How UK-Scottish Government rivalry could help extend Borders Railway – Alastair Dalton

Picking my way through 30ft-high trees along a stretch of the former Borders Railway, it was difficult to imagine I was walking on a line which once carried Edinburgh-London trains, let alone one on which the tracks could be relaid.

Trees covering a stretch of the line south of St Boswells. Picture: The Scotsman
Trees covering a stretch of the line south of St Boswells. Picture: The Scotsman

South from its current terminus at Tweedbank, near Galashiels, the line to Carlisle, which closed 50 years ago, has largely been consumed back into the region’s landscape.

Huge embankments are now covered in vegetation with the track bed invisible under farm tracks and paths, although the ballast which supported the wooden sleepers still lies just under the grassy surface.

Among the only obvious signs of the route are bridges over roads, although a fair few have been removed, or sections under them filled in.

The line south of Tweedbank has been closed for 50 years. Picture: The Scotsman

A stretch in Melrose, just south of Tweedbank, has been used to bypass the town, but its station sits preserved by the roadside, as if waiting to receive its next passengers.

Now that the re-opened line has become firmly established, with passenger numbers growing consistently since it opened in 2015, that prospect is very much no longer a forlorn hope.

The following year, the SNP made it an election manifesto commitment to examine the feasibility of extending the former Waverley route to Hawick – the next obvious stage – and Carlisle.

Last month, it featured among 21 potential schemes in a Borders transport corridors study, along with four others to improve the existing route or to extend it east to Berwick-upon-Tweed. By contrast, ten of the options – which will all be considered further – are for road or bus improvements.

Bridges are among the only remnants of the line, which was built 170 yeasrs ago. Picture: The Scotsman

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However, it appears one-upmanship between the UK and Scottish governments could accelerate the process. Not the first time the railways have benefitted from such cross-Border tussles.

In 2011, when the Scottish Government put out a devil’s advocate-sounding consultation that included an option to close part of the Caledonian Sleeper, Chancellor George Osborne offered £50 million to upgrade the service instead - if Scottish ministers followed suit.

They did, pledging a “minimum” of £50m – and claiming it “surpassed” Osborne’s stake. The upshot has been a brand-new fleet, to be launched in June complete with ensuite cabins, showers and double beds, which has surpassed most expectations.

For the Borders line, the UK Government seems to have sought the upper hand by announcing last week its backing for a feasibility study into restoring the railway as part of the Borderlands Growth Deal, so long as the Scottish Government did too.

Reacting to the news from Scottish Secretary David Mundell, in a letter to Borders Conservative MP John Lamont, Transport Scotland at the time only went as far as saying it “welcomes the opportunity to discuss potential joint funding for a detailed consideration of cross-borders transport links”.

But yesterday, it told me it was actually one step ahead, having completed the “pre-appraisal” element of the process, which it said the UK Government had not - and was obliged to, to meet UK Treasury’s requirements.

The outcome this time may well be less spectacular than for the Caledonian Sleeper, but it could at least see serious consideration given to the project sooner rather than later, and the incremental ambition of at least reconnecting Hawick to the rail network realised. Enjoy a walk along the route while you still can.