same time, Perkins was introduced to another rail preservation enthusiast, the television presenter Bob Symes-Schutzmann, who was then working on Tomorrow’s World.

Following initial conversations among the three men about the demise of the Waverley Route, an urgent letter was written and delivered by hand to David Steel at the House of Commons by Perkins and Symms. The MP left the Chamber to meet the pair and a “productive dialogue” began.

Perkins suggested the planned new venture should be known as the Border Union Railway Company (BURCo), a nod to its original name, and he, Symms and Symes-Schutzmann, who all became founding directors, began to draw up a business plan and work their extensive contacts across the railways, business, finance and public relations sectors.

Perkins, who had a degree from the London School of Economics, was so enthused and committed to the project that he abandoned his job with Michelin and moved to Newcastleton to work full-time on the dream for almost a year.

It was undoubtedly a hugely exciting prospect for the young man who had begun writing for national railway enthusiast magazines as a teenager and spent his annual visit to his grandparents in Copshaw Holm cycling miles across the Border countryside to visit remote railway stations.

“There can be no dispute that the scale of BURCo’s ambition was breathtaking,” says Spaven in his book Waverley Route: The Life, Death and Rebirth of the Borders Railway. “There was no precedent for the take-over of more than 90 miles of double-track railway as a commercial concern – as opposed to the revival of short branch lines as volunteer-led ‘preserved’ railways. The scale of the project was monumental in relation to the immediate resources available.”

And, sadly, the bold vision of a revived rail route failed to materialise. It was a heroic attempt but the company’s feasibility study, delivered in August 1969, did not amount to a sufficiently persuasive business case and neither British Rail nor potential investors were convinced to back the plan, despite the three directors’ drive, knowledge and expertise. However, Perkins maintained his connection with the area, often staying at The Grapes Hotel in Newcastleton and never losing his enthusiasm for the line. He helped to establish the Whitrope Heritage Centre and was eventually able to participate in the return of a stretch of railway to Liddesdale when the line was recreated at Whitrope, base of the Waverley Route Heritage Association, of which he was also a former chairman.

This autumn rail transport is finally to be reborn in the Borders with a new railway due to open, covering some 30 miles of the axed route, from Edinburgh to Tweedbank. But more than 40 years ago, after the BURCo dream was shattered, work took Perkins to Liverpool where he was marketing manager of Merseyside Passenger Transport Executive and he settled in the area following marriage to Patricia in 1972.

He went on to become a Liberal councillor for Wirral Council’s Claughton Ward, serving from 1978 to 1990, including having a spell as Liberal group leader between 1982 and 1986. Later he was leader of the Liberal SDP Group and subsequently led the Social and Liberal Democrat Group. Described as a man who was in public service for all the right reasons, he worked tirelessly for those he represented.

A quiet individual with strong beliefs, a fertile mind and a loathing of modern consumerism – he recently acknowledged he would have been happier living in a bygone age – he loved life’s simple pleasures, along with books, the “wireless” and writing.

Latterly an author and heritage railway consultant, his photographic record of The Waverley Route Through Time, which he co-wrote, was published three years ago. Last year, in Newcastleton, he attended a commemorative dinner marking the 45th anniversary of the closure of the route and, until his final days, remained fascinated by the history of the line, particularly with Riccarton Junction, Roxburghshire’s unique railway village which was once only accessible by train.

Following his death a white wreath was carried by a preserved railbus on the short section of the Waverley Line at Whitrope.

He is survived by his wife Patricia and their son Alexander.

ALISON SHAW