The Borders Railway: ‘This is a line that was built to last’

A scenic section of the Border route betweewn Heriot and Crichton
A scenic section of the Border route betweewn Heriot and Crichton
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WITH the Borders rail reopening proving as contentious as its closure, can the benefits ever outweigh the costs in an age of austerity, ask Dani Garavelli and Alastair Dalton.

Last week, on a crisp ­autumn morning, David Spaven put on his walking boots and made his way along a strip of land which once echoed to the thunder of trains carrying passengers and freight through the Southern Uplands. The Waverley Line, named after Sir Walter Scott’s novel, closed amidst a storm of protest in 1969, leaving the Borders as the only region in Scotland without any railway connections.

Today, the remains of the line, which crossed bleak moorland and negotiated the steep slopes of Falahill and ­Whitrope Summit, are still clearly visible. ­Although parts of it have been covered by weeds, breached by new roads or sold off for housing, around 90 per cent of the route is still intact, with old bridges and ­stations a reminder of the railway’s heyday.

“I am now standing beside an old railway tip where they used to bring up ash from the steam engine sheds and dump it beside the railway,” says Spaven, who is calling on his mobile phone near Falahill summit gazing out across the Pentlands. “In places you can still see the ballast which supported the tracks. This is a railway that was built to last.”

The closure of the route, carried out as part of the notorious Beeching Axe, came despite petitions and delegations to parliament and has been a festering sore on the psyche of the Borders ever since. Such was the strength of feeling that in its last few days as a passenger route, a coffin was positioned on a makeshift bier in Hawick station, while the very last passenger train, the 21.56 Edinburgh Waverley to London St Pancras sleeper, found the line blocked at Newcastleton and the level crossing gates locked by demonstrators.

Now, more than four decades later, and after six years of false starts and setbacks, the Borders Railway is slowly and haltingly coming to life again. In the past few months, advance preparation, such as devegetation and mine subsidence work, has been carried out on sections of the 31-mile stretch from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, which the government is committed to reopening. And later this week, a long awaited contract is set to be signed between the government’s Transport Scotland agency and Network Rail, finally paving the way for a contractor to be appointed.

Spaven, a former British Rail manager and author of Waverley Route; The Life, Death And Rebirth Of The Borders Railway, believes the reopened line will right a historic injustice. “The closure of the railway left Galashiels and Hawick further from a rail network than any other towns of their size elsewhere in Britain,” he says. “It is important that wrong should be redressed and the region should have access to a sustainable form of transport again.”

But as Scotland on Sunday reveals in our news pages today, the scheme looks set to come in tens of millions of pounds over budget, and no formal start date has been set for the work. Given the economic climate, there are those who ask whether a project given the go-ahead in a time of plenty can be justified in an age of austerity. But the agreement with Network Rail marks the biggest step forward for the controversial project since the Act of Parliament setting it in motion was passed six years ago. If and when it is completed, it will be the biggest railway opening in modern British history and the longest route to be opened north of the Border since the Fort William to ­Mallaig line in 1901.

So who is right – the enthusiasts or the sceptics?

The campaign for the reopening of the Borders Railway began in earnest in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2006 – under the then Labour-led administration – that legislation was passed to make it possible. The plan involves the opening of seven stations, Shawfair, Eskbank, Newtongrange and Gorebridge in Midlothian and Stow, Galashiels and Tweedbank in the Borders. For travellers from Borders towns not directly served by the railway, there will be connecting buses to Galashiels station.

Originally, it was hoped the entire project could be completed for £115 million, with construction beginning in 2009 and the service running by 2011, but changes both in government and economic circumstances have led to so many delays there has been a real scepticism amongst residents of the Borders that the railway will ever be completed.

The most serious setback came when the SNP decided the scheme should be financed not by public investment, but as a public/private partnership through a “Design, Build, Finance and Maintain” initiative. This plan fell through when two of the three firms shortlisted to construct the railway dropped out and the government went back to Network Rail.

“One of the reasons it has taken so long is that the project has been something of a guinea pig for the reopening of a railway under the SNP – it had to go through so many hoops other infrastructure projects didn’t face,” says Spaven, who travelled on the Waverley Line ­during childhood camping holidays in the Borders.

The government insists the railway will generate approximately £40m of benefits to the wider economy and reduce carbon emissions by 435,000 tonnes over 60 years. It also estimates road accidents on the A7 and A68 will drop by up to 10 a year.

