Scottish Government first minister Nicola Sturgeon today, November 14, moved the momentum being built up by the campaign to extend the Borders Railway from Tweedbank into England down a gear, warning that there are “big, complex issues” to look at before that can happen.
Visiting Hawick to support former Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP Calum Kerr’s bid to win that seat back for the Scottish National Party, Mrs Sturgeon met local activists on the footbridge opposite Hawick Library, urging them to do their utmost to try to oust the constituency’s current MP, Conservative John Lamont.
During a previous visit to Hawick in 2016 while campaigning ahead of a Holyrood election, Mrs Sturgeon promised a full feasibility study into extending the Edinburgh-Tweedbank line a further 70 or so miles on to Carlisle.
When asked why that study has yet to materialise, though it now looks to be on the way as part of this year’s cross-border Borderlands growth deal, she said: “We’re still intending to look at this in detail.
“There are some big, complex issues around that, but the aspiration that we have is one that we still hold to, and we want to make sure we consider these issues properly and carefully.”
When pressed for more detail, she said: “As I said earlier on, that is an aspiration we hold to.
“There are complex issues there. It’s important we consider all of the issues carefully and fully, and that’s what we’ll do.”
SNP policy being for an independent Scotland to join the European Union, when asked how a hard border, necessitated by the rest of the UK leaving the EU, would affect residents of the Borders, she said: “It is not my policy to have borders.
“I want to see free trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK. It’s important to Scotland and it’s important to the rest of the UK, but I want Scotland to also be able to trade freely within the single market, which is eight times the size of the UK market.
“It’s the Tories that are threatening borders, and that’s one of the reasons why I will continue to argue that the UK should stay within the single market and the customs union, so there is nothing in what I am proposing that makes borders inevitable.”
Mrs Sturgeon’s pledge of a feasibility study for an extension of the Borders Railway was made during a visit to Hawick at the end of March 2016 to support South Scotland SNP list MSP Paul Wheelhouse’s unsuccessful Scottish Government election campaign for the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire seat won, in the event, by Mr Lamont and now held by fellow Conservative Rachael Hamilton.
She told our then sister paper the Hawick News at the time: “The Borders Railway has been a fantastic success – boosting the economy, leading to new housebuilding and supporting tourism in the region.
“Since it was opened in September last year, the number of passengers has exceeded all expectations, with over 500,000 people travelling on the line by January.
“With this kind of success, it makes sense to look at extending the line to other communities.
“I know there is support across the Borders for extending the line to Carlisle and, if re-elected, we will take the first step on that journey.
“Greater connectivity, through better transport links and improved digital infrastructure can ensure that all parts of Scotland reap the benefits of economic progress.”
Her more measured comments today come in contrast to the optimism voiced by Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP Christine Grahame last month.
The SNP MSP told this year’s annual meeting of the Campaign for Borders Rail that an extension is now a “rock-solid” prospect.
“You will get it through Hawick, you will get it to Carlisle – I have absolutely no doubt about that,” she said.
“Already, feasibility studies are happening, and its success has made it absolutely rock solid that this extension will happen.”
“It won’t just be a network to England – it will be a network to Europe. It takes us to the Eurotunnel and connects the Scottish Borders and north of England to the rest of Europe.”
Mrs Sturgeon’s reluctance to repeat her earlier commitment to extending the £353m line has disappointed campaigners only recently heartened by Ms Grahame’s support.
Simon Walton, chairman of the Campaign for Borders Rail, said: “The first minister does seem reluctant to commit to extension of the Borders Railway.
“It’s over five years since her predecessor addressed a business audience in Carlisle, on St Georges Day in 2014, and said that we would have to wait until the existing railway proved itself.
“Well, that criterion has been handsomely met.
“Since then, the Campaign for Borders Rail has made the economic, social and environmental case for extension, and both Holyrood and Westminster governments have pledged £10m to a feasibility study.
“The campaign can say now that the project is feasible, desirable and achievable, and it will be every bit as big a success as the line between Edinburgh and Tweedbank.
“What the Borders needs now is a commitment to build this railway line.
“That will give confidence to the Borders and confidence to generations to come.
“The Campaign for Borders Rail is bigger now that it has every been, and the need for this railway is greater than it has ever been. It’s time to build it.”
Extending the line, opened in September 2015, to Hawick, via Melrose, would add about 17 miles to its current 30-mile length, and carrying on to Carlisle, via Newcastleton, recreating the old Waverley Route closed in 1969, would require another 50-plus miles of track on top of that.
Mr Kerr and Mr Lamont are among four candidates standing for the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk seat at December 12’s UK Government general election, it was confirmed today, the others being Labour’s Ian Davidson and Liberal Democrat Jenny Marr.