It being a particularly bright and clear late summer day and it also being ten days into the media hype surrounding the launch of the Borders Railway (teething troubles ought to be ironed out?) the time seemed propitious to hop a train to Gala—my mother’s birthplace—for the first time since she paid children’s fare for me to visit my great aunt.
Unlike other lines that have been opened, this one has been presented with some fanfare—and rightly so. Heritor to the legendary Waverley Line that ran all the way to Carlisle, closed against fierce opposition in 1969, this is both the longest and the most significant new Scottish railway built in over a century. Plus it has tourism potential that Alloa, Bathgate, etc never had.
The 30-mile route had appreciable teething troubles. From a stillborn campaign 45 years ago to re-open the ‘Border Union Railway’ the fight had finally got traction in the early days of the Scottish Parliament. After a decade of faffing and cost inflation it got serious in 2011 and was delivered this month for £350m—five times the original estimate. So what did we get for our £7,000 per yard?
The train itself made a disappointing introduction: a frumpy two-car Class 158 Sprinter that was long in the tooth unrefurbished and inappropriate. Not just showing age.it was too small for the many passengers and poorly accessible for themany older passengers with mobility problems, making boarding at busy stations slow and therefore keeping time difficult. Some 80% of the trains are this size and type, with only rush-hour trains being doubled up to avoid serious overcrowding. The ScotRail Alliance managing the line said:
“Disruption had been caused by factors including a train breaking down, signal problems, high passenger numbers and disruptive travellers. It has been particularly busy on board some services. At times this has caused delays while these unusually large numbers of customers board and alight.”
It’s never a good sign when rentaquotes refer to bealing customers who rightly feel let down as “disruptive travellers” and the partial measures of stealing rolling stock from other lines and maintenance depots to lengthen a few trains speaks of a lack of foresight and planning. On the trip I took on Sep 16th (13:25 ex-Waverley; 15:28 ex-Tweedbank) seven of eight ScotRail trains seen on the line were such two-car Class 158s.
The trip itself takes about an hour and passes some very pleasant scenery, criss-crossing the Gala Water many times and overtaking cars plodding down the ever-twisting A7. Each of the seven new stations look brisk and new and the practical-but-decorative ‘scree slopes’ of stones to inhibit landslips interweaves with trees, hills and bucolic water meadows.
But it is arrival at the purpose of the whole venture that underwhelms. Galasheils—the only border town served—has a single-platform station squeezed onto its site with difficult access and no parking. The line falls three miles short of reaching a major tourist destination at Melrose, despite Network Rail saying there is no impediment to it doing so.
The biggest disappointment has to be the bleak and minimalist Tweedbank terminus. It’s only feature is a two-track island platform 300m-long to accommodate tourist charter trains of up to 12 carriages in length. As if to prove the point, a steam train excursion pulled by the A4 Gresley Union of South Africa was there and the platform thick with Scottish Railway Preservation Society anoraks.
As can be seen from the picture, the place is bereft of facilities. Apart from a large (and already full) park-and-ride, the only structure is the Eildon View building (on the right above) a facility exclusively for ScotRail staff. Otherwise, it is a blastrd heath with:
- A standard two-panel A1 notice board showing no local information
- No toilets
- No cafe, kiosk or even a drinks machine
- No tourist information whatsoever, even in English
- No indication of onward bus connections or where to catch them—First’s 9, X62, 65 and 68 services (all to Melrose) pass nearby
- No signs visible for walking to nearby Melrose, Eildon Hills, Dryburgh, Scott’s View…
What car-less foreign visitors, lured by the hype to see the famous Borders would make of it can only be guessed at; even access to a nearby pleasant, beech-lined rural road was still blocked by Herris fencing. The good local bakery nearby is not even hinted at.
It is abundantly clear that whichever set of jobsworth pencilnecks conceived this line were driven by politics to tick civic boxes yet cheesepare to meet budget. As a result, all stations are mobility-friendly and every farm track near the line has copious crash barriers to stop vehicles swerving on to it. But while there are no level-crossings anywhere, new bridges are built single-track only, whereas many road bridges over (e.g. A720 Edinburgh bypass) are wider than the present road to permit expansion, betraying road-over-rail priority.
And that highlights the line’s greatest flaw: total lack of future-proofing. There are only three stretches of double track, 80% of which is in countryside south of Gorebridge. From Portobello East junction to Gorebridge (the whole Midlothian stretch) is single track with single platforms (except Shawfair to A720). No new overbridges can take double track. Worse: even old bridges and tunnels wide enough for doubling (as the whole Waverley Line once was) have single track laid in the middle—as if to allow for electrification, though none is planned.
But the set of jobsworth pencilnecks who conceived this line are nothing against the set of jobsworth pencilnecks who are running it. Fine and widespread though the marketing may be, there is no management substance behind ScotRail’s ‘Borders Railway’ front. Because of overcrowding, trains are delayed; because of delays other trains are held up waiting to access single-track sections; because of compound delays trains fall out causing overcrowding…
The total lack of operational maneuver trying to run a half-hourly quart service down this pint-pot line is compounded by the absence of any siding into which broken down trains can be shunted. This is a scheduler’s nightmare—and we ‘re not in winter yet. Delay is compounded by steam trains running three days a week, forcing the equivalent ScotRail train to be cancelled. This is hinted at in ScotRail’s timetable—except the trains that fall out are not those shown in the timetable.
And when they do get cancelled, no passenger is any the wiser. Many announcements are made about keeping your luggage with you or sternly warning you that standard tickets are not valid on the steam train (that just replaced the ScotRail one you were trying to catch). But never an apology or explanation of an hour wait for the next two-car 158, inevitably overcrowded and crewed by people who neither know nor care about missing trains. Bad PR, but execrable management.
So, after 15 years and £350m of your dosh, Borders have a curate’s egg of a line. It is an undoubted asset and a long-overdue boon to the Borders. But forty years ago Newbridge roundabout at the M8/M9/A8 junction proved an expensive, underengineered failure that had to be rebuilt at great expense twenty years later to be fit for purpose. The question begged is not how to extend this line to Carlisle but cost to rebuild what we have up to a standard that would make any such extension workable.