THE economic case for reopening the Borders rail line is "not the strongest", the Scottish Executive admitted yesterday even as it confirmed it would fund the lion’s share of the £151 million project.
Nicol Stephen, the transport minister, also attached tough conditions to the cash to ensure projections for the 35-mile Edinburgh-Tweedbank route are met, as The Scotsman reported yesterday.
The long-awaited news, of the most significant step yet towards returning trains to the northern section of the former Waverley line after nearly 40 years, met a mixed reaction. Even public transport campaigners said the one-hour journey time would not be fast enough to attract passengers.
Mr Stephen announced ministers would provide 115 million (at 2002 prices), equivalent to about 130 million today, including funding previously pledged by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA).
The conditions include assumptions that the scheme’s business case projections are met, and a comprehensive risk management strategy is produced this year.
He said the relative weakness of the value-for-money case was because the line would serve a rural area that would not generate the same volume of passengers as urban areas.
Giving evidence to MSPs scrutinising the project in Galashiels, he said: "This railway is a real sign that times are changing, that the Borders and Midlothian will play their full part in the strong, confident Scotland, that our transport investment will help build."
He said the partnership agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats after the last Scottish elections had restated the Executive’s commitment to the scheme, and stressed that funding had been allocated for all the Executive’s major transport projects, including the line, in the last spending review.
However, Tricia Marwick, convener of the Waverley Railway Bill committee, expressed anger at the apparent leaking of the funding announcement last week, and said MSPs would have the final say over whether the project would go ahead.
The bill must pass both its current preliminary stage and a second, detailed stage before work can start, possibly next year, with completion in 2008.
MSPs expressed scepticism about projections by Scottish Borders Council, the bill’s promoter, over the expected extra housing the line would create.
They also voiced concern about the effect of bus services on the A7, which runs parallel to the line.
Christine May, the committee’s vice-convener, pointed out that projected housebuilding over the next six years - vital in creating extra passengers - was five times the current rate.
But Mr Stephen, comparing the project’s potential with the effect of oil on Aberdeen, said Borders, Midlothian and Edinburgh councils had told him this was achievable.
Peter Fuller, the Scotland planning manager for the SRA, told MSPs the project did not have a strong business case on purely transport terms, but it might exceed its passenger projections.
He said there was a better case for ending the line at Gorebridge in Midlothian, but that would not help regenerate the Borders’ economy.
The SRA said the line would not cover its costs - like almost all rail routes in Britain.
Earlier, Graeme Sandie, an objector from Galashiels, said: "An improved road between the central Borders and Edinburgh is what people want - they do not want a railway."
David Mundell, the Scottish Conservatives’ transport spokesman, gave a cautious welcome, but feared Borders council taxpayers would have to fund any shortfall.
TRANSform Scotland, the public transport campaign group, said that the journey time "just doesn't look fast enough".
Backers claim rural railway would boost jobs and help the economy
REBUILDING a rural railway line now largely colonised by sheep beside the A7 would not appear to be a winner.
However, its backers believe the project will help trigger the construction of 10,000 new homes, providing 20,000 potential rail passengers.
These extra Borders residents could both boost the region’s economy and help fill jobs in Edinburgh’s buoyant labour market. A total of 213 jobs are expected to be created in the Borders and 308 in Midlothian because of the line.
More than 2,000 passengers a day are expected to use the service initially, rising to nearly 5,000 within ten years.
The line is also expected to encourage more tourists to visit the Borders - the only area of Britain without a station. It would also reduce journey times to Edinburgh, and cut congestion and pollution.
However, critics have expressed scepticism that the house-building targets can be achieved, and believe a railway would do little to attract new businesses or tourists seeking to tour the region. They add that the connection to Edinburgh would be no faster than driving
The project’s business case, which has been revised to take account of new Treasury guidance, states that the line would bring economic benefits of 90-258 million over its first 30 years.
The Executive has already ordered aspects of the business case to be independently audited, while officials have also assessed it in detail prior to the funding announcement yesterday.
The Executive has pledged the equivalent of 130 million to the 151 million project, and 6.6 million has been pledged by house-builders and developers such as ASDA, which is building a new store in Galashiels.