Inevitably, it wasn’t long before those costs had increased to between £235m and £295m. Then there were the delays caused by the Scottish Government’s decision that the scheme should be financed not by public investment, but as a public/private partnership through a ‘Design, Build, Finance and Maintain’ initiative.
But due to the economic downturn, two of the three firms shortlisted to construct the railway dropped out, and so the Government asked Network Rail to take charge. The cost was concluded at £294m (at 2012 prices), and the contributions from the area’s councils were capped at £30m each.
Construction of the railway was undertaken by Bam Nuttall, with site clearance works starting in early 2012. By October 2012, ground stabilisation work began in the Midlothian area (caused by the very coal mines that were once the freight lifeblood of the original line). Main construction began in April 2013, and by June 2015 driver training had begun in preparation for the September opening.
So, now that the Borders Railway is completed, and trains are finally running between Edinburgh and Tweedback, is there a case to re-open the line fully to Carlisle?
Well, put simply, yes.
Remember, the original feasibility study published by the Scottish Office in 2000 concluded that reinstatement of the whole route between Edinburgh and Carlisle would offer few benefits (and because of the slower nature of the line was unlikely to win many passengers), yet didn’t rule it out even back then.
That study mentioned a number of major issues on the Borders Railway route that would need to be addressed, such as the A7 Edinburgh City Bypass and the significant infrastructure gaps in the onward route to Carlisle. Well, Network Rail and the construction team have solved the challenges on the current line, within the agreed budget.
There are now important gaps in the rail route - the viaduct over the River Teviot in Hawick, for example, and the old Hawick station becoming a leisure centre - but these aren’t insurmountable.
As for the slower nature of the line, this is actually a virtue, one that has only recently been noticed for the current re-opened section. ScotRail’s new “scenic” Class 158 DMUs, with improved seating-to-window matches and other enhancements, are a great move in the right direction. Coupled with the steam specials and the £367,000 international marketing campaign from Visit Scotland, these show new vigour in the way the line’s tourist potential can be exploited.
Speed isn’t needed here. After all, the majority of the 1.2 million journeys made on the S&C every year aren’t made for the line’s high speed. Besides, with modern rolling stock, journey times don’t have to be compromised with station stops. In 1953, the fastest journey between Edinburgh and Galashiels was around 52 minutes - today, it’s about the same, but still stopping at seven stations along the way, as opposed to four for the same duration trip in 1953.
The economic benefits of the Borders Railway can be seen in the housing ‘explosion’ along the new rail corridor, with the number of new homes built in one area more than doubling in the space of a year - all thanks to the railway.
Of course, this is nothing new. The whole idea of “if you build it, they will come” was masterminded by the Metropolitan Railway, with its Metro-land concept in the mid-1910s, as a way of capitalising on land it owned around its new railway developments outside central London.
There’s every possibility this could also happen alongside other parts of the newly opened Waverley Route, matching high-quality housing to excellent rail transport links.
And even before it was opened, the Borders Railway had councils looking at possible re-openings on the back of the new line. In 2013, Midlothian Council asked Heriot-Watt University to carry out a feasibility study into re-opening ten miles of railway from the new Borders line to connect to the town of Penicuik, one of the largest towns in Scotland currently without a rail link. The study was completed in June 2014, but has yet to be published.
So, is there the political will to extend the line and re-create the Waverley Route?
Well, talking in April 2014 when still Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond hinted that the entire line could be re-opened once the Borders Railway section was up and running.
And in June 2015, Infrastructure Minister Keith Brown confirmed that transport officials from the Scottish Government have held talks on the possible extension beyond Tweedbank.
As recently as July 2015, Business and Tourism Minister Fergus Ewing gave a fairly clear vision during a visit to the Borders, saying: “I think the more effective and the more successful the Borders Railway is when it re-opens, the stronger the case will be to extend it in the future.”
However, even the current re-opened section hasn’t received wholehearted support. In a throwback to his party’s 1963 Government view on railways, John Lamont (the current Conservative MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) raised concerns in July 2010 that the project wasn’t worth it, and could take away resources from other transport schemes in the area.
In 2013, Lamont also called for the disused railways in Borders to be converted into cycle tracks, seemingly discouraging any further re-openings. “By converting old rail lines and building new cycle routes, we can help to vastly improve safety and encourage more people to take up this healthy hobby,” he said.
Interestingly, however, Lamont’s public comments do actually support the extension of the line to Carlisle - and recognise the benefits that would bring. Speaking in 2010, he said: “Many people remain unconvinced that the new railway to Galashiels will make much difference to most communities in the Borders, particularly since it will not go to Hawick and on to Carlisle.”
He also said in 2010 that a survey on the Borders Railway had shown people wanted better public transport, but there was “frustration” that the line would not extend to Hawick or link with the West Coast Main Line.
Perhaps this could be the most logical next step - an extension of the line in parts, first to Melrose and Hawick, and then all the way to Carlisle.
What could the costs be for re-opening all the way to Carlisle?
We’d have to wait for the experts and consultants to assess the route first, but one thing is certain: it would cost significantly more than the £295m the Borders Railways has cost - not least because the remaining section is more than double that length, and has more infrastructure to replace.
Decisions over the disposal of railway land (taken in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s) will push the cost of re-opening the Waverley Route an awful lot higher than it needed to be. A figure of at least £700m (in 2015 prices) has been quoted to me on more than one occasion!
Until any feasibility study into the re-opening of the Waverley Route, at least the opening of the Borders Railway starts to exorcise the ghost of the Beeching Report for the Scottish Borders.
What we have discovered ultimately is what all of us connected with the railways already knew. Miles and miles of railway, connecting many millions of people to each other and to the wider country, were sacrificed using a now widely understood discredited methodology in order to ostensibly make the railways pay their own way.
Perhaps sometime in the future we’ll be able to travel from Edinburgh to St Pancras via the Waverley Route and the S&C. I hope I’m still around to make that journey…
- This feature was published in RAIL 784 (September 30 - October 13 2015)