The Dumfries-Stranraer route is being considered for re-opening 55 years after its closure in the latest symbol of railway optimism which is even seeping into ScotRail’s performance.
“The only occupants of the carriage were an old shepherd and his dog – a wall-eyed brute that I mistrusted. The man was asleep, and on the cushions beside him was that morning’s Scotsman. Eagerly I seized on it, for I fancied it would tell me something.”
As this passage shows, this newspaper was a must-read for Richard Hannay as he fled his pursuers in The Thirty-Nine Steps, with John Buchan having the hero consult the paper at least five times during the gripping adventure.
But significantly, the first reference is on a train as Hannay double backs towards Dumfries from Cairnsmore of Fleet in Galloway, on a line that had passed into history – until this week. Forget the Forth Bridge – that’s a figment of film director Alfred Hitchcock’s imagination and not in the book.
It was with considerable surprise I heard this week that the line between Dumfries and Stranraer would be considered for possible reopening by the Scottish Government among potential measures to improve transport links to the Cairnryan and Loch Ryan ferry gateways to Northern Ireland.
Of all the possible route restorations which have been talked about since the Borders Railway opened five years ago, this one wasn’t even on my radar.
That Transport Scotland is giving it further study reflects the ambition for rail when ten years ago the agency built a dual carriageway over a section of the line to improve the A75.
Similarly, when Stena Line moved its ferry terminal from Stranraer to Loch Ryan port in 2011, calls for the rail line to be extended too so passengers could continue to travel by train were given short shrift. Now, that is being considered as well.
These schemes come on top of the planned reopening of the Levenmouth line in Fife – Scotland’s most populous area without a railway – and a significant upgrade of routes into Edinburgh from the west. Meanwhile, under construction are improvements to the Aberdeen-Inverness line, while the extraordinary new landmark of an expanded Queen Street Station in Glasgow is nearing completion.
That’s the infrastructure, what about the trains? The way it’s been reported elsewhere, you’d think ScotRail was in crisis like north of England operator Northern, which was this week temporarily taken over by the UK Government, like the failed Stagecoach-led Virgin Trains East Coast franchise.
But despite Abellio’s franchise for ScotRail being axed three years early in 2022 – because of a funding dispute, not for failings – things are finally starting to go right for the company.
Punctuality is improving, even though it remains way below target, satisfaction is markedly up (from a 16-year low), and service quality fines and complaints are down.
If that continues, is it possible that when Abellio hands back the keys in two years’ time, people will be scratching their heads as to why it’s happening?
However, in the bizarre world of the railways there’s an equal chance that yet another unexpected major setback (remember those trains with the wrong drivers’ windscreens?) will occur, reversing all the improvements.
Some past problems, like the late-running refurbishment of a new inter-city fleet, had a disastrous domino effect across ScotRail.
I wouldn’t bet on either outcome, but I would wager that the long-term prospects for Scotland’s railways, whoever is at the controls, remain bright.