TRANSPORT minister Keith Brown today hailed a “new golden age of the train” as he launched the official start of construction on the delayed £350 million Borders Railway.
• £350 million Borders Railway project launched as Keith Brown hails “new golden age of the train”
• New link will connect Edinburgh and Tweedbank on 30-mile route
Transport minister Keith Brown marked the occasion by hailing the milestone as part of a “new golden age of the train”.
Mr Brown said Scotland “stood on the cusp of a transformative era” for rail, with the 30-mile line to be the longest to be reopened for a century.
The minister was at the site of Shawfair station in Midlothian, which is one of seven to be built on the route between Edinburgh and Tweedbank, south of Galashiels.
The former Waverley line to Carlisle, which opened in 1849, closed 44 years ago as one of the most notorious of the Beeching cuts.
Mr Brown said: “There is an appetite for good, reliable train services and that’s what we are working on now.”
However, acknowledging the line would require government support after opening, he said: “The railways are subsidised in Scotland because they are a social good.
“That is true of the Borders [line], too.”
The line is due to be open in September 2015, four years later than planned when it was approved by MSPs in 2006.
The project has been delayed by the Scottish Government scrapping its planned novel construction method and handing the project to Network Rail.
Mr Brown said he expected the current Scottish rail boom to continue thanks to such new routes.
He said ScotRail’s record 83 million passengers last year would also grow further thanks to fares being held down, record punctuality and station improvements announced this week, such as bigger car parks.
Mr Brown said: “There is a real sign of optimism for the railways of Scotland.
“As patronage increases, it also makes it easier to make the case for funding for new projects.”
Network Rail route managing director for Scotland, David Simpson, described the start of main construction work as a “major milestone” towards completion.
He said: “50 years on from Dr Beeching’s sweeping cuts, we are beginning the task of restoring one of the most mourned routes.”
The line will extend south from the existing Newcraighall station on Edinburgh’s southeastern edge, with track being laid south from there from the summer of next year.
The line will cost £294m to build, with £54m of other costs such as land purchase, preliminary work and project planning.
The current 350-strong workforce is expected to reach a peak of 1,100.
BAM Nuttall, which has won the main £220m construction contract, is now excavating a cutting through Shawfair to reduce its visibility from planned new housing.
Extensive grouting work has been made to stabilise old mine workings around the nearby former Monktonhall colliery, with the equivalent of more than 200 miles of drilling and 4,500 tonnes of grout being pumped into the ground.
The project also includes refurbishing the 23-arch Newbattle viaduct at Lothianbridge and the nearby Glenesk viaduct, built in 1829 as one of Scotland’s earliest railway bridges as part of the horsedrawn Edinburgh-Dalkeith railway.
The Campaign for Borders Rail said it hoped yesterday’s milestone would lead to the entire line to Carlisle being reopened.
Chairman Simon Walton said: “From the day of the contract signing [between the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency and Network Rail] in November, preparatory works have been under way up and down the route.
“Now we’ll see some tangible ‘above the ground’ progress, even if it is some time before we see rails laid.
“However, the campaign remains committed to lobbying for the further restoration of the line to continue, past Tweedbank and on to Melrose and Hawick, with the full route to Carlisle as an ultimate aim.
“We were pleased to read this week that Scottish Government reporters recommend the restoration of the full line remains on the South East Scotland strategic planning agenda.”
Midlothian Council leader Bob Constable said: “This is an important day for us all in Midlothian. The new train stations at Shawfair, Eskbank, Newtongrange and Gorebridge will bring real benefits to the local economy and give local residents the opportunity to enjoy direct train links to the Borders and Edinburgh for the first time in more than 40 years.”
However, rail consultant David Spaven called for better access to stations for pedestrians and cyclists as well as drivers.
Mr Spaven, author of Waverley Route – the Life, Death and Rebirth of the Borders Railway, said lessons should be learned from the Airdrie-Bathgate line, which was opened in 2010.
He said: “An expensive retro-fitting of improved paths and safety measures is now being undertaken. The Borders Railway needs to get this right from day one.”
Mr Spaven also called for chartered tourist trains to be able to use the line on Saturdays – their most popular day – as well as the planned Sundays to maximise potential visitor spending.
Light at the end of tunnel after a tortuous journey
THE agonising wait endured by supporters of the Borders Railway has come a significant step nearer to its end with the official start of construction.
Since ministers ordered a feasibility study after devolution in 1999, the prospect of re-opening part of the former Waverley line has inched tantalisingly forward, but with many a setback that threatened to derail the project.
Plans were launched amid misgivings among transport experts at the viability of a 30-mile route into such a thinly populated area.Then the required legislation was delayed by incomplete consultation before being finally approved by MSPs in 2006.
However, arguably the biggest threat to the scheme was the unsuccessful attempt by the Scottish Government to use a novel method of building the line that had not been tried before on such a large rail project.
Ministers initially highlighted what appeared to be enthusiastic interest from the construction industry.
However, the process then fell apart, as The Scotsman revealed, when one, then a second of the three shortlisted consortia abandoned the race in 2010 and 2011.
Although never officially admitted, the core snag appeared to be that the contract involved financing, building and maintaining the line for decades, separately from the rest of the rail network – with none of the economies of scale enjoyed by Network Rail.
The Scottish Government was forced to perform a U-turn by scrapping the contest in September 2011 and handed over the project to Network Rail, which is now in charge.
However, despite the critics, ministers have steadfastly maintained their backing for the scheme, albeit desperate that costs do not rise any further and the opening date is not further put back.
The track record of their Transport Scotland agency in previous road and rail projects suggests such fears may now be allayed.
The key to this is the contract the agency has signed with Network Rail, with the firm having to foot any additional costs rather than landing them directly with the taxpayer.
Along with this, Network Rail’s main contractor is BAM Nuttall, the last remaining shortlisted bidder in the failed competition, which, as a result, is likely to have as good a grasp of the task ahead as anyone.