Borders back in business

Head along the A7 road that stretches south from Edinburgh to Galashiels, and you might easily be forgiven for assuming that the tracks of the Waverley railway - the formation of which twists and curves alongside the road for much of its length - had only been removed yesterday.

But take a closer look. These structures aren’t part of a heritage railway, or sentimental monuments of the past. They are structures that will be refurbished and re-used as part of a significant project that builds on Scotland’s enviable track record of recent railway re-openings.

A large number of permanent way structures are prominent, many of them very well preserved, as remnants of a major route between Carlisle and Edinburgh that is once again on the way to becoming a rail way, for the first time since 1969.

The activity along the route is, in fact, preparatory work ahead of the main construction phase for the Borders Railway.
With political willpower, sufficient financial and physical resources, and a bit of luck, the Waverley route will once again re-open for business in 2014, for passengers for Tweedbank, Galashiels, Stow, Gorebridge, Newtongrange and Edinburgh.

But far from being a sentimental throwback to the past, the line will provide a step change in public transport accessibility, for areas ranked among the most deprived in Scotland.

The Campaign for Borders Railway, a grassroots movement, is the biggest cheerleader for the re-opening. It is keen to promote the tangible benefits of the line for isolated Midlothian and Borders communities, in that the railway will attract businesses, increase access to jobs (not least in the creation of construction jobs for the building of the line), and develop tourism opportunities.

Campaigners have waited a long time for this moment. The railway was important enough to those who lived along the route that it even drove hundreds of citizens to break the law when British Rail first proposed closure. Adopting every means necessary to attract official attention, Borders residents even turned to a campaign of mass civil disobedience to register their disapproval.

Veteran campaigner Madge Elliott was instrumental in the early campaign, and has long been a supporter of its re-opening - in 1969 she even helped block the path of the final train, despite British Rail’s efforts to thwart protestors.

Feelings ran so high on the last day of passenger services that British Rail was forced to send a Class 17 ‘Clayton’ locomotive ahead of the final Edinburgh-St Pancras Sleeper to ‘prove’ the line, after it was found that protestors had tampered with points at Hawick.

A local Church of Scotland minister was even arrested at Newcastleton, after protestors locked level crossing gates shut. He was only released after the MP (and future leader of the Liberal party) David Steel, who was travelling on the Sleeper, negotiated with police.

It wasn’t all about direct action, however. Elliott raised petitions, including one that was taken to Downing Street (Prime Minister at the time was Harold Wilson).

There now seems little possibility of the decision to build the railway being reversed. And with preparatory work now taking place along the route in readiness for building work to start proper, it would be immensely difficult for any Scottish government to halt the project.

Lorne Anton, chairman of the Campaign for Borders Rail, explains that the campaign has benefited from “almost total political support - from right across the political spectrum”. He says this has been a factor from the first campaigning activity right through to the present day.

“We are now also - as the re-opening now seems unstoppable - picking up support from organisations such as Visit Scotland, tourist attractions, Chambers of Commerce and economic organisations, and the rail trade unions. The correspondence file is, quite literally, immense,” he says.

“This interest may well be stimulated by the work we are doing towards the setting up of a Community Rail Partnership, and a promotional document written by CBR member Sarah Nelson that draws on the experience of other successful rail lines and CRPs.”

Proof of the momentum that this project has gained is most evident at Galashiels, where work to ready the railway alignment in the town centre is extremely visible. The railway will skirt around the site of two huge supermarkets that have been built in the years since the line closed. The original railway embankment here is very much a building site - and a clear sign that the railway is returning.

When completed, the route will carry a rebuilt 30-mile railway, reinstating about a third of the original route that linked Carlisle with Edinburgh. The journey time from Tweedbank to Edinburgh Waverley is envisaged at 55 minutes, with trains pathed through the Fife Circle and running to a half-hourly daytime frequency.

Services will most likely use Class 158 or Class 170 diesel multiple units that form the backbone of the current ScotRail fleet. However, the route is being built for maximum clearance for bridge structures, with a hint to future electrification (although this doesn’t appear too likely in the medium term).

Site clearance work along the route started in autumn 2011, although further advance work in the form of de-vegetation is still required before the new railway can be constructed, as well as allowing some of the necessary earthworks and infrastructure to be completed. This is being done during the winter to minimise the effect on wildlife.

Rather than cutting down everything in sight, with no thought as to what future wildlife might exist alongside the railway, Transport Scotland says a landscape and habitat management plan will ensure that replacement plants are selected for planting alongside the operational railway, providing a new habitat for wildlife. Native species will be replanted in some areas, providing screening where necessary in some areas and wildlife habitats in others. In addition, new fencing will protect farm animals and prevent them from accessing the railway or worksites.

