Waverley Line…next stop Carlisle?

There’s something deeply satisfying about living in a time where we are talking about railway re-openings, rather than line closures. Such is the transformation in the fortunes of Britain’s Railways since the turn of the century, we are now looking at a lot more than simply station re-openings, but at a very substantial piece of new railway.

But could the opening of the Borders Railway ever extend down to Carlisle?  And is there really a business case for it?

First, let’s look at why the line closed in the first place - and yes, it’s down to that man Beeching again. Whether your view of Dr Richard Beeching is one of an official brought in to do the dirty work of a government already intent on closing lots of Britain’s railway network, or one of a man who carried out that work with great zest without questioning whether other ways were possible to find the savings required - he certainly achieved the intended objective of chopping the railway map right back. 

As Beeching swung his famous axe, the railways in Scotland were ravaged - 650 miles of railway and hundreds of stations were closed, leaving communities to rely on much longer journeys on buses (ironically now suffering cuts themselves).

Printed on page 102 of the report was confirmation of possibly the major casualty in Scotland: the 98-mile line from Edinburgh to Carlisle, of which the Borders Railway formed part - the ‘Waverley Route’. The line was the North British Railway’s (NBR’s) route between Carlisle and Edinburgh, originally running between the Scottish capital and Hawick from 1849, and then on to Carlisle from 1862.

The path chosen for the Waverley Route was significantly longer than the direct route as the crow flies, to allow for the formidable natural barriers of the Southern Uplands and the not unsubstantial summits of Whitrope (1,006ft) and Falahill (880ft). 

With this in mind, the NBR’s marketing department decided to extol the virtues of the line as a scenic railway. An advertisement from 1877 mentions that “the Waverley is the most interesting and attractive, and is the only Route which enables the tourist to Melrose (for Melrose Abbey and Abbotsford) and St Boswells (for Dryburgh Abbey)”.

The name Waverley Route began to be used around the same time as the Carlisle extension opened, and was inspired by the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott. The author lived nearby the line at Abbotsford House, and had taken an active interest in early railways.

But the line wasn’t a major success, causing one director of the NBR to call it “the most serious burden on the North British”, although the situation improved after the Midland Railway completed the Settle-Carlisle Line (S&C). Through services between St Pancras and Edinburgh via the S&C and the Waverley Route duly started on May 1 1876.

Journey times proved to be the major stumbling block, however, and in a world increasingly wanting to get from A to B faster, the Waverley Route couldn’t compete. By 1910, the journey from London to Edinburgh on either the East or West Coast Main Lines took around 8hrs 15mins - via the Waverley it was 8hrs 40mins.

The branch lines off the route were closed progressively from 1932, as the increase in road transport took hold. And with dwindling freight and low passenger numbers, the British Railways Board identified the Waverley Route as prime for closure, with the plans detailed in the Beeching Report of 1963.

The line’s inclusion in the report was a big shock in the Borders, and even prompted the Scottish Office to request that the Minister of Transport postponed the publication of closure notices. In the 1964 General Election, the Beeching-supporting Conservative MP Charles Donaldson had his majority slashed by the fresh-faced Liberal candidate David (now Lord) Steel, who opposed the closure of the line. Steel won the seat a year later, in a by-election resulting from Donaldson’s death in December 1964.

Many thought the election of a Labour Government in 1964 would spare the threatened lines, but Labour saw the possibility of reducing the spend on the railways while being able to blame the Beeching Report started by the previous Conservative administration.  

Despite 508 objections to the Transport Users’ Consultative Committee, Minister of Transport Richard Marsh referred to figures showing that passenger numbers on the line had fallen 30% between 1964 and 1967, while car ownership had increased by 120%. He came to the conclusion that the £700,000 annual subsidiary could not be justified, and on July 15 1968 he announced to the House of Commons that the line was to close.

That £700,000 figure for the annual subsidiary is now widely thought to be vastly inflated, a tactic we now know was used by both government and British Rail for many more years - most spectacularly, perhaps, for the completed closure of the Woodhead Line and the proposed closure of the Settle-Carlisle Line.  

On the Woodhead Line, BR claimed the cost of converting the once-standard 1,500V DC overhead wiring to 25kV AC was so prohibitive as to make the line unviable, when it was clearly a reason needed to justify the decision from on high that one of the routes over the Pennines had to go.  

Again in the early 1980s, BR said the cost to repair the magnificent Ribblehead Viaduct would be between £6 million and £9m - enough to make the S&C uneconomic to remain open. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of very vocal campaigners (clearly with echoes of the Waverley and Woodhead lines ringing in their ears), the S&C was famously reprieved in 1989.

It was six years after the closure recommendations were made in Beeching’s report that the actual closure of the line took place, in January 1969. The Railway Correspondence & Travel Society organised a rail tour - the ‘Waverley Farewell’ on January 5, with Deltic D9007 Pinza hauling a rake of nine Mk 2 coaches, with what seems now to be a real journey… starting at Leeds, it headed northwards over the S&C and then to Riccarton Junction onto the Waverley Line through Hawick to Edinburgh, and back again.

The last ever service over the full line was the 2156 Edinburgh-St Pancras Sleeper service, scheduled to arrive at the London terminus on the morning of January 6. 

Today, the whole concept of that service seems most strange… the idea that a train from Edinburgh would be going to a London station other than King’s Cross or Euston (and for that matter, a Sleeper service going into St Pancras).  Hauling the train southwards was Sulzer Type 4 (later Class 45) D60 Lytham St Annes, although it reached Carlisle some two hours late. Such was the strength of feeling in the area, a coffin was positioned on a makeshift bier in Hawick station, and the line was blocked at Newcastleton with the level crossing gates locked by demonstrators.

When the sound of the Sulzer had gone, the last train had travelled over the full railway between Carlisle and Edinburgh, and the line between Longtown and just south of Hawick closed completely the same week. Freight trains did continue northwards from Hawick, but this was only temporary, with the closure of this remaining section of the line complete by the end of April 1969.

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  • frank h - 07/01/2016 00:07

    I can see it being extended to Hawick but no further, it's about 41 miles to Carlisle from there with Langholm the only major town/village.

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  • Michael - 31/07/2020 20:48

    Brilliant article. I hope it all comes into fruition.😊

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  • Anthony Hancock - 21/03/2021 19:20

    Agree that the line must be extended to Carlisle. The sooner the better

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