A NEW report claims projected passenger numbers on the Borders Railway have dropped by a third.
Consultants Ernst & Young says people making return trips on the £300million project will reach 647,000 in its first year, 2015, more than 300,000 down from the previous estimate of 976,000.
The new figure includes over 20,000 trips from the stations in Galashiels and Tweedbank, and nearly 6,000 from Stow.
Among the reasons identified by E&Y for the reduced patronage levels is the loss of 60,000 return journeys in each of the first five years from Shawfair on the outskirts of Edinburgh, after a 4,000-home development was delayed due to the economic recession.
The loss of passengers has led to wider claims that the railway will only claw back half of its final costs.
Long-term opponent John Lamont, MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, believes E&Y’s business case is further proof that the line will not benefit the Borders.
He told TheSouthern: “The railway to Galashiels is already delayed and over budget, and these statistics now show that there is little chance of it ever making its money back.
“With such poor project management by successive Holyrood governments, it is no wonder that comparisons are already being made with the Edinburgh tram system.
“While there is no doubt that we need better transport links in the Borders, this railway will only serve a fraction of residents in the region.
“Many taxpayers are rightly asking if this money should have been spent on something that would benefit more people in the Borders particularly when so many residents rely every day on our road and bus network which is crying out for investment.”
However, claims that the line will not be economically viable have been disputed by Simon Walton, chair of the Campaign for Borders Rail.
He told us: “Every single study, prior to the opening of a railway project this century, has grossly underestimated the patronage, and has failed to take into account the wider social and economic benefits accrued.
“These are less tangible figures, and the evidence of eyes on the ground does not translate well into the pages and spreadsheets of a business case. Pure economic benefits exist only in that rarified environment, and do not reflect real life for the hundreds of thousands of people of Midlothian and the Borders who will be served by this new line, and could be served by further restoration southwards to Melrose, Hawick and ultimately Carlisle – the stated aim of the Campaign for Borders Rail.”
Mr Walton described comparisons between the Borders Railway and the Edinburgh’s tram scheme as completely unjust.
He added: “While funding of the Borders Railway was subject to some experimental schemes, it is in the hands of Network Rail and their contractors, who have considerable experience in the field, and are demonstrating such up and down the route already.
“We are delivering a railway for the people of the Borders for the first time in over 40 years. This will provide benefits to the local economy, the jobs market, housing and inward investment opportunities.”
The business case states that the introduction of the railway will save £4.6million by cutting 360 road accidents over a 60 year period – working out at six a year.
It also estimates that there will be a £1.6million benefit associated with improvements to air quality, with around 560 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions set to be cut from the atmosphere each year.
Hugh Wark, Network Rail’s project director for the Borders Railway, believes the time for debate is over.
He added: “Statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to say, but what is not in doubt is that the Borders and Midlothian is lacking a fast, efficient, sustainable transport link to central Edinburgh.
“Only once the railway is up and running will anyone be able to say for certain whether this project is a success or not but the enthusiastic response we have received from the people of Midlothian and the Borders suggests to me that this line will be very well used indeed.”
Meanwhile, a Borders Railway spokesman has denied suggestions that car parks at Tweedbank, Galashiels and Stow stations will be pay-and-display, insisting the facilities will be free. And the BR spokesman also said that passengers from the Borders wishing to travel to Edinburgh Waverley will not have to change at Newcraighall to reach their final destination.