Monday, 21 September 2015

A Scottish Success Story: Reopening the Borders Railway

On Sunday 6th September 2015, a six-carriage train left the new station of Tweedbank at 08:45, bound for Edinburgh: for the first time in 46 years, trains had returned to the Scottish Borders. The Borders Railway, running for over 30 miles from the outskirts of Edinburgh to just beyond Galashiels to the small town of Tweedbank, is the biggest railway reopening project ever undertaken in Britain.

The scene could hardly be more different than 46 years previously: when, on Sunday 5th January 1969, the overnight sleeper train to St Pancras pulled out of Edinburgh Waverley station at 21:56 and headed for Carlisle via Galashiels and Hawick, its path through the Borders was blocked by numerous protesters, and only after the local MP David Steel (who was on the train) intervened was the train able to proceed.

Its eventual arrival in Carlisle, over two hours late, ended over a century of service on the Waverley Route, a 98-mile railway passing through the heart of the Scottish Borders. After years of protests, the line fell victim to the infamous Beeching Axe, with services withdrawn and some of the rails removed the very next day to symbolise the fact that the line was now closed.

To leave such a wide area as the Scottish Borders without railway lines was one of the most controversial railway closures of the 1960s, not least because the railways in the Scottish Highlands serving far fewer people were kept open as a "lifeline". Even until its closure the Waverley Route had carried not just local trains but express trains to and from London, and its closure had a severe effect on the local economy.

The Waverley Route opened from Edinburgh through Galashiels to Hawick in 1849, and was extended to the border city of Carlisle in 1862. Initially it served mainly local traffic, but after the opening of the Settle-Carlisle railway in 1876, the line was upgraded to carry the Midland Railway's express trains between St Pancras and Edinburgh.

The stretch north of Carlisle was one of the toughest sections of mainline for drivers to work, with two summits at Falahill and Whitrope requiring 10-mile ascents at a gradient of 1 in 70. Combined with the many curves, this meant the Waverley Route was comparatively slow, and the Midland Railway could not compete with its rivals on the West and East Coast Main Lines on journey time between London and Edinburgh.

Instead, the Midland laid on plusher coaches in an attempt to give the passenger a better experience. But plusher coaches couldn't make up for the simple fact that the Waverley Route was really a rural line, with no significant base of population along the route; Galashiels is the largest town, but even today it has just 22,500 people.

In the era of rationalisation in the 1960s, then, the fact that there were two routes from Edinburgh to Carlisle was seen as duplication. The other line from Edinburgh served even fewer centres of population than the Waverley Route, but at Carstairs it joined the WCML, and it could thus be worked as a 28-mile branch line off the mainline to Glasgow. It was also straighter and not as steeply graded, with just the one major summit at Beattock to climb.

With the local passenger services used by less than 10,000 passengers a week, and through traffic able to be accommodated on other lines, British Rail saw little reason to keep the Waverley Route open. Closure was initially proposed in the Beeching Report in 1963; the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to keep it open delayed closure until 1969, making it one of the last major closures. It was also one of the longest lines to be closed, second only to the Great Central Main Line, which closed a few months later.

Almost as soon as the line had closed, people campaigned for the Waverley Route to be re-opened. The first serious study was undertaken in the early 1990s, but the key political change that made the reopening possible was Scottish devolution. With power devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, no longer could the plight of the Borders be ignored as simply a rural area remote from London; here was a significant part of Scotland, with an immense potential for tourism, and an obvious candidate for reopening the railway.

With the area looking mainly towards Edinburgh, reopening the line from Edinburgh as far as Galashiels was a logical first step, with extensions onwards to Hawick (and perhaps even Carlisle) left as future possibilities. After much campaigning, in 2006 the Scottish Parliament approved the construction of the line from Edinburgh to a couple of miles beyond Galashiels, to the small town of Tweedbank, with the aim of Tweedbank being a railhead for the wider area.

The line's construction was eventually costed at £294 million for a mainly single-track line with "dynamic loops", sections of double track a few miles long spaced to allow trains to pass at speed. The plans originally called for the 35-mile line to have 16 miles of double track, but this was reduced to just nine miles in order to cut costs and keep within the original budget.

Although the line was originally built as double track, since closure a number of its bridges and tunnels had fallen into disrepair and required replacement prior to the reopening. In order to keep costs to a minimum, a number of the bridges were constructed to allow only a single track - meaning that if the line is to be fully redoubled in future the bridges will need to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, passive provision has been built in for an additional loop through Newtongrange station.

Just seven new stations were opened with the line, the stations at Brunstane and Newcraighall having been opened in 2002 to provide a park-and-ride service into Edinburgh city centre. Four of the seven new stations, Shawfair, Eskbank, Newtongrange and Gorebridge, are in Midlothian, firmly aimed at commuters into Edinburgh. As a result, much of the benefit of the so-called Borders Railway will be felt not by the Borders but by Edinburgh itself, as commuters switch from car to train.

Nonetheless, the three other stations, at Stow, Galashiels and Tweedbank, are right in the heart of the Borders: they will serve not just the town of Galashiels but also Melrose, Newtown St Boswells, and even Hawick. While there are undoubtedly those who commute from Galashiels and around into Edinburgh, whose journeys will be much improved, Galashiels will generate traffic in its own right, with visitors to the Borders finally able to get there by train.

Indeed, just a few days after it opened, I was one of those visitors: on Thursday 10th September I took a trip from Edinburgh to Tweedbank and back. Unfortunately, not everything went as smoothly as could be hoped: the train I went for was eventually cancelled due to an engine problem, and I thus experienced first-hand the fact that, with a single-track railway built down to a price, one significant delay could ripple through the entire service.

