Rolling hills of the Borders signal a transport revolution as rail line is reborn

Rolling hills of the Borders signal a transport revolution as rail line is reborn
The Guardian, by Robin McKie

At Shawfair, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, a remarkable civil engineering project is unfolding. On land once covered with slag heaps and old mine buildings, a new complex of roundabouts is being constructed and ground is being cleared ready for more than 4,000 homes to be built in the next few years.


It is a classic new town development – though this one has one unexpected feature. At its heart lies an old railway line that was closed because it was considered to be a waste of resources. Today its reopening is viewed as a vital component in the creation of Shawfair – and for the regeneration of the region.


This is the Borders Railway which, from September, will once again carry tourists travelling from Edinburgh through Shawfair and other towns to the rolling hills of the Borders. More importantly, it will allow residents of these towns to commute into Edinburgh, where they can hold on to jobs without facing the soaring costs of house purchase or rents in the city.


“It will be two-way traffic, though there is no doubt the main aim is to get local people in and out of Edinburgh so they can work but still live in the Borders,” said Network Rail’s Hugh Wark, project director for the Borders Railway.


Hence the preparations for new housing at Shawfair and at other stations along the line, such as Newtongrange and Gorebridge. Thousands of houses are to be built there, with the prospect of a rail link to Edinburgh being seen as a key incentive for couples to set up home in the area. In a region with a fast ageing population, a reopened railway line is now seen as a major factor in keeping young people in the region.


It is probably the most dramatic indication of recent years of the change in attitudes to railways. Once considered dirty and costly, railway lines are becoming a focus of major infrastructure interest throughout the UK. The original 98-mile Waverley line, which ran from Edinburgh to Carlisle, was closed following the 1963 publication of Richard Beeching’s report, The Reshaping of British Railways, which called for thousands of miles of track to be closed to reduce the network’s heavy running costs.


The impact on communities was profound – especially in the Borders, where the Waverley line was a key transport artery. The citizens of Hawick, one of the Borders’ main towns, were left with a 50-mile journey to their nearest railway station, for example. The region’s growing tourism industry was badly damaged, as were its ailing textile factories. Workers who had been able to reach Edinburgh in 50 minutes had to travel by bus, which often took more than an hour-and-a -half. This was, quite simply, the worst Beeching cut of all, rail expert David Spaven says in his book, Waverley Route: The Life, Death and Rebirth of the Borders Railway. “A grave regional injustice was done to the Borders.”


A measure of the grievance felt is revealed by local reaction during the running of the last train along the Waverley line on the night of 5 January 1969. Protesters lined the track and, at Hawick, loaded on a cardboard coffin addressed to the transport minister (which was accepted as a goods parcel) before the train reached Newcastleton, where villagers stood across the line and blocked its passage.


Police arrested a ringleader – the local minister, Brydon Maben – and it took the intervention of then local MP, David Steel, to defuse the incident. In return for the release of Maben, the crowd agreed to disperse. “In the entire history of railway, nothing like that had ever happened,” said Steel – now Lord Steel of Aikwood – in a recent BBC interview.


What is about to happen this summer is also without precedent, for the reopening of a sizeable chunk of the Waverley line – in the form of the Borders Railway, which will stop 30 miles south of Edinburgh at Tweedbank – is a first for the UK. As Spaven puts it: “This is the longest stretch of reopened railway in British history.”


The fact that it has taken almost 50 years to achieve underscores the difficulty of reopening any line once it has been closed, its stations sold off, its land bought by farmers and supermarkets and its track ripped up. Wark outlined the difficulties Network Rail had faced: “We have had to build new roads, divert sewers and fill up old mines in order to take the new rail line on its current course. For every 10 miles of rail line we have reopened, we have had to build a mile of new road.”


This last, unexpected imposition was a consequence of the decision to remove all level-crossings from the old Waverley line on the grounds of safety. As a result, roads had to be rerouted and new bridges built over the line. “We also had to find new homes for about 150 badgers who had their setts along the line,” added Wark. “We did it by laying trails of peanuts to coax them to move out to new setts. It worked, as well.”


The Borders Railway trains will be basic, however. Each will be formed of two or four carriages, while all eight stations on the line will be unmanned to keep running costs to an absolute minimum. “On the other hand, it will take only 50 minutes to travel from Tweedbank, in the heart of the Borders, to Edinburgh,” said a Network Rail spokesman. “The road journey, on the A7, is tortuous and can take twice as long.”


The reopening is not without controversy, however. A local Tory MSP, John Lamont, has questioned its cost and compared its construction to “the trams debacle” in Edinburgh when, in 2014, a new tram system opened three years behind schedule and more than two times over budget. Better to spend the money on roads, he has argued.


Most locals disagree, however. “I think the line is going to exceed all expectations,” said Richard Crockett, a retired mining expert and a leading campaigner for the line’s reopening. Similarly, Galashiels entrepreneur Mike Grey believes the line will offer local businesses a superb chance to boost tourism revenue. “We just have to be prepared,” he says.


Network Rail says it will be finished on time and within its budget of £294m. It remains to be seen how many passengers it will attract, however. If the response is good, there will be pressure to open the line for another 15 miles to Hawick. “We are confident,” added a Network Rail official. “We have opened two other rail lines in Scotland recently – Airdrie to Bathgate and Stirling to Alloa – and passenger figures have been vastly better than we expected.”

For good measure, steam trains are slated to run along the Borders Railway several times a week in peak season, further boosting tourism – and cheering those who fought to save the line 50 years ago. “I was bitterly disappointed when they closed the Waverley line,” says Steel. “I was on the last train out of Galashiels – and it is my remaining political ambition to be on the first one back in.” In a few months, he may well get his wish.