But there are those who believe such claims are inflated and are vehemently opposed to the reopening. One of Nicholas Watson’s earliest memories after moving to Scotland when he was four is of pedalling his tricycle on Melrose station platform in the snow. Like Spaven, he has fond recollections of travelling on the old railway line, but he has no enthusiasm for the current project.

“If it were a fast freight-carrying line all the way to Carlisle that would be a very different creature and I would be excited about it,” he says.

Like other critics, Watson, Borders Party councillor for Leaderdale and Melrose, says £350m is too much money to spend on a project which he believes will benefit only a small number of people.

“It’s not just about the construction costs, it’s about the running costs,” he says. “In Britain, around 70 per cent of people who use trains come from the top income quartile – say there’s a subsidy in the region of £40 a day for a passenger to go to Edinburgh and back, it seems a very poor use of public money to subsidise more prosperous people to that sort of tune.”

Watson believes the railway is a folly born of train lovers’ nostalgia for a golden era. And yet it is, in part, his fear that the area will lose its traditional, rural feel that lies behind his own reticence. “What really worries people in the Borders is what will happen in terms of development,” he says. “The proposed stations at Tweedbank and Galashiels are in the Central Tweed Valley, the Borders most precious tourist asset. Melrose and Abbotsford are gems in the palm of 
the hand of the Borders and any extra development pressures are going to be hard to handle in that sort of valley ­landscape.”

Scotland on Sunday’s revelation that costs have risen by another £50m is grist to Watson’s mill. “If I was the transport minister I would look at taking the line to Midlothian as a first step and see how it goes – or I might even say we can’t ­afford it just now and put it on the shelf,” he says.

The sceptics believe that the £350m for the project would have been better spent upgrading roads such as the notorious A7 (which saw an average of 133 accidents involving injury a year between 2002 and 2006) and the A68.

But the driving forces behind the rail link – including Christine Grahame, MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, and the Campaign for the Borders Railway – believe that by cutting the journey time from Edinburgh to Tweedbank from 86 to 55 minutes, the railway will revitalise an area which has an ageing population and few job opportunities, attracting new businesses and housing developments and encouraging younger residents to stay rather than drifting off to the big city.

For 120 years, the Waverley Line carried first steam and then diesel trains 
at speeds of up to 70mph. Like many other routes, however, it fell victim to a belief that the era of cross-country rail travel was over. In the early 1970s, the focus was on motorways, with investment in rail confined to the big intercity routes.

The first oil crisis of 1973 was a harbinger of possible problems, but successive governments pressed on, failing to protect the route they had abandoned for the future. It is one of Spaven’s biggest gripes that roads (including the Edinburgh city bypass) were allowed to breach the route, making the reopening much more difficult to achieve.

But in the past decade, as petrol prices have risen and concerns about climate change have grown, there has been a resurgence in rail travel. The last three lines which have reopened – Hamilton to Larkhall, Stirling to Alloa and Bathgate to Airdrie – have all attracted more passengers than anticipated.

All the signs suggest the scheme will now go ahead. If the political will had been lacking, sources point out, it would have gone the way of the axed Glasgow Airport Rail Link long ago. Recent advance work has been so well publicised, it would be embarrassing for the government to back out now. But it is the fact that Network Rail – which successfully delivered the Airdrie/Bathgate link – is now back in control that is being taken as the strongest signal the project will in fact be realised.

Certainly those who have campaigned for the railway seem reassured. Although they reject suggestions that the Borders Railway will benefit only those living near Galashiels, they are not without reservations about the current plans. Spaven feels the Scottish Government has been shortsighted in its refusal to consider a two-mile extension of the track to ­Melrose.

He is disappointed too that, as things stand, the platforms at Tweedbank will not be long enough to accommodate charter trains which could bring tourists from England.

But, as he walks the line capturing images of the route for posterity, he allows himself to dream about a future when trains are rattling through the countryside once more.

“The reality is that most big infrastructure projects these days end up costing more than the original budget,” he says. “It was true of the three previous rail route reopening schemes in Scotland and they’ve all been very successful; it was true of the M74 extension.

“As to the delay, we’ve waited more than 40 years, I don’t think a few more months is going to ­worry anyone very much. And, when you look at the wonderful views you get over the moor and the Pentlands you have to think – it will be the most scenic journey.”