The First Minister said he expected the return of trains to the Edinburgh-Tweedbank section next year would be “one of the most enormous tourist line successes we have ever seen” and act as a catalyst for restoring the rest of the historic route.
He said the success of the 30-mile stretch to just south of Galashiels would “calibrate” a feasibility study into rebuilding the remaining 70 miles.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman confirmed yesterday: “We will look at the possibility of commissioning a feasibility study into extending the line beyond the route agreed, if it emerges there is scope and demand to do so.
“For the moment, our priority remains completing the line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank.
“Once that opens to passengers in September next year, we will begin to see the benefits and to determine the need for a further extension.”
Mr Salmond’s enthusiasm for the Waverley route follows one of Network Rail’s most senior officials in Scotland predicting it would be fully reopened in the coming decades. Alex Sharkey, the track firm’s director for east Scotland, last year invoked the Hollywood blockbuster Field of Dreams in paraphrasing Kevin Costner’s words: “Build it and they will come.”
Rail campaigners and opposition politicians called for a greater commitment from the First Minister to the restoration of the line, which was one of the most notorious of the Beeching cuts 45 years ago.
The Campaign for Borders Rail said it was unfair the future of the rest of the route depended on the success of the first section. Chairman Simon Walton said: “The Borders communities deserve their economic regeneration as soon as possible, and the railway would be a direct, tangible and effective means of doing so.”
South of Scotland Liberal Democrat MSP Jim Hume said: “We have always argued the Waverley line should be reopened beyond Tweedbank to go through Hawick and on to Carlisle. It is disappointing the SNP government continues to refuse to put forward any plans to get this project moving.”
Labour was more cautious because of delays to the first section and its £350 million cost. Transport spokesman Mark Griffin said: “Hopefully, the line will open next year and then future expansion can be looked at, but Alex Salmond needs to ensure the economic case stacks up before he gets the hopes up of more communities who may potentially be let down by the poor performance of the national transport agency.”