Life on the line: Building the Borders Railway

Rail installation underway along the route during the winter of 2014-15. Picture: Peter DevlinRail installation underway along the route during the winter of 2014-15. Picture: Peter Devlin
Rail installation underway along the route during the winter of 2014-15. Picture: Peter Devlin
AS THE Borders Railway emerges from the mud – and sweat – Peter Ross meets the workers and locals who feel pride and awe at the monumental struggle to resurrect this emblem of a golden age of travel

NOVEMBER 13, 2014. That, supposedly, is the date, and we are, supposedly, in Scotland. But it could be France, 1916. The muddy ground is rutted and churned, chewed up by the big earth-movers, and frozen hard with ice. Frost glints on tangles of wire and a few blasted-looking silver birches. Someone makes the usual joke about the Battle of the Somme. A couple of days ago, work stopped for the two-minute silence to mark Armistice Day, and the Borders Railway workers, in mute observance, felt a grim solidarity with the poor bloody infantrymen of almost a century before. Okay, no one here is getting shot or shelled, but the dirt and the cold are the same.

Here come a couple of workers now. A big burly ginger bear of a guy called Boo-Boo, maybe in his late twenties; he’s the ganger – a sort of sergeant in charge of the work party. Strolling alongside him, steel-toecapped boots clarted with muck, is a scrawnier, older man with a wild, scraggly beard. This labourer is known as The Mink. They’ve spent the morning helping to construct a concrete footbridge, and now they’re hungry. As we are just a little to the south of Edinburgh, they have a specific luncheon destination in mind.

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“Right, ur we goin’ tae Ikea for meatballs?” asks The Mink, rubbing his gloved hands.

Network Rail employee Jock Wallace. Picture: Robert PerryNetwork Rail employee Jock Wallace. Picture: Robert Perry
Network Rail employee Jock Wallace. Picture: Robert Perry

“Aye!” says Boo-Boo. “Wi’ chips and cranberry sauce.”

Poor Boo-Boo and The Mink. It is their misfortune that this reverie is overheard by Rab Kenny, the section foreman, whose sense of the natural order of things is upset by the thought of tough railway workers going anywhere other than the nearby hut for their meal break.

“F***in’ Ikea?” he bellows. “You’ll dae wi’ a cold f***in’ roll n’ sausage like ah jist f***in’ had.”

Just a small moment, that. A tiny scene from the 18 months I spent embedded with the Borders Railway project. Yet it seems worth recording as an example of the character of the workers, and the humour that has kept them going through many a difficult day as they grafted on the 31-mile track connecting Edinburgh with Tweedbank; a track which, as more than one says with evident pride, is “the biggest new railway built in Britain for 100 years”.

The forthcoming completion of the Borders Railway will be marked by the re-naming of a train after Madge Elliot MBE, a veteran campaigner. Picture: SNS GroupThe forthcoming completion of the Borders Railway will be marked by the re-naming of a train after Madge Elliot MBE, a veteran campaigner. Picture: SNS Group
The forthcoming completion of the Borders Railway will be marked by the re-naming of a train after Madge Elliot MBE, a veteran campaigner. Picture: SNS Group

How do you build a railway? In 21st century Scotland it requires computer modelling and environmental consultation and safety briefings and community relations and no end of high-tech plant. But it also takes the same things it has done since the 19th century – brains and muscle and sweat and a seeming endless willingness, even a masochistic desire, to stand out in the rain and wind for days and years in order to make the damn thing happen. It takes grit.

You could, if you wished, tell the story of the Borders Railway in numbers. Construction costs: £294 million. Stations built: seven. Total number of sleepers laid: 95,834. Total tonnage of earth moved: 1,500,000. Some 10 kilometres of new road. Forty-two new bridges constructed, 95 bridges refurbished, the Gala Water crossed 18 times; various other rivers and burns a further ten. All of this done by 1,000 workers or thereabouts, fuelled by an approximate 40,000 bacon rolls, and fags innumerable. Statistics, though, only tell part of the story. What it comes down to is this: folk.

Let’s take just one of them – Martin “Paddy” Power. He works for Network Rail, the company delivering the project; BAM Nuttall is the main contractor. Paddy, the assistant construction manager, reckons he’s one of the longest served railway workers on the east coast in Scotland. Forty years he’s been at the job, starting off in 1975 as an apprentice joiner with British Rail, God rest its soul, but his connection – as the son of a railwayman – goes back further still. As a young child he was taken on the Waverley route, and on visits to Leith Central, where his father Frank seemed to know everybody, and so he grew up with steam and oil in his DNA, and it seemed natural that he would work on the tracks.

Ironically, his earliest task was to remove infrastructure – station buildings, signal boxes etc – along the Waverley Route, that famous line having closed just six years before. “We just went about knocking things down,” he says. “We went vandalising.” This memory comes with a side-order of guilt, meaning Paddy’s involvement in the construction of the Borders Railway is, in part, a form of personal reparation; restorative justice.

