Reopening of railway a right royal occasion

A train at the Tweedbank terminus just south of Galashiels in the second week of operation of the Borders Railway.
A train at the Tweedbank terminus just south of Galashiels in the second week of operation of the Borders Railway.

People in Northumberland will have heard of the excitement in the Scottish Borders over the reopening of their railway recently, if only because it was officially opened by the Queen on Wednesday, September 9, the day she became the longest reigning British monarch.

There has been rumbling discontent in the Borders ever since the Waverley line was closed in 1969, and after much campaigning and political pressure, it was agreed to reopen the line from Edinburgh as far as Tweedbank, between Galashiels and Melrose.

This involved 30 miles of new construction, mainly but not entirely on the trackbed of the Waverley line, making the whole line 35 miles from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, the longest reopened line so far.

The economic case was rather shaky because it was based on too narrow a spectrum of the line’s potential, but politics trumps economics, and the Scottish transport minister, Derek Mackay, made the point that the government could see beyond the limited economic case, saying that, apart from the benefits to the Borders, it would contribute £33m to the wider Scottish economy.

When there is enthusiasm for something positive, there are always those who delight in trying to decry it.

Sceptics described the reopening as the worst value project you can find and a colossal waste of money, saying it would sustain very heavy losses and should be scrapped.

On the day the accompanying photograph was taken, this paper’s sister title in the Borders, the Southern Reporter, carried the front-page headline ‘Railway struggles to cope with demand’.

Of course, there are always people who will turn out to try something new, especially when it has been heavily publicised, but it will be interesting to see what the loadings are like when it has settled down into an on-going pattern.

The chairman of the Campaign for Borders Rail, Simon Walton, said: “I cannot think of a rail project that has not gone on to greatly exceed expectations of patronage.”

However, all is not sweetness and light, because in order to deliver the project on time and on budget, Network Rail insisted on much of the line being single track, which limits the scope for development. Future generations may have cause to regret this decision.

At least it has been future-proofed in respect of electrification, which will help.

Having succeeded in achieving the restoration of their railway as far as the central Borders, campaigners are now pressing for onward extension, first as far as Hawick, and then all the way to Carlisle.

That would, no doubt, take many years, but if it is achieved, it will make the line useful as a through route for freight as well as passengers, in addition to serving the communities on the way.

 Readers might have noticed that many cars now have remarkable acceleration, being supercharged and turbocharged, so even in residential areas, some drivers can reach speeds which would not enable them to stop if a child ran out into the road. ‘

Twenty’s plenty, and local authorities imposing a 20mph limit, particularly in the vicinity of schools, is becoming more common.

Again, the Scots are ahead of us, as from later this year, excess speed in Scotland is to result in a formal warning letter, with the implication that a second offence will result in prosecution. Excess means anything over the limit, however small. We have become used to there being a generous margin beyond the limit before any action is taken, but this will no longer be the case.

 From 2009 until March this year, the East Coast main line was operated by Directly Operated Railways, the Department for Transport’s own management body set up to ensure the continuance of public service if a privatised operator fails to fulfil its obligations under its franchise terms.

There was a strong campaign, especially in the North East, to retain the line as a nationalised operation rather than re-let it as it operated the franchise for six years entirely satisfactorily and returned substantial amounts of money to the Treasury.

It was a matter of regret to those campaigners that political ideology trumped operational and financial considerations.

The new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has declared that, following the election of a Labour government, the railways would gradually be renationalised as each franchise expires.

This process would take many years and would only be achieved in its entirety if there were not another change in governmental policy at a subsequent election. That would mean that the railways would become the proverbial political football.