Alastair Dalton: Behind Borders Railway fanfare

THE Borders Railway opened this week to a Royal fanfare with everyone eagerly jumping on the bandwagon to say what a success the project had been.

After much anticipation the Borders railway re-opened this week. Picture: Kimberley Powell
After much anticipation the Borders railway re-opened this week. Picture: Kimberley Powell

Campaigners immediately renewed their call for the line to be extended south to Hawick and those who have long lobbied for other line re-openings, such as to Levenmouth in Fife, were given new hope.

However, before we get carried away with steam trains and scenic routes, some honesty is needed over the shortcomings of the Borders project.

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Much has been made, as first highlighted by The Scotsman, of the potential impact on the line of cuts such as to the length of double track, and the design of new bridges which will prevent more being added in the future.

But what appears to have been airbrushed from official publicity for the line’s launch was its real cost and why it was delayed so long.

Whenever asked, infrastructure secretary Keith Brown has confirmed the scheme cost £353 million. But information handed out to the world’s media referred to the “£294m project” – in fact just the cost of construction.

Preparation work, including a botched consultation exercise, plus a failed attempt to get the private sector to uniquely fund, build and maintain the line, contributed to that significant extra sum. It also meant building work did not start until six years after the project had been approved by the Scottish Parliament.

This is important to know because there are likely to be many more rail schemes launched on the back of this bold venture – the longest line in Scotland for 114 years – and everyone needs to be clear about the potential pitfalls and true costs.

MSPs should scrutinise such proposals not just for their need but also their planned execution – and what they are based on.

Critics have argued that the Borders Railway’s terminus at Tweedbank, just a few miles short of Melrose, was shortsighted. They said it was derived from a consultants’ report based on the needs of train movements rather than potential passengers, and is now hopelessly out of date.

Campaigners should also ask how much senior Scottish Government civil servants have become pro-rail like their political masters now profess to be.

Former Liberal Democrat transport minister Lord Stephen, who spearheaded the Borders project, revealed this week that getting internal government agreement to fund it was “extremely tough” because of the roads bias of officials.

There must be doubt when the billions to be spent on dualling the A9 and A96, and the Queensferry Crossing, dwarf the sums earmarked to upgrade the railway.