There are precisely enough passing places on the single-track line to support a half-hourly service, and no more. (This must be one of the few railways that is being used at 100% capacity immediately after opening!) The fact that the loops are "dynamic" means trains can pass at speed, and with the loops being a few miles long there is scope to recover from delays of a few minutes, but not much more.

I had arrived in Edinburgh from London at about 16:15, and I walked over to get the 16:24 to Tweedbank from platform 7. The train was already pretty full, and I was lucky to get a seat - but given this was the last train on which off-peak tickets were valid until the 18:24 departure this was no great surprise. But 16:24 came and went; the crew for the train had been delayed, and by the time they got there at 16:35 or so, the engine had automatically shut down. The driver tried to restart the engine, but it spluttered and spluttered, sounding distinctly unhealthy.

Eventually, after ten minutes or so, the guard announced the train was cancelled, and that passengers should join the next departure, the 16:50, from platform 20. Those of you who know Edinburgh station will know that platform 7 to platform 20 is one of the longest walks you can have to do in Edinburgh station! But I only got just back towards the concourse before I heard: "This is a platform alteration: the 16:50 Scotrail service to Tweedbank will now depart from platform 7."

Everyone was rather confused, but it eventually became obvious what was going to happen: the 16:50 would come in to platform 7 and join up to the sickly 16:24, and the pair of units would go up to Tweedbank as one. Unfortunately, by the time the driver was informed of this, and by the time the trains were actually joined together, the train departed Edinburgh at 17:04, some 14 minutes late (and some 40 minutes later than I should have!).

Part of the reason for this was that a train could be allowed to climb the 1-in-70 gradient up to the summit at Falahill with three of four engines working, but not with only one of two engines working. Indeed, we lost a further three minutes on our trip up the hill even with three engines working, although a booked five-minute stand at Shawfair (to let another train pass) allowed us to regain some lost time.

The four-car train was now pretty busy throughout, with people standing in each carriage. A significant number of the passengers got off at Newcraighall, the well-established park-and-ride; from then on, everyone had a seat, but the train remained reasonably busy throughout. On leaving Gorebridge, the end of the Midlothian commuter belt, there were still at least half of the seats taken, and most of them remained on the whole way to Tweedbank. The trip back down to Edinburgh was rather less busy, but nonetheless well-used by people heading into Edinburgh in the evening.

For much of its length the line felt like a commuter railway; but the scenery once into the countryside of the Borders was lovely, the fading autumn sunshine giving a wonderful yellow hue to the rolling hills and valleys. The line is a welcome addition to Scotland's already impressive array of scenic railway lines; indeed, Scotrail have begun refitting some of their Class 158 "Sprinter" trains to give better visibility, so that passengers can better admire the view.

Teething troubles aside, the railway was well-used, and all the locals were quite excited to be able to use the train to get to Edinburgh.  It seems clear that about half the business on the new line will come from commuters on the 13-mile stretch out to Gorebridge, and one option might have been to run a half-hourly service to Gorebridge, with an hourly service onwards to Tweedbank. Instead, though, there is a half-hourly service all the way to Tweedbank running until 8pm Monday-Saturday (with an hourly service at evenings and weekends), making it clear that the aim is to grow the Borders rather than simply provide for commuters into Edinburgh.

If a passing loop were provided at Newtongrange, in combination with some reconfiguration of the tracks between Edinburgh and Newcraighall, it would in fact be possible to run a train every 15 minutes as far as Gorebridge (though not without difficulty), with a half-hourly service onwards to Tweedbank. That ought to be sufficient for many years to come, even if the line is extended to Hawick: I doubt that the line will ever be an alternative route from Carlisle to Edinburgh, but its potential to open the Borders up to tourism is considerable, and an extension to Hawick is certainly possible.

Whether it happens will depend a lot on the success of the line. The Borders Railway was officially opened by the Queen on Wednesday 9th September, on the day she surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch, lending a huge stamp of approval to the newly-reopened line. In the first ten days of operation, some 23,500 people used the line, slightly higher than expected; if that kind of passenger usage can be sustained then the case for extending the line to Hawick will become a lot stronger.

Scotland's railways have seen three major reopenings - Stirling-Alloa, Airdrie-Bathgate, and Edinburgh-Tweedbank - in the last eight years, and a steady programme of electrification proceeding apace, most notably on the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line via Falkirk. This provides a remarkable contrast to England, where several major electrification projects are running late or have been put on hold, and the only major re-opening plan (for the line between Oxford and Milton Keynes) is still in the planning stage.

Admittedly, there are some major projects in England, such as Crossrail and the Thameslink Programme, which are much bigger in scale than anything being undertaken north of the border. Nonetheless, Network Rail in Scotland has just opened the longest domestic railway line in the UK for over a century, and it makes me want to ask: how can England can tap into that Scottish spirit?


  1. Dave

    Noting your comments about the current terminus at Tweedbank, but there is a significant problem in extending beyond that point as the former trackbed forward to Newtown St. Boswells has been taken over for part of the distance by the Melrose by-pass (from which the former Melrose station is plainly visible right beside the road).

    We travelled from Tweedbank to Edinburgh and back in late October just before and just after lunchtime. Those trains were about half full in each direction with most of the passengers travelling the full length of the line. Tweedbank appears to be acting as a railhead for a wide area as the car park with spaces for 200(ish) cars is apparently full for most of the day. When we arrived just after 11:00 there were certainly only a handful of spaces left.

    Looking at the way that the infrastructure was pared back from the original plans and then how the Edinburgh to Glasgow improvements have been reduced in scope, it is fairly clear that the current way that the railway manages improvement projects does not produce value for money solutions in the eyes of our paymasters. ORR and Network Rail really do need to sharpen up their act.

    John Gallon

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