Away from the more rural sections of the route, a considerable amount of work is being done at Galashiels.

The first permanent sections of fencing have been erected, while vacant buildings close to the railway formation have been demolished and a retaining wall is being constructed - all obvious and high-profile hints to local residents that the railway is returning. The townscape through which the railway once ran has changed considerably in the past 43 years, but the new alignment will still have ample space to snake its way past the area now occupied by the two supermarkets.

Part of the key to the success of the future railway is how the route (as currently planned) will diverge at Millerhill Yard on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Electric passenger services currently terminate just north of here, at Newcraighall. The new Borders line will continue south from here, albeit unwired for the time being.

Network Rail has already completed work at Millerhill to ensure that the line can be seamlessly connected to the main rail network - this has involved the re-alignment of a 300-metre turnback siding along the Borders Railway centre-line, converting it from a straight siding to a line with a 300-metre radius curve.

As the turnback siding had to remain operational at all times, all work affecting the existing railway infrastructure was completed during a single 28-hour possession in May 2011. This means that work to connect the Borders railway to the existing network by the appointed contractor can now be undertaken without interfering with the existing rail infrastructure.

The campaign hoped for an infrastructure enhancement at this location that would benefit both freight and passenger charter markets. At present, the re-opened route is expected to have spare daytime paths on a Sunday, giving potential capacity for charter trains.

Typically, these trains would be eight to 13 coaches long, as would the luxury land cruise ‘Royal Scotsman’ train, which operates two, three and four-night excursions from Edinburgh to the Highlands and other Scottish destinations. Any service of this type would naturally need locomotive run-round facilities and (in the case of the ‘Scotsman’) access to drinking water.

In 2009, more than 80 charter trains arrived at Scottish destinations, with Edinburgh the most popular destination. Trains would potentially arrive from locations such as Preston, Crewe or London.

As such, the campaign is pushing for the provision of long platforms and associated run-round facilities at Tweedbank (as well as route availability to take Class 67s and similar modern locomotives).

It is also pushing for a chord to be built at Millerhill, with a new track formation, which doesn’t follow the original trackbed at this point, crossing the original line to Bilston Glen Pit. This line links directly into Millerhill Yard and then the East Coast Main Line.

Without incorporating this chord into the design, there would be huge construction, maintenance and possible traffic implications in the future.

With the obvious aesthetic attraction of the Borders country, and tourist attractions such as the National Mining Museum Scotland at Newtongrange, any opportunity to make the most of potential traffic is worth tapping into at the earliest possible stage. Research suggests that this traffic could generate in excess of £500,000 additional revenue for the Borders economy per year.

In its original incarnation the Waverley route was never considered a branch line, but rather the main line from Edinburgh to Carlisle. It was, without a doubt, Britain’s biggest rail closure of the Beeching era - in one fell swoop the closure isolated the area, and it has severely affected its economy ever since.

“The South East Scotland Strategic Development Plan openly talks about an extension to Carlisle, with a proposal for an economic cluster based on the Hawick-Galashiels-Kelso triangle. For that to be successful, good rail transport links need to exist to the south as well as the north,” says Anton.

While opening the line as far as Tweedbank is the priority, the campaign sees this simply as the first stage, and will continue to adapt and evolve to meet the challenges related to the eventual full re-opening to Carlisle.

Former Scottish Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson described full re-opening as “a perfectly reasonable ambition”, while more recently the Scottish National Party has stated its support for an extension. On the ground, local SNP councillors are already calling for investigative work to extend the line to Hawick.

“The campaign’s aim has always been the full re-opening of the route from Edinburgh to Carlisle, and I am sure this will always be the case,” says Anton. “But of one thing I am sure, given Border rivalries, when the good folk of Hawick see the line being opened to Galashiels they will demand a rail connection, too!”

Anton is clear that much of the campaign’s work in the near future will be the promotion of a Community Rail Partnership - “to be up and running before the line opens”, with the intention of drawing upon other successful CRPs across Britain.

Encouraging strong community support shouldn’t be too hard, given the strength of feeling along the route. Nevertheless, the campaign wants to ensure that Borders residents make the most of the railway when it eventually re-opens - and bolster support for the full reinstatement.

“We are confident the line will be re-opened in full,” concludes Anton. “It may take some time, but it will.”

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  • Anthony Bell - 10/08/2015 00:02

    Looking forward to traveling on the borders railway in September it been to great project. I am a railway enthusiastic all so do a lot traveling by rail

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