Alastair Dalton: Claims of ‘agenda’ over Borders Railway criticism

The Borders Railway simply hit its first-year target when other re-opened lines far surpassed theirs. Picture: Greg Macvean
The Borders Railway simply hit its first-year target when other re-opened lines far surpassed theirs. Picture: Greg Macvean
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For a few minutes one day last week, a news story containing incorrect passenger figures for the Borders Railway appeared on scotsman.com.

My story, based on erroneous guidance from ScotRail, had been published by mistake and was removed as soon as this was realised.

The story was prompted by the publication of third-year figures for the line to mark the anniversary of its opening in 2015. No second-year figures had been published, despite my repeated requests to ScotRail and Transport Scotland.

It had been announced in 2016 that 1.3 million passenger journeys were made in the line’s first year, and, according to ScotRail’s press release last week, 1.5 million in the third year, which also said there had been “four million” overall.

I put it to ScotRail that the second-year figure must therefore be 1.2 million – a reduction on year one. The train operator’s press office agreed there was “not really any other logical conclusion”. However, it later informed me the total was not four million but actually 4.17 million, and so the second year figure was 1.37 million – an increase, not a fall.

Unfortunately, by then the story containing the original, incorrect figures was already scheduled for publication online and not caught in time, although it was removed soon afterwards.

But during those minutes, it was spotted by political blogger Stuart Campbell on the Wings Over Scotland website, who rightly observed it was a “very weird story” when compared with the correct figures.

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But what seems to have upset him – and others who tweeted similar criticisms – was the emphasis I gave in the story to the fall in passenger numbers in year two, rather than the increase in year three.

I was basically accused of turning a positive announcement into a negative story by dragging up an historic figure. Others claimed it was as part a deliberate “agenda” to write negative stories about the Scottish Government.

However, news reporting should not be about taking sides but highlighting what’s significant and new.

In this case, in news terms, a re-opened railway in Scotland proving successful is unsurprising, and many have far surpassed projections, like the Edinburgh-Bathgate and Stirling-Alloa lines. The Borders Railway didn’t. It hit its first-year forecast and no more – despite being 22 per cent above expectations in the first six months, which led me at the time to report that it was “on course to smash its passenger target”.

For the total to have fallen in the subsequent year – as I was led to believe last week – would have been very significant.

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Over the past 15 years, I have reported on the successes and failures of the railways north of the Border, including ScotRail’s passengers climbing to just short of 100 million a year.

It is true the Borders route has come in for detailed scrutiny under the SNP’s stewardship, but so has the equally troubled Alloa line under the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration.

In the case of the Borders, The Scotsman has chronicled everything from the failed attempt to have the project run by the private sector to cutbacks such as passing loops, which have arguably harmed train performance and could limit their frequency.

This is important coverage – not to rubbish the line, which is clearly now gaining in popularity, but to help point out potential lessons to be learned as campaigners across Scotland clamour for the return of their trains too.