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“The line should never have closed,” he says. “We’re righting a wrong that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. These communities have suffered: Galashiels; Hawick. And all the branch lines off of the Waverley line: Kelso; Selkirk. They are isolated. There’s a sense of achievement in putting that right. You’re opening a line that will benefit folk, hopefully, for the next hundred years or more. Communities and jobs. It’s going to open up the Borders. You’re leaving a legacy. Like the men who first built the railway.”

The Waverley Route, completed in the summer of 1862, was a colossal, ambitious project, linking Edinburgh with Carlisle, and eventually London, through some of the bleakest, most difficult, hostile countryside in the British Isles.

“We have no hesitation in saying that no railway in the United Kingdom lies through such scenery…” declared one newspaper at the time. “We doubt whether there is any other of which it can be said that it would be worthwhile to travel on it for the sake of the scenery alone, but we have no hesitation to assert this of the Waverley Route.”

So, it was bonnie. But it was born out of sweat and tears, and the rank smell of risked fortunes. This was a period of intense competition between the private railway companies of the time. In the summer of 1858, Richard Hodgson, chairman of the North British Railway, spoke at a public dinner in Hawick, telling 600 guests of his determination to build a line south from the town. It was a speech worthy of the Battle of Britain, of Agincourt. “I will truckle to no one,” he said. “I will go forward as long as I have strength, and have no fear that we will be successful in the end.”

Building the Waverley Route was brutal, not helped by the wet and miserable winters of 1859 and 1860, or by the high and twisting landscape through which the line had to pass. Building materials were dragged across the moors by horses. Navvies at Whitrope were soaked by the estimated 400 gallons of water which poured into the tunnel each minute, and two of those men are buried there. Other deaths occurred at Bowshank, Stow and Burnfoot. In 1846, near Gorebridge, a mob of navvies murdered a policeman.

Out of this bloody crucible, an extraordinary railway came. “With two summits of around 900-1,000 feet, and a serpentine succession of curves throughout, the 98 miles of the Waverley route was arguably the most operationally difficult line in Britain,” wrote AJ Mullay in his book, Rails Across The Border. It was, observed the railway writer, OS Nock, “no place for weak or ailing engines”.

Harry Knox from Linlithgow knows all about that. He began his career in the railway in 1956 at the age of 16, retiring from the industry in 2006. As a young man, he had the pleasure and privilege of shovelling coal into engines on the Waverley Route in the last days of steam.

The Falahill summit is the highest point at 880 feet above sea level. Knox remembers well the effort it took to get a train with coaches up a 1 in 70 gradient that lasted for nearly ten miles. His shirt, he says, was a wet rag stuck to his back. “It really was non-stop shovelling,” he says. One might shovel a quarter of a ton of coal getting to the top of the hill.

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“The sweat was running off me,” Knox recalls. “A stream off my nose. That really was the hallmark of firing steam engines. You were working in front of a fire that was between two and three thousand degrees. So, yes, we expended a lot of fluid on the footplate.”

Hard graft, then, but well-earned joy, too. “When you got over the top at Falahill it was like a Sunday,” says Knox. “You could sit and enjoy going down alongside the Gala Water. There was very little steam being used. So, you’d have a cup of tea and enjoy the scenery.” There is something winningly presbyterian about this: the promise of paradise following a period of labour and pain.

Knox was based, in those days, at the locomotive depot in Haymarket, where the passenger trains which ran on the Waverley Route were stationed. The depot had opened in 1894, and by the late 1950s remained essentially Victorian in appearance and atmosphere. “Dickensian” is the word Knox uses. Dante’s Inferno, he feels, is a reasonable comparison – all smoke and flame-lit darkness. It was a place that was never at rest, and the noise was incredible. The hiss of steam. The clang of metal on metal. No-one just spoke. You had to shout to be heard. And the smell? That was something else. Quite a concoction. The usual railway aroma – hot oil and the rest – but also a stink peculiar to that part of Edinburgh: the chemical plant where they manufactured ether; the brewery and distillery; the North British Rubber Company; burnt sugar from the sweetie factory; and, of course, the glue works, where hides and bones and hooves became a sticky witches’ brew.

“Haymarket,” laughs Knox, “certainly added to the reek of Auld Reekie.”

When he passes through the area now, he sometimes thinks he catches a whiff of it. But such scents are just ghosts. The Waverley Route closed on 6 January, 1969, the most lamented and arguably undeserving victim of the “Beeching Axe” – the government programme of cost-saving railway closures. The Borders region became home to the largest population in Britain to live at such a distance from the railway. Around 70,000 people were now more than 25 miles from their nearest station. Many argue this has brought about and intensified depopulation and economic decline in the area. The grim joke was that if you didn’t die waiting for the bus from Hawick to Edinburgh, you would surely pass away during the journey. It was, as locals said, quicker by hearse.

