At thirty-five and a half miles it’s certainly the longest. With four million passengers in its first three years it’s certainly successful. Simon Walton, Chair of the campaigning group behind the Borders Railway, says it’s also an exemplar of sustainable railway development, with significance far beyond the tracks and the communities directly served. Further extension can deliver even more for this and future generations…
Two decades of sustained enthusiasm has gotten this far. Twenty years bordering on the fanatical. A fanaticism reflected in the enthusiasm that sustains the Campaign for Borders Rail. Sustainability, in its more tangible nature, has become a byword for industrial development in the 21st Century. It has redefined our attitude towards how we live, work and play. Talk now of building a new railway, and sustainability leads the rules of engagement.
Governments, in both Holyrood and Westminster, have committed to an agenda of decarbonisation – sustainability wearing its new clothes. That change of fashion has seen the Campaign for Borders Rail dressed up like never before, and their ambitions are very much prêt-à-porter. Nothing short of a major new railway, ready-to-wear. Second in length only to HS2, and all for a fraction of the cost, delivering the same suite of advantages: greater network capacity; tangible economic development; demonstrable social inclusion; and the holy grail of environmental sustainability. Take into account the present pandemic predicament, and there’s a unified need to redefine collective purpose, and build for a better future. The case for completing Borders Railway is stronger than ever.
The influential High Speed Rail Group has come to the same conclusion. In their consultation submission to the National Infrastructure Commission, completion is a vital part of developing the railway network, citing advantages for East and West coast operations, benefiting freight and passenger traffic everywhere, from the Midlands to Motherwell.
New communities, new needs
The success of the Borders Railway is manifest. It’s not just campaigners and rail professionals who consider the thirty-odd miles from Edinburgh to Tweedbank as phase one of a grand design. When Beeching’s infamous axe fell on a wintery night in January 1969, it cut off a deliberately withered arm of British Railways. The new limb has grown back, stronger, serving new communities with new needs. Now, with overwhelming support, the focus is to commission and finish the job – onward to Hawick and Carlisle.
Despite its technical shortcomings, the railway has been an unalloyed success. The faulty and subsequently discredited business case, prepared for the Scottish Government, made the Borders Railway project appear marginal at best. Evidently proved wrong, decision makers and their advisors are still hidebound by inordinate prevarication. Delay over rail development remains a huge hurdle for any project.
Perhaps only now is there a willingness to take proper account of the collateral economic advantages, and value the societal and environmental benefits. Ill-informed by blinkered terms of reference, resistance persisted until the very day the first train ran on an unseasonably warm September morning in 2015.
Up until then, robust dissenters demanded reallocation of the railway budget to improving other aspects of Borders life – mainly roads in the region. Equally robust Campaigners, sometimes lone ambassadors for a positive outcome, refuted such arguments. Their rebuttal remains as simple as it is logical. Road versus rail is a specious argument, akin to demanding we build less hospitals because more schools are needed. Clearly society is lessened for the lack of either.
It is to the Campaign’s credit that, since that day of opening, the conversation has radically shifted from whether or not to have a railway, to whether or not a community can have a railway too. Civic rivalry is alive and well in the Borders.
Lessons for penny-wise politics
Technically though, the railway could have been very much more successful. That faulty business case delayed construction, and dissuaded contractors. The line was effectively built down to a budget, leaving it with a legacy of under capacity and operational difficulty that will be expensive to remedy. Reducing the installed infrastructure from mainly double track to merely nine-and-a-half miles thereby, and building road over-bridges at single-track-width, must sit very uneasily with the penny-wise decision-makers who signed off on such short-sightedness.
This pound-foolish lesson has been non-learned before. From Bathgate to Ebbw Vale, to the cut-price East Coast electrification and the more recently maligned Midland Main Line upgrade, projects have been under-invested in the short term, to the detriment of capacity and collateral benefit in the long term.
Here though is an opportunity, and good reason, to break that myopic policy habit. Campaign, community and third parties are all calling for a commitment to a sustainable project that truly answers a raft of needs, civic and strategic, from which all of society may benefit for generations to come. As rail professionals have pointed out, a completed Borders Railway has the potential to help alleviate issues everywhere, from Elgin to Exeter, and add strategic resilience throughout.
True worth recognised
When this pandemic crisis has passed – and it will pass – we will have experienced the very best that our communities have to offer. Our nation – however that may be ideologically defined – will have pulled together, in ways not thought still possible. We have demonstrated how important it is to pool our resources, and value what we have to offer, wherever we are.
Communities isolated by lack of communications, and lack of opportunities, have proved themselves prepared to step up, for the benefit of others. Bringing communities together, making it more possible to communicate with each other, will be even more important. Better connecting the Borders, locally, regionally and nationally, will be recognised for its true worth.
All the changes wrought upon us – by home working, self-sufficiency, value of community – will make extra-urban locations even more attractive. We are on the cusp of an escape to the country, a decentralised nation, where safety takes on a new meaning, and it is no longer counted in the numbers of ever more populous cities. Fulfilling projects like the Borders Railway will mean that location need not mean isolation and disadvantage.
There will be a need to better define our sense of national purpose. Tangible evidence that we pull together as one. Infrastructure that brings people together, and serves a national purpose too, will be the most important part of that recovery.
Bygone network reinvented
The Campaign for Borders Rail has always promoted its ambitions on the back of an integrated public transport network, based on the spine of a main line railway through the region. At one time every community of note was connected by rail. Even today the local authority has its headquarters in the modest village of Newtown St Boswells, directly above the site of the village station, which was once ‘grand central’ for that web of lines. Council representatives could reach everywhere in the region with the greatest of ease – by the socially inclusive means of public transport.
A brief look at the historical ‘Waverley Route’, reveals the extent of that bygone network. It is as expansive as the novels that made the fortunes of Sir Walter Scott – his Abbotsford home can be glimpsed on departure from Tweedbank. The Campaign has long stated its preference for the main line to be effectively reinstated. Any development after that – such as calls for a direct connection to the East Coast Main Line – must be considerations after the fact.
Coordinating modern local buses, traffic-free routes, and park and ride with a modern regional railway, would, in the spirit of the age, offer a sustainable and socially inclusive means of regeneration the Borders. Bringing people in and around too – for visits, for health, for education, and offering the sort of county and countrywide communications that is denied to so many at present. Councillors may even be persuaded to take advantage of the convenience.
Passion of the people
Rob Bell’s TV programme, Britain’s Lost Railways, introduced almost two million viewers, new to the cause, to the concept of the railway as a communication tool, re-joining and redefining communities. The famously enthusiastic TV presenter concluded his journey with an observation that, while lost for now, the passion of the people he had met all along the line meant that the Waverley Route would not be lost for much longer.
Given the level of articulate demand, and all the additional imperatives of civic cohesion in the months and years to come, the ambitions of the Campaign for Borders Rail have greater relevance now than ever. Rob Bell’s eloquent observations are well founded. The Campaign will sustain for as long as it takes, and there may not be much longer to wait.
Simon Walton recently hosted the twentieth anniversary AGM of the Campaign for Borders Rail. Delayed plans remain for a year-long programme of open meetings, culminating in a twenty-first anniversary rally in Carlisle. Simon is the Campaign spokesman, with frequent public and media engagements.
Taking an enforced break from editing a travel magazine, he runs public relations and public affairs consultancy Almond Bank Communications. He has an extensive communications career, including broadcasting with the BBC, events management, and start up business support.
Simon is based in Edinburgh, and has lived and worked in the Scottish Borders, and Salford. He has lectured in China and the UK, and writes on domestic industry and international trade for RailFreight.com.