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November 26, 2015

Borders Railway: Scotland’s symbol of a golden age

On 6 September, trains returned to the Scottish Borders for the first time in 46 years. The opening of the new Borders Railway, running between Tweedbank and Edinburgh, is the longest new domestic railway built in Britain for over a century. However, despite the fanfare and undoubted benefits, can the network cope with growing demand?

By Gary Peters

Borders Railway

When the first passengers stepped on to a train at Tweedbank station on a sunny September morning, it marked the end of what some have called a great injustice. The Reshaping of British Railways, a report by the then British Railways chairman Richard Beeching, saw the closure of the old Waverley Line in 1969, which ran through the Borders from Edinburgh to Carlisle.

This meant that the Scottish Borders was the only region of Britain without a train service. The town of Hawick took the brunt of the problems; its distance from Edinburgh and Carlisle left it as the largest town farthest from a railway station.

"People were condemned to a bus journey to Edinburgh [that took] almost twice as long as the train," says rail expert David Spaven, author of Waverley Route: the life, death and rebirth.

"People had very difficult access to jobs and employment opportunities. It took so long to get anywhere. From many perspectives it was a great injustice."

The birth of a grassroots campaign

Righting the wrongs of this injustice took many years and hard work – mostly by those in the area and through grassroots campaigning.

Some of these campaigns began before the closure in 1969, but the project was given in a shot in arm in 1998, when the Campaign for Borders Rail (CBR) was organised. It has been fighting for the restoration of rail services along the former Waverley route ever since, says the campaign group’s chair Simon Walton.

"Many people said that we were whistling in the wind when we attempted to form the campaign in the late 90s," says Walton.

"Well, it’s taken a long time but we’ve proved them wrong on that point. I’m glad to say that many of those detractors have said ‘we were wrong’."



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With the formation of the campaign, 17,000 signatures supporting the restoration were gathered by the CBR. Following this, the Waverley Railway Project was established by Scottish Borders and Midlothian councils to undertake the development of the Waverley Railway Bill, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2006. Main works then began in 2013, with the Network Rail project team working to a budget of £294m. The finished line runs from Tweedbank, through Galashiels and Newtongrange, up to Edinburgh Waverley.

"In the early days it wasn’t a mainstream political project," explains Spaven. "What campaigners had to do was demonstrate, through their own research, hard work and feasibility studies, that the reopening of the railway was feasible. In the early days we certainly felt that it was going to be an uphill struggle."

ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster says this long struggle and subsequent success marks a "huge achievement for those grassroots campaigners, as well as the many hundreds of men and women who have been connected to the project since its inception over a decade ago", adding that it is "historically significant".

A driver for economic and social regeneration

The reopening represents much more than just a local grassroots achievement. It provides a chance to reinvigorate, economically and socially, an area that Walton says has been "blighted for nigh on 50 years".

"[The closure] disconnected those communities," he says. "[The loss of the railway] made it pretty much impossible for communities up and down the line to broaden their economic horizons and do what had, until then, been possible.

"It’s far more than simply connecting to a railway network; it’s connecting to the whole economic network."

Broadening those horizons can be separated into three areas: tourism, employment, and education.

"I think as many have said, it’s absolutely crucial that the railway is literally putting the Borders back on the map," argues Spaven, who adds that the line will encourage more young people to stay in the Borders, "while accessing those [employment and education] opportunities in Midlothian and Edinburgh".

Verster agrees, explaining that a regular train service – running every half hour, except evenings and Sundays – is proving to be popular for social activities. "Sports events, concerts, theatres and restaurants in Edinburgh and Glasgow are now more accessible for residents along the route," he says.

"Sports events, concerts, theatres and restaurants in Edinburgh and Glasgow are now more accessible for residents along the route."

The case is backed by businesses and educational facilities, too. Spark Energy CEO Chris Gauld has said that the railway will make the company "much more accessible from Edinburgh, and a viable alternative to commuting to jobs in Glasgow for IT developers", while the Borders College has outlined how it will provide better access to college courses and facilities for the communities living along the train route.

Scottish Infrastructure Secretary Keith Brown has stated that it is a chance to access "new work, learning and social opportunities, as well as new business and industry links".

"I was in a café recently and prior to the line [coming back] it was pretty much on its knees and possibly close to closure," explains Walton.

"Now, from opening time, it’s virtually impossible to get a seat. Businesses up and down the railway line have said they have seen considerable increases in business, particular in Borders towns like Galashiels."

Coping with demand

Despite the undoubted benefits the line has generated the Borders Railway is not without its problems.

During the first month of service the route saw more than more than 125,000 journeys, something that drew widespread praise, but has also presented challenges. The soaring demand prompted ScotRail to add extra carriages to certain trains.

Early estimates suggested one million passengers within the first five years, but the indications are that this could be highly inaccurate. Verster says: "The business case for the new route carried out by Ernst and Young in 2012 suggested that the line would carry 650,000 passengers during the first 12 months… but we must not rush to judge the success of the new line based on that post-opening phase."

Walton, who has warned that there was a lack of future-proofing in the design of the route, says one of the main gripes is the lack of double-track. The original specification included over 16 miles of double track, but that has dropped to nine.



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"I would have to say that the overcrowding and demand does not come as a surprise to the CBR," says Walton. "We said this would be the case and repeated it. Operationally, the optimum would have been to make it a double track railway for its whole length."

Spaven agrees: "We’ve ended up with far too many incidents of overcrowding and unreliability, which may well put off people from travelling in the future."

Verster argues that the Borders line is no different to other across the UK, which have "seen a decade of unprecedented growth in railway passengers". This, he accepts, generates some significant long-term challenges.

So, how can some of the pressure be alleviated? Extending double track on an operational line is difficult, so Spaven thinks there is room for manoeuvre in the type of train being used; currently the line is served by Class 158s.

"I think they [the powers that be] should be aiming to deploy trains that are better suited to the line, the likes of the Class 170s, which are much superior trains," says Spaven.

Nevertheless, such demand does prove the necessity of the Borders Railway. But, that by no means implies that campaigners, such as Walton and Spaven, are sitting still.

"Our campaign motto has always been the reinstatement of the whole Waverley route mainline between Edinburgh, Midlothian, the Borders, and Carlisle," says Walton.

While such an aim may be years from fruition, the momentum, and belief, is now sweeping through the Scottish Borders once more.

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