Brian Monteith: Romance clouds judgment of Borders Railway plan

POLITICIANS seek to paper over the cracks on this expensive service and ignore its limitations, writes Brian Monteith

POLITICIANS seek to paper over the cracks on this expensive service and ignore its limitations, writes Brian Monteith

If there is one thing that our politicians have a hankering for it, is playing with train sets. Even though it is now nearly 50 years since British Railways withdrew steam trains from passenger service, there is still a deep romanticism that seduces both men and women, young and old, even if they never experienced the joy of seeing a living, breathing steam locomotive.

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While they will never be able to bring back steam to regular rail services our politicians can and do seek to correct the excesses of Dr Richard Beeching’s otherwise necessary changes to the rail network. There is no greater example of that cause than the campaign to restore the Waverley Line that ran through the Scottish Borders from Edinburgh to Carlisle. That route’s demise inspired a passionate campaign up to the last trains on 5 January 1969. From that moment new campaigns to reinstate services were raised.

The combination of local activists, railway obsessives and a lyrical nostalgia for the Borders of Scott, Buchan and the railways that cut through the hills, was far too intoxicating an elixir for politicians. Henceforth no sitting MP, no prospective parliamentary candidate, no local councillor worth his or her salt, would dare to speak out against the idea of reviving the Waverley Line. The idea just awaited its moment and that arrived 30 years later with the Scottish Parliament and its ability to show how it could make a difference.

National politicians of all parties, from Conservatives to Nationalists, Labour to Liberal Democrats, believed that without wearing support for a Borders Railway on their sleeves they would be unelectable. Not all Borderers felt the same way, local councillors representing towns outwith the immediate route would often raise their concerns about how only Galashiels and Melrose might benefit – to the cost of everywhere else where road improvements were needed. But such recalcitrance was normally only explained in private and anyway the party leadership elites were all signed up to the reinstatement of a line, even if it was a half-hearted single track fading out short of Melrose.

In those early days of the Scottish Parliament when it was awash with public funds being borrowed on the never-never, the Scottish Executive agreed to introduce the new line and committed £130 million to the initial budget of £151m. The budget has since been revised on a number of occasions, practically doubling to £295m in 2011 with further costs occurring, some of which are discreetly hidden off budget. Officials would rather not confirm hard figures but give a range between £360m-£500m.

After what seemed like an initial success, with curious travellers taking a ride on the new line, passenger trips are now beginning to level out and a better understanding of how well the railway is doing will become available.

Even supporters of the railway are disappointed thus far as they were always critical of a single track making punctuality a challenge. And so it has turned out, with punctuality of around 33 per cent making it one of the worst in Scotland. Evidence of trains being cancelled (seven in one day) and stops at stations omitted to make up the scheduling are now filtering back.

It is true that the projection for single journeys has been revised upwards from 1.3 million to 1.5 million because there have been 500,000 “passengers” in the first four months – but this is to confuse passengers with journeys taken. The original forecasts for the Scottish Parliament produced by Halcrow predicted 2,870,000 individual journeys by now – almost double the amount likely to be experienced in the first year.

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The misleading reporting by Transport Scotland and others of the most recent return journey projection for the first year – repeatedly presented as a baseline of 650,000 – can hardly be described as an oversight and must be an intentional sleight of hand to obscure the truth that journeys are actually half the number of the original business case estimates for 2016.

Talk of “huge” numbers of passengers only serves to confuse the number of paying journeys that need to find the long-term operating cost of £11m estimated ten years ago in 2006.

That business case depended on the building of new housing bringing new passengers to the Borders. That construction has not materialised in the anticipated volumes and current planning applications do not suggest it is coming any time soon. The true story of the new Borders Railway is clouded by a fug of obstruction, dissembling and deception by politicians and officials connected with the project. Given the propensity for our politicians to avoid confronting reality when dealing with railway projects and the vested interest that Transport Scotland has in maintaining and building its empire, we need to have the facts available for public examination and debate.

The Borders Railway is often slower than simply taking the car or the pre-existing public transport provided by buses. It suffers from being too small a train for the short period when it is busy, and too large for the rest of the day. We already know that the existing route by rail from Edinburgh to Carlisle would remain 45 minutes quicker than extending the Borders Railway at great cost, so why bother?

Before any further public funds are committed to the prospect of extending the Borders Railway to Hawick and then on to Carlisle there is a desperate need for an independent forensic study of how well the project has delivered against its own targets.

In June 2006 the Waverley (Railway) Scotland Act was passed by 114 votes to one. In that debate, after three years of parliamentary scrutiny, and despite it being plainly obvious I would be the sole member to record my dissent, I was not called to speak and therefore unable to argue the project was against the public interest.

Such suffocation of the real facts should not be allowed to happen again and I have therefore today written to the Auditor General calling on her to consider a review by Audit Scotland of the Borders Railway project so that she can lay before Parliament a report that it would have no alternative but to consider.

Only by firstly conducting such an independent review can any valid consideration be given to ever extending the Borders Railway further.