What to make of the new Borders railway?

The new station at Stow. Picture: John Devlin

The new station at Stow. Picture: John Devlin

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THERE is an unmistakable frisson of excitement in Stow as it prepares for the opening of the Borders Railway; a marquee brought in for a recent music festival has been kept up and banners advertise a fun-day on the village quoiting green.

At the Cloudhouse Cafe, owner Gemma Blacker says the village is already reaping the rewards of one of the biggest civil engineering projects in Scotland for a century: four families have moved in and more are on the way. It is not unusual to see customers poring over a schedule, she says.

Golden ticket holder Sam Halliday, 5, enjoys the view. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

Golden ticket holder Sam Halliday, 5, enjoys the view. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

Such an air of celebration is to be expected; under the original plans, Stow, with its kirk and packhorse bridge, was not supposed to have a station, but its residents fought a grassroots campaign and won. A second campaign saved the old station building from demolition. Now villagers hope it will be turned into a small museum or cycle hire shop, something to entice tourists to step off the train and spend some time there.

Bill Jamieson was one of the founding members of the Stow Station Supporters Group. On Wednesday, he will join the Queen and other luminaries at the railway’s formal launch. Invited guests will travel the length of the 35-mile route, from Edinburgh through Midlothian to Tweedbank on a steam service hauled by the Union of South Africa before having lunch at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott.

Jamieson is delighted part of the old Waverley line – axed in the wake of the Beeching report despite protests in 1969 – has been brought back to life. But his enthusiasm is dampened by the crude, urban design of the station they’ve secured. The new structure – all concrete slabs and painted metal – looks as if it has been lifted en masse from the Central Belt and plonked down in this rolling green landscape. Jamieson shakes his head at its starkness and says that with a little more effort, the contractors could have built something more in harmony with the bucolic setting. “It’s in the Borders, but it’s not really of the Borders,” he says.

Today, as the new railway opens to paying passengers for the first time, it is heaving with train-lovers. But as I travelled round towns on the old Waverley line, I encountered much ambivalence. There were some who dismissed the £350 million project as a white elephant; but even those who had faith in it – who believed it could bring houses, investment and tourism into the region – spoke of limited vision and missed opportunities.

It’s in the Borders, but it’s not really of the Borders

The decision to stop at Tweedbank as opposed to Carlisle or Hawick, or even Melrose, the decision to make so much of the route single track and the ugliness of some of the structures were all held up as evidence of a lack of vision and a failure to capitalise on an investment.

Take Kim Elliot, who lives in Hawick. He is the son of Madge Elliot, the indomitable 87-year-old who led the campaign against closure in 1969 and has been at the heart of efforts to bring it back. Elliot has always been obsessed with the railway; as a child he used to stand on the embankment opposite his primary school and watch freight trains – a steam locomotive at either end – struggling to make it up the hill. Though he no longer train-spots, he still likes to sit on platforms absorbing the hustle and bustle. Elliot was 11 when the Waverley route shut; devastated, he accompanied his mother on the trip to hand a petition into 10 Downing Street.

Today, he and fellow Downing Street petitioner Ian Bell are in the Hawick and District Railway Society rummaging through old photographs. Behind them is a model railway which features the old Waverley line at Whitrope and a replica Class 45 D60 Lytham St Annes locomotive which pulled the last train.

Elliot is a mass of competing emotions over the reopening; 45 years hasn’t healed the bitterness he feels over the way the old line was axed, but he and Bell both gush about the trip from Tweedbank to Newcraighall they enjoyed earlier in the year. “The scenery is brilliant and it’s so fast,” they say, pretty much in unison. “It only takes 12 minutes to go from Tweedbank to Stow. And it’s smooth. The only time you feel anything is when you go over the points as you move from double to single track – other than that you just glide.”

Even so, the pair are adamant that, to fulfil its potential, the service needs to go on to Hawick and Carlisle (though all the way to Carlisle would cost £500m). They intended to go on yesterday’s Golden Ticket trips armed with leaflets pushing for the extension and more integrated bus and rail links.

Hawick was arguably the Borders town hardest hit by the closure of the Waverley route. The decision wasn’t responsible for the collapse of its hosiery mills, but it made it difficult to attract more businesses to replace them. Today there are upmarket gift shops and cafes, but also the usual scattering of to-let signs and charity shops.

With the opening just a few hours away, its residents seem detached from the hype. Serving behind the counter at McCulloch’s Seafood, Sarah Mitchell says the new railway will be of little use to her as she would have to travel to Galashiels to catch it. “Any tourists will go to Gala. They’ll no’ bother coming the extra 30 miles here,” she says.

Some areas, however, are already benefiting from the Borders Railway project; in the south-eastern wedge of Edinburgh, Shawfair, a new town of 4,000 houses, two primaries, a secondary and a station, is under construction. And at Galashiels, a new £5.2m transport interchange with a cafe has been built to serve as a hub for onward connections.

Waiting for a bus back to Tweedbank, Margaret Jackson says she is looking forward to day trips to Edinburgh. “I’ll probably wait until the fuss has died down, but it’s great that the train goes into Princes Street. At first, I thought 55 minutes seemed a lot but I’ve not long moved up here from London. There it used to take me 30 minutes to get into the city and then another 30 on the underground to Oxford Street; this service will take me right to the shops.”

Efforts are also being made to ensure all tourist opportunities are exploited. A new footpath has been built to link Newtongrange station with the National Mining Museum of Scotland and there are plans to house the Great Tapestry of Scotland near the station at Tweedbank. Building the new line has involved incredible feats of civil engineering; but for something aimed at attracting tourists, little effort seems to have been devoted to ensuring the new structures are aesthetically pleasing. Hardengreen Bridge – the largest new bridge – has been described as “a piece of history in the making,” but even construction workers have sneered at its design. “In 50 years time, no-one’s going to look at what’s been built in Hardengreen and say ‘That’s a nice bridge.’ Maybe Banksy will come and paint something on it. That’s all it’s good for,” said one.

“I keep looking at it and thinking: ‘If this was France, that bridge would be majestic’,” agrees Gavin Whittaker, who, as secretary of Heriot community council, has spent the last few years fielding complaints about all the disruption.

Heriot is one of three villages along the route which have suffered years of construction problems without any reciprocal benefit (the others are Fountainhall and Falahill). None of the villages has a station, and, though the diggers and temporary traffic lights have now gone, they have been left with unwelcome legacies. Heriot now boasts a gloomy underpass, with long, winding ramps – a gash on the landscape.

Whittaker believes the northern part of the railway through Midlothian will be successful because of its existing commuters, but sees the southern section as “a colossal waste of money”.

“I think I am right in saying that when the original projections were made, the financial sector in Edinburgh was going strong and there were plans for 15,000 new homes between Melrose and Galashiels. Now the banking sector has collapsed and only around a tenth of the houses have been built. I don’t believe the take-up 
will be nearly as great as they say.”

So much money, enthusiasm and sweat has been invested in the Borders Railway every effort will be made to ensure it flourishes.

With ticket sales booming, there is no doubt it is generating interest. A series of steam services had already sold out until an extra carriage was located. The question is: once the novelty wears off, will the Borders Railway have the pulling power to keep it chugging along?

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