Passenger figures announced by the Scottish Government on Tuesday reveal that almost 700,000 trips were made on the new Edinburgh-Tweedbank line in its first six months of operation, adding extra weight for calls for it to be extended to Hawick or beyond.
The 694,373 journeys made between its opening last September and the end of March were 22 per cent up on the 568,023 projected.
It is now estimated that the £350m line will continue to be more popular than originally expected throughout its first 12 months of operation and will end its inaugural year 21 per cent up on initial projections.
The 35-mile line’s western terminus at Tweedbank was one of its biggest success stories, attracting 10 times as many travellers as predicted, and its Galashiels station wasn’t far behind, seeing five times as many passengers as expected.
Tweedbank’s six-month passenger total was 183,918 and Galashiels’ was 104,593, well up on their projected figures of 18,978 and 20,567 respectively.
The 24,365 travellers using Stow’s station were also five times the number projected, 5,129 in its case.
Scottish Borders Council leader David Parker welcomed the half-year figures, saying: “The Borders Railway passenger numbers announced by the Scottish Government show the transformational impact the railway can have on this area’s economy.
“To see five times the number of passengers expected using Galashiels railway station in the first six months of operation is remarkable, but for Tweedbank to have been used by almost 184,000 passengers in just six months is beyond our wildest expectations.
“I am delighted that Stow station has also seen use well above that projected prior to the opening of the Borders Railway and that more than 200,000 people have used the line to travel from Edinburgh.”
The Leaderdale and Melrose ward councillor added: “This justifies all the hard work, over many years, to bring about the return of the railway to the central Borders and gives us a fantastic challenge to make the very most of this unique opportunity for the Scottish Borders.
“It also shows how important it is to look seriously at the potential extension of the line to Hawick and beyond.
“The figures provide a boost to the business case for extending the line to Carlisle, and they will be considered carefully as part of the scoping exercise that is being commissioned.”
Tweeddale East councillor Stuart Bell, the authority’s executive member for economic development, added: “The incredible figures released today give us further impetus to really push on.
“The figures also prove to the business community here in the Borders, and more importantly to growing businesses across Scotland and beyond, that it is a connected place, open for business and should be at the top of the list for places to set up or expand business into.
“The railway connects a number of key development sites, including housing and mixed-use projects, business and industrial parks and new visitor attractions and creates fantastic new opportunities for businesses and investors to take advantage of growing markets and new connectivity to and from Edinburgh city centre.
“We are actively pushing this message to businesses and potential inward investors, and without doubt, the success of the Borders Railway will help emphasise that message and increase the focus on the Scottish Borders at a national level in the business community.”
National business and tourism chiefs have also welcomed the six-month statistics.
Borders Railway Blueprint leaders’ group chairman Danny Cusick, also a senior director for tourism at Scottish Enterprise, said: “With 126,350 trips more than anticipated in the first six months, it’s clear that there is demand for the new railway, even before the blueprint partnership’s first phase of developments have been fully implemented.
“As part of these developments, the railway will open up new business and investment opportunities, connecting planned housing and mixed-use projects, business and industrial parks, and new visitor attractions.
“The recent announcement by global IT company CGI that it is to locate a digital centre of excellence in the Scottish Borders which has the potential to create up to 200 new jobs is an encouraging early example of a significant investment decision linked to Borders Railway.”
VisitScotland chief executive Malcolm Roughead said: “These are very encouraging figures for the first six months of the Borders Railway, particularly considering they cover a time of year that is traditionally seen as off season for visitors.
“Our marketing activity is being increased to target more visitors from UK and international markets, encouraging them to visit Midlothian and the Scottish Borders as part of their Edinburgh experience this summer and beyond.
“The re-establishment of the Borders Railway line demonstrates the growing tourism potential in the south east and illustrates that tourism is more than a holiday experience. It creates jobs and sustains communities in every corner of Scotland and is at the heart of the Scottish economy.”
Phil Verster, managing director of the ScotRail Alliance, said: “We are incredibly proud to operate services on the Borders Railway – a route which, as the numbers show, is hugely popular with our customers.
“The extremely positive first six months are a wonderful start and give us a solid foundation on which to continue to attract new visitors to and from the Borders.
“We are committed to ensuring the lasting legacy of the Borders Railway.
“It’s clear that the success of the line has been a catalyst for other communities to champion their own rail links, and we are working closely with partners to encourage and support economic growth across Scotland.”