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"The Borders Railway" by David Spaven, Deltix Consulting - Edinburgh meeting on 10 January 2012

David Spaven of Deltix Consultingd

David Spaven of Deltix Consulting

Closure of the 98-mile Waverley Line linking Edinburgh with Carlisle via Hawick on 6 January 1969 was Britain's worst railway closure since it left the Scottish Borders as the only mainland region with no rail service.

Its main towns Galashiels and Hawick became uniquely distant from the rail network, and with public transport to and from Edinburgh slower now than in 1850 the decision to close the Borders railway can now be seen as a scandal which David with Bruce McCartney, Andrew Boyd and Bill Jamieson decided in 2009 that they should commemorate in a book which subsequently grew into two : David's definitive political, social and business history of the closure, the wilderness years and long reopening campaign which would be published by Argyll in August 2012 and Bruce's Life and Times of the Waverley Line for publication in late 2012.

The North British Railway had been obsessed with getting to Newcastle and Carlisle, and in 1858 Parliament approved its route via Riccarton rather than the Caledonian proposal for the easier and more populous alignment via Langholm. Always tough to operate, the Waverley Line enjoyed its halcyon years in the Edwardian era but was left out on a limb by the Railway Grouping of 1923. Dieselised from 1961, it became one of the longest lines to be proposed for closure in the Beeching Report of 1963 yet Hawick and Galashiels were in the highest revenue-earning category, earning more than Stranraer and Thurso on routes that were to be reprieved.

Whereas the Highlands were quick off the mark with their Macpuff campaign, the Borders were much slower to react, facing hawks and doves in both the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Transport : owing to a conflict with economic plans there was along gap until publication of the closure proposals in 1966 during which ridership continued to decline but nevertheless the Line was still carrying more passengers than Ayr-Stranraer, Aberdeen-Inverness or Perth-Inverness. By this time the timetable bore gaps of up to five hours, and the consolidation of freight brought about by the Bathgate truck plant and the marshalling yard at Millerhill and Kingmoor was only temporary.

The 508 objections compared with 1916 to the East Suffolk Line, and after a prolonged hearing at Hawick on 16/17 November 1966 the Transport Users Committee for Scotland found that substantial hardship would result. During the nineteen subsequent months of limbo, BR made some economies by destaffing stations but the service-pattern remained stuck in aspic while arguments raged behind the scenes on the line's future for 70,000 people would be left over 25 miles from the nearest railhead at a time when a population increase of 25,000 was planned for the Central Borders.

Published in April 1968, the Central Borders Plan led by Percy Johnson Marshall was a big disappointment since 4 of its 21 recommendations were on roads and not one of its 577 paragraphs was devoted to rail. On 2 May 1968 Barbara Castle backed closure four days before Richard Marsh had to be dragged screaming from the Ministry of Power to take her place at Transport. On 21 May secretary of state for Scotland William Ross urged a reprieve for Edinburgh-Hawick, but a majority of the Cabinet voted for closure and when he then begged the PM to look at the consequences of David Steel resigning to force a by-election Harold Wilson replied on 5 June that he did not think it right to reopen the decision.

David Steel as the local MP had meanwhile commissioned John Hibbs who recommended an hourly diesel multiple-unit to Hawick and putting the line under local authority control, but the local authorities had not been consulted and there was no modelling of cost/revenue projections. The announcement of the minister's consent to closure on 15 July 1968 was followed only in September by the launch of a campaign which was far too late, with petitions to Balmoral and Downing Street, protests on 4 January 1969, a bomb hoax, a coffin despatched to Marsh on the final train and then the famous incident at Newcastleton where the crossing gates were padlocked, forty villagers then prevented their movement and police released the minister Rev Brydon Maben for the train's departure two hours late. A symbolic lifting of a section of track took place at Riddings on 8 January, the last freight left Hawick on 25 April and despite their breathtakingly ambitious plans the Border Union Railway Company whose financial projections were debatable managed only one trial of containerised timber before negotiations broke down in late 1969 and the last of the track was lifted in 1972.

