Brian Monteith: Borders railway will never pay

Borders railway is a white elephant which will cost so much that it simply isn’t worth it, writes Brian Monteith
Keith Brown called the target completion date of September 2015 'challenging' when he took over. Picture: Neil HannaKeith Brown called the target completion date of September 2015 'challenging' when he took over. Picture: Neil Hanna
Keith Brown called the target completion date of September 2015 'challenging' when he took over. Picture: Neil Hanna

A project that is likely to be at least four years late and is approaching being five times its original projected cost, it is entirely fitting that the Borders railway is the spawn of the Holyrood parliament. More worrying still, and entirely in keeping with the management of the construction of their own temple to political self-indulgence, our MSPs have thus far not managed to exert any sort of control on what will become the most expensive railway in Scotland – if not Britain.

It is worth going back to those early days of 2000 when MSPs were still meeting at the Assembly Hall on the Mound and were dreaming of the many great projects they could unleash on an expectant public. There appeared to be no end to what could be done by the new Scottish Parliament – and re-opening a railway line from Edinburgh to Galashiels or thereabouts was an ideal contender.

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For one thing it cemented the Labour–Liberal Democrat coalition, as Labour would get its pet schemes through (like the Glasgow Airport rail link) while the Liberal Democrats could claim the Borders railway as their great achievement.

Secondly, it would right what was portrayed as a great Tory wrong – the closing of the Waverley line, that most romantic but highly uneconomic direct route from Edinburgh to Gala, Hawick and on to Carlisle.

It was a moot point that the closure, recommended by the farsighted British rail chairman Dr Richard Beeching during the early 1960s, was actually carried out by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1969. The prevailing anti-Tory consensus did not want such truths to get in the way of any myth-making about the Scots-hating Tory party. Ironically, in an attempt to curry favour in the Borders and seem like all-round good guys, some Conservative MSPs, most vocally David Mundell, now an MP and Scotland Office minister, got behind the idea.

And so it left the drawing board, and an “independent study” commissioned by the Scottish Executive, Scottish Borders Council, Midlothian Council and Scottish Borders Enterprise reported that a half-hourly service from Tweedbank (almost but not quite Melrose) to Edinburgh could cover its operating costs and would have an estimated capital cost of £73 million.

By 2003 the cost was being quoted as between £125-£130m but by the time the proposal had been worked up and studied by a Parliamentary Bill committee and passed by 114 votes to one (that one being me) the cost had doubled to £155m, an ominous sign that might have woken politicians up to the dangers. These were, however, still the days of loadsamoney government, so almost everybody slapped their backs and looked forward to riding on the first trains in 2011.

Unfortunately the timetable and ticket price turned out to be beyond the scope of any fat controllers.

After 2007 the project was in the hands of the minority SNP government and the price had, within a year, risen to between £235-£295m and delivery was shunted into 2013. By 2010 the target completion had slipped again into 2014 and in 2012 it was put back further – to September 2015. When announced, this date was admitted to be “challenging” by the new minister in charge, Keith Brown. His arithmetic was no less challenging as his quoted figure of £294m construction conveniently left out some £54m costs already spent.

So let us just clear away the steam and soot surrounding the project. It is admitted to be four years late – but could be later – and standing today at £353m is approaching five times the original quoted cost – but could be costlier.

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The truth is that the Borders railway will be costlier for there are aspects of the project that are being kept off the balance sheet; and there is absolutely no prospect that – as was claimed – the railway will pay its way. The Borders railway is continuing to bust its own budget and is set to become the most expensive and heavily subsidised line in Scotland if not the whole of the UK (the latter claim, while alarming, is irrelevant as it us Scots who will subsidise it).

Here is why. If the Borders railway had not been started there would have been no need to make engineering changes to Portobello junction, but because of it there were and these costs – in undisclosed millions – have not been credited to the project. Neither have extensions to platform lengths previously uncosted.

Secondly, if the railway had not gone beyond Gorebridge it would not have required a new bridge at Falahill. This bridge, not included in the costs of the project managers, Transport Scotland, is now on its third design (having previously involved significant realignment of the A720 and the addition of two roundabouts that have now been dropped in favour of a more expensive slew bridge).

The costs for this exercise have yet to appear – I suggest looking at road costs rather than the Borders railway project where it would cause embarrassment.

The difference of the economics of the railway travelling south of Gorebridge to Galashiels and Tweedbank is key – for the official projections admit that 70 per cent of the passenger numbers are on 7.9 per cent of the route between Edinburgh and Gorebridge. Had politicians been given a business case that split the viability of building a commuter railway to Gorebridge and then a second part to the heart of the Borders – as they should have – then they would have been able to see the white elephant they were proposing.

That the parliamentary Bill committee did not demand such information – as was its right – was an abrogation of those MSPs’ fiduciary duty to the public.

If we compare the number of passengers being carried per kilometre being run, with a UK average of 101, a Scottish average of 66, and the Borders railway at around 30, we can see how low the traffic will be. When we consider the low number includes commuters and that most trains will therefore be closer to empty, we can see that for all the cost, the Borders railway is Holyrood’s greatest folly yet.