The railway was not taken away without a fight. One doughty campaigner was Madge Elliot, now in her eighties, but then a wife and mother with a young family. Madge is a proud Terie, as folk from Hawick are pleased to call themselves, but more than that she is a “guiter-bluid”, meaning she was born in the oldest part of town, and – according to legend – the bloody afterbirth tossed in the gutter. In other words, Hawick through and through.

Gathering almost 12,000 signatures on a petition to save the railway, Elliot and a few other campaigners took the train to London a few days before Christmas in 1968, played into Downing Street by a piper giving laldy to Blue Bonnets Over The Border. The petition was wrapped up in red paper, for the ruling Labour Party, and bound with funereal black ribbon.

She handed over the petition to a flunky, who said he would make sure Harold Wilson saw it, and that was that. She had done all she could. It had been a struggle, and she hadn’t felt supported by the local men of influence; one senior councillor, she recalls, had phoned to say, “Mrs Elliot, you’re wasting your time. You should just go back to your housewife’s duties.”

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Elliot is pleased that the line is reopening, at least as far as Tweedbank, though her feelings seem a little bittersweet. “What a damned waste,” she says. “It should never have closed in the first place. If the Hawick folk want it to come here in future, they’ll have to fight for it. But I winna be leading the fight. Not at my age. It’s up to them. I tried my best. We didna succeed, but they kent we were there.”

The years passed. The decades. In place of a line grew a legend. That word, “Waverley” had always been intended to give the route an air of historical romance, but this feeling intensified with closure. The Waverley had died before its time, like a tragic poet or pop star, and this gave it a certain doomed, nostalgic appeal.

Then, in the summer of 2006, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill to reconstruct the railway to Tweedbank. The main construction work began in the spring of 2013.

No-one could claim that the rebuilding project has gone entirely smoothly or that everyone has been happy about it. There are those who consider the whole thing a waste of money and are sceptical about the line’s ability to drive tourism or boost the Borders economy. Others, who welcome the railway, are disappointed that more of it is not double-tracked, and that it terminates at Tweedbank rather than continuing to Hawick, Melrose, or even on to Carlisle.

There are those, too, who live along the route of the new line, so have had to put up with the construction work, but do not have a station at the end of it. These are the people who have experienced a dark variation on WH Auden’s famous poem: this is the railway down to the Borders, bringing unchecked noise and disorder.

In the tiny settlement of Falahill, a run of ten houses now marooned between the railway and the A7, they complain of repeated disruptions to the water supply and homes shaking or even damaged by blasting work. In Fountainhall, the problems have been to do with dirt on the roads and in the air, and worries over a lack of privacy as workmen, and soon trains, pass along the tracks at eye-level with bedroom windows; one woman says she has had to keep her blinds down for a year. In Heriot, they have been angered by traffic disruption and by a new underpass which, residents say, has flooded again and again. The talk, in all these places, is of invasion and imposition; a sense that the railway is something that has happened to them against their will.

“It’s a war zone,” says one Heriot resident. “We’re just collateral damage, and we really haven’t mattered in the process.”

The Borders Railway project was divided into three areas of construction – North, Central and South – with work proceeding simultaneously in each. The North extends from Shawfair to the former pit village of Gorebridge. The Central section carries on to just before the giant Bowshank tunnel, a place of Stygian darkness a few miles south of Stow. The final section is everything from the tunnel to the terminus at Tweedbank, south-east of Galashiels.

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That clichéd view that regards the Scottish Borders as being isolated, insular, lawless and rather Here Be Dragons extends, among railway workers, to those of their colleagues based in the south. Enquiries about the section are met with a wry shake of the head: “You’ve mair chance o’ findin’ oot whit’s gaun oan in North Korea.” Had Scotland voted for independence, the joke went, the south section crew were contracted to build a wall across the border.

Perhaps the most complex, high-stakes and nerve-shredding of all the works on the project has been the building of a railway tunnel under the Edinburgh City Bypass near the Sheriffhall roundabout. Any mistake or delay would have meant effectively closing off the mass of traffic coming to and from the Borders and the A1 to England.

“Can you imagine this not opening up on the Monday morning?” says Paddy Power, sweeping a hand towards the roaring commuter traffic. “The chaos and the havoc and the bad publicity? That’s the nightmare scenario.”

An additional sense of jeopardy came from the knowledge that the data cable for a major bank, carrying critical information about UK and international transactions, runs underground right where the tunnelling beneath the bypass was due to be carried out. “If we broke it,” one worker recalls, “we could have affected the value of the pound.” This, for most of us, would be the stuff of cold sweats and waking screaming in the night. But railway workers with the right stuff see it differently. “It was,” says a young engineer, “a total adrenalin rush.”