So why was the line allowed to close? The Central Borders Plan had been lukewarm, and BR managed little development or promotion while the Scottish Office lacked any rail powers. Then there was the realpolitik that sacrifices were need to deliver West Coast electrification through to Glasgow : the closure became symbolic of the Beeching era, Marsh was a very new minister, no marginal constituencies were served, David Steel did not carry through his threat to resign and a shifting balance in Cabinet saw the Board of Trade easing their support for a reprieve. That the campaign against closure did not get going until September 1968 confirms the view that Borderers were apathetic and prone to a fatalistic outlook.

The headline stories of the following years are familiar. Between 1972 and 1996 the solum was breached in more than twenty places. In 1975 a BR proposal to reopen to Galashiels was not taken up by the new Borders Regional Council. Simon Longland's motor-bike trek in 1992 led to the formation in 1994 of the Waverley Railway Partnership followed by that of the Campaign for Borders Rail in 1999 and the Waverley Route Trust in 2002. The prequalification document issued in 2009 and then in 2011 the lead delivery role passed to Network Rail.

Simon Longland's 1992 motorbike trek revealed that 66% of the road overbridges and 74% of the road overbridges remained extant. There had however been 24 breaches, with further development threats in prospect, so he recommended a full cost-benefit assessment of the rail development potential which led to the Border Rail Links Study by Oscar Faber in 1995 but this phase of development ended when Railtrack pulled out of the South Borders proposal for a Kielder-Carlisle timber route in late 1997.

Under the chairmanship of Petra Biberbach who on moving from Northumberland had been surprised to find that the Borders lacked a rail link, CBR organised three conferences and much campaigning, with 17,200 signatures to a petition which caused the Public Petitions Committee to make kits first visit outwith the capital to Galashiels in 2000. Scott Wilson reported to the Scottish office that the Edinburgh Crossrail service then in development could be extended all stations every half-hour go Tweedbank for £73M : it seemed that they evaluated various alternative termini including Jedburgh or Peebles via Galashiels but incredibly did not look at nearby Melrose, nor did they consider the merits of a two-tier stopping-pattern.

The Waverley Railway Partnership was set up to make the Councils the fall-guys, and faced many hurdles arising from its status as a guinea-pig for reopenings, but contained several key supporters including Cllr David Parker from Scottish Borders Council and Douglas Muir from Midlothian Council. The Waverley Route Trust promoted a community railway out of concerns about escalating costs, the one-size-fits-all timetable, lack of provision for freight or charters and the absence of a social enterprise model. A study by Corus for WRT in 2004 was rejected by WRP who had been leaned on by the Scottish Office out of instinctive caution and a fear that the Bill might have to be amended.

The Waverley Railway Bill Committee deliberated for two years until their final report endorsed the project including a station at Stow, and two years after the Bill's passage in June 2006 with just one MSP against, the role of lead promoter was taken over by Transport Scotland who brought more in-house knowledge, with a search for a Design Build Fund and Maintain contractor replacing Network Rail. The prequalification document was seen as inspirational, providing for a 55-minute maximum journey time and a half-hourly frequency for most of the day, freight and charters, W12 weight-limit and RA10 Route Availability, possible electrification, passive provision for double-track to Galashiels and potential extension beyond Tweedbank, with a £235-295M price-tag. Advance works proceeded during 2009-11, triggering in 2010 the Mastermind clause, then three bidders were said to be in competitive dialogue until two dropped out and in September 2011 Network Rail took over.

Newcraighall-Tweedbank will be Britain's longest reopening, terminating in an ideal hub though Melrose should have been the destination. The 50-minute Galashiels-Edinburgh journey-time will be a big improvement on the X95 bus, and the stations are well-located - but as with the Airdrie-Bathgate ones their design may be too car-oriented, omitting walking and cycling links with their hinterlands. Lack of an express/suburban differentiation is a wasted opportunity, while the infrastructure is too rigid for the charter train market and it is not clear whether a Community Rail Partnership will be developed. Overall therefore the project probably deserves a score of seven out of ten, but there may be scope for future enhancement - and after 45 years without a railway a great economic injustice will at last have been put right.

The Scottish region would like to thank Edinburgh City Council for hosting this event.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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