Alastair Dalton: Look out for Borders rail views

IT PROMISES to be an effortless way to travel – but blink and you could miss the best scenery. Many places in Scotland seem easier and quicker to get to by car. With the trains back, the Borders might just now be different.
Braw Lad and Lass Cameron Pate and Abbie Franklin from Galashiels. Picture: Lesley MartinBraw Lad and Lass Cameron Pate and Abbie Franklin from Galashiels. Picture: Lesley Martin
Braw Lad and Lass Cameron Pate and Abbie Franklin from Galashiels. Picture: Lesley Martin

Some of those unfamiliar with the region – even folk in Edinburgh – perhaps view it as far away and difficult to access.

But if yesterday’s preview journey on the rails was anything to go by, you’ll find yourself in the heart of the Borders before you know it.

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There’s not even a dual carriageway to take you there, with Galashiels-bound drivers faced with the twisty, even tiresome, A7 as it hugs the valley of the Gala Water for miles.

That could prove the railway’s big attraction, especially in winter and bad weather, ironing out the curves and carving a smooth path through the hills between country and city.

It’s also a pleasant enough ride, but the line’s supposed scenic marvels are in danger of being hopelessly exaggerated.

The Borders Railway cannot claim to be in the same league as routes such as the West Highland line between Glasgow and Mallaig, but it has its own, more modest beauty.

It certainly provides a new rural landscape to enjoy from the train – for those who haven’t experienced the route before its closure – unlike the largely nondescript new lines in the Central Belt, like the one between Airdrie and Bathgate.

Our Borders-bound train powered up the 1:70 gradient – pretty steep in railway terms – to its 880ft Falahill summit, complete with sign, which has become once again one of the ten highest on the British network.

There are brief panoramic views, such as of the Pentlands over the Midlothian stretch, and nearer sights, such as sheep-filled fields and pretty country churches – but you have to keep your eyes peeled to see them.

Landmarks like the 15th century Borthwick Castle, south of Gorebridge, and the Redbridge viaduct over the Tweed in Galashiels, flash by.

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In fact, the line’s most impressive architecture, such as the 23-arch Newbattle viaduct in Newtongrange, is unfortunately passed virtually unnoticed from the train.

Otherwise, what’s most noticeable are the newly installed wire and wooden fences, newly planted trees and rock “revetments” to hold the steep slopes of cuttings in place.

New housing, such as at Fountainhall, flashes past, and if the railway is successful, there’s likely to be lots more. This may provide the opportunity for more stations, but will the view simply become more suburbia?

The lasting impression of 
the route through Galashiels is, alas, line-side retail parks, including a giant Asda and industrial units.

Yesterday’s preview journey for the media, co-ordinated by VisitScotland, was heavy on the area’s heritage attractions – a model showcasing the region’s textiles, a Sir Walter Scott impersonator posing aboard the train, and children dressed as engineers from the National Mining Museum Scotland in Newtongrange.

But despite the line’s launch date being announced a year ago, the kind of details that will matter to visitors who have been wooed by such publicity seem to be being addressed at the very last minute.

Direction signs to guide tourists to Abbotsford – Sir Walter’s house near Tweedbank – are apparently only now being installed, and there was no sign of them at the station when the train pulled in.

I was even provided with this distinctly odd comment from one official: “It would be unusual for a visitor attraction to be signed directly from a station.”

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Budding travellers should also be aware that, after all the razzmatazz from the opening celebrations, steam trains and the Queen’s visit on Wednesday, facilities at most of the line’s station are pretty basic.

Galashiels boasts a new “transport interchange”, with a cafe and the promise of somewhere warm to wait – albeit across the road from the station.

However, don’t expect a welcome centre when you reach the Tweedbank terminus.

It is little more than a platform, large car park and a glorified bus shelter for protection against the elements – and there are no toilets.

Let’s hope the trains get there on time.