Building a railway is a difficult, delicate equation with several variables. Manpower, morale, money, time, the landscape, the climate. All of that goes into it and there is, all the time, enormous pressure. A railway has a kind of brute inevitability. There is something dumb and insistent about it. It will be built. The men who build it give various reasons for doing so. For the pay, of course, but sometimes also out of a sense of pride, or because they find the work interesting and fulfilling, or because they are the fourth generation to work on the railway and they have tracks in their blood. Deeper than that, though, what you detect is a sense of destiny, a sense that they are thirled to the work. They are building the railway because they are building a railway, and what else would they do?

The life of a railwayman, these days, is no longer held cheap. So the losses experienced during the construction of the Borders Railway are painful for all involved. Towards the end of November, a 49-year-old worker lost one of his legs when a concrete sleeper fell on him while it was being unloaded by a crane. Work on the line stopped immediately for a review of safety systems, and by Christmas the schedule was four weeks behind and the mood dark. The effect of the accident on the team was “stunning” according to Hugh Wark. Staff were offered advice on coping with trauma.

The incident happened on the outskirts of Galashiels and came not quite six months after a fatal road accident, also in the southern section. A tractor and trailer being driven along the A7 by 54-year-old employee, Huw Jenkins, was hit by a lorry and the man was killed. “A few of the lads took that hard,” says Dave Siney, general foreman for the section. “I know I was affected. It is like losing one of our own.”

Yet, despite the accidents and the upset they caused, despite whatever God and the devil in charge of the Scottish weather choose to throw at the project, no one involved has any doubt that the work will be completed on time and that trains, before long, will run between Edinburgh and the Borders for the first time in almost half a century.

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“It will get done,” says one worker. “We’ll do it because we always do.”

February 2, 2015. Sander den Ouden, a 36-year-old from Utrecht, leads the way along the track, walking towards the sun rising over the Eildon Hills, stepping on the sleepers, pausing sometimes to stoop and chalk marks on the rails where they are to be welded. There is snow on the ballast, and his men are wearing balaclavas beneath their helmets, e-fags poking out and giving them the look of grizzled Daleks.

For the past four months these dozen men have walked the route of the railway, laying the track with a special machine shipped over from Holland. It was T-shirt weather when they started, but as the weeks have passed they have gradually added layers until each is a thermal Michelin Man. They are just four days away from the end of the job. Today is a milestone: they will reach Galashiels. The track-laying machine, in honour of the nationalities of the men who work on it, is decorated with Saltires and the flag of the Netherlands. Someone has painted a motto along the front: “For the finishing touch God created the Dutch!”

Lengths of track, each 108 metres and weighing six tonnes, are offloaded from a wagon which follows the machine and then fed through its winches, wheels and levers until laid upon the sleepers, at which point the men clip them into place. In this way, they can, in theory, lay the best part of a mile each day, but of course there are hold-ups and slow-downs. The previous Friday, the ballast train derailed, setting everything back.

An outsider could be forgiven for detecting a certain casual fatalism among the workers when it comes to schedules. “Yon time,” for instance, is the standard unit of temporal measurement, as in, “What time will we be here till the night?” “Och, yon time.” It is the workie equivalent of mañana. Yet behind it lies careful planning and a great deal of stress and sweat, without which no deadline would ever be met.

All of the men, Scottish and Dutch, have been moved by the emotional response of the public they have encountered along the way. “Last week, I seen a woman crying,” says Paul Morris, a huge worker, from the depths of his black hood. “She was standing on that bridge back there. It means that much to people, so you take a pride in it, aye.” He takes his phone out of his pocket to show black and white photos of steam trains passing under the very bridge where he is working now.

At precisely half past noon, the tracks pass under that bridge, on the outskirts of town, and are guided into place by workers to the sound of applause from the people looking down from above. The railway has arrived for the first time in 46 years. This sight is witnessed by a few dozen souls braving the cold: dog-walkers, kids from the local nursery, a few curious drinkers lured from the pub; but mostly by those in their autumn years who remember the railway and are glad to see it back. For these people, this is a moment when black and white turns to colour; when their youth and old age are coupled together. They must almost be able to smell the steam. For both Galashiels and Scotland, this is historic.

Naturally, then, no-one would ruin the occasion with an uncharitable thought for rival towns that do not – yet – have their station back. Would they?

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“Aye,” a gentle-looking man of middle years, walking a Labradoodle, sighs happily, “the guid thing aboot this is Hawick’s still screwed.” n

• The Borders Railway will open on 6 September. Borders Railway – The Return Journey, written by Peter Ross, will be published by Lily Publications, priced £19.99, to coincide with the opening of the line. Scotland on Sunday readers can purchase the book for £15 before 31 July – visit and enter the code SSBR15 or phone 01624 898446 and quote the same reference.

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