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15 November 1999

Bring back the Waverley line

New Statesman Scotland - The railway must return if the Borders is not to become Scotland's

By Allan Massie

Walter Scott started writing his novel Waverley, about the 1745 Jacobite rising, in 1805; hence its subtitle, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since. The railway line from Edinburgh to Carlisle, by way of Galashiels, Melrose and Hawick, was called “the Waverley” because it passed through Scott country. It closed in the second round of Beeching cuts in 1969; so, indeed, ’tis 30 years since. There is now a vigorous campaign for its reopening.

The line was closed at a time when the prospects for rail seemed poor. Motorways were being built, other roads converted to dual carriageways and the British Railways Board was forecasting that eventually no more than two trains a day would run between Edinburgh and London. Today, however, GNER runs an hourly service throughout the day, and is considering a half-hourly one. Motorways and road-building are out of fashion, and since the privatisation of the rail network, there has been a considerable increase in passenger traffic.

None of this has done anything for the Scottish Borders. When the railway was closed, road improvements were promised. They never happened. They are unlikely to happen now. So we are left with poor roads and no railway. Galashiels is only 35 miles from Scotland’s capital. The bus journey takes one hour 25 minutes. In 1910 it took 45 minutes by rail. I often remark that we are more or less equidistant from three stations; the enthusiasm of prospective visitors diminishes when I add that they are Edinburgh, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Carlisle.

The Borders was prosperous in the past, and although much of that has faded, the region could not, until recently, be fairly described as depressed. The textile trade, though employing fewer people every decade, was still usually profitable. There was some diversification into electronics. The other staple industry, agriculture, was in good heart. Unemployment was low, in part because the unemployed left the region in search of work elsewhere. So did the better-educated among the young, as there were few opportunities for graduates.

Precisely because the region could not be classed as an industrial black spot, it was neglected by government. So money, from the Scottish Office, Whitehall and Brussels, was lavished on post-industrial areas such as Lanarkshire, and on the Highlands. In the context of the railways, it may be noted that there are 57 stations in the Highland region (population around 250,000) and none in the Borders (population around 103,000); an eloquent disparity.

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Recently things have got worse. The textile industry has continued to decline. Farming is in crisis. The closure of the Viasystems electronics plants in Selkirk and Galashiels put around 1,000 people – 1 per cent of the total, not the working, population – out of a job. So young people move away; retired people move in. The Borders is in danger of becoming Scotland’s granny flat.

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The government at last took notice of what was happening. The Scottish Office set up an inquiry into the economic prospects for the region, and also commissioned a feasibility study into the possibility of restoring the railway. The result of this will be known next month. Rumour has it that only a suburban spur taking the railway to Gorebridge, ten miles south of Edinburgh, will be recommended. Nobody in the Borders will think this adequate. The very least that will be acceptable is a line running to Galashiels. This would have the merit of bringing the central Borders into the Edinburgh economic area, which is booming. At present, we are cut off from Scotland’s capital – so much so that the low line of hills running from the Lammermuirs to the Moorfoots seems as daunting a range as the Alps.

But, given that the most depressed town in the Borders is Hawick, itself less than 55 miles from Edinburgh, it is desirable that the whole of the line through to Hawick and Carlisle be restored. This makes sense, too, from a wider perspective. At a recent conference organised by the very active Campaign for Borders Rail, Gavin Roser, general manager of the freight company Contship Overland, spoke of the difficulties faced by freight forwarders from Scotland, and of the need for the other route that the Waverley line would provide. The reopening of the southern part of the line would also help shift timber traffic from the roads; several forests in the south of Scotland and the north of England will come to maturity in the next 20 years.

The cost of restoring the railway is not yet known. Realists believe the figure will be between £60 million and £90 million – expensive, but still considerably less than the cost of making a real improvement in the inadequate roads through the area.

Five years ago, the prospects for reopening the railway were poor. Now things have changed. Railtrack, ScotRail and Virgin Trains are all seriously considering the proposal. Rail privatisation was not popular in Scotland, but it is beginning to bring benefits, not least by replacing a defensive culture with a can-do one. And, if the Scottish Parliament wants to allay fears that it would only be Strathclyde Regional Council writ large, then its support for the reopening of the Waverley line would reassure many.