Jubilation greets rail handover

THE first train may end up being another year late in arriving and the scheme several hundred million pounds over its original budget, but Network Rail’s signing of the deal this week to construct and reopen a Borders railway by 2015 at the very latest, was still met with jubilation across the region.

On Tuesday, Scottish Transport Secretary Keith Brown also signed the agreement, transferring responsibility from Transport Scotland to Network Rail, which will see the longest railway to be built in Scotland since the Fort William-Mallaig line in 1901.

The target for the first services to be operational in the Borders for more than 40 years remains late 2014, but the terms of the contract have set summer 2015 as the date by which the 35-mile route has to be open.

At the Newtongrange ceremony, Mr Brown also announced the £294million scheme design has been enhanced to allow tourist charter trains to use the new Tweedbank terminus.

Calling it an “historic day” for the Borders, Scottish Borders Council leader David Parker said it ended any doubts about the project’s delivery.

“The Scottish Government has been committed to this project from the outset and it is delivering on the promises that it made to the Borders public,” said Mr Parker.

“I would also like to thank the Campaign for Borders Rail (CBR) and the many Borderers who have campaigned to make today’s announcement a reality. The efforts of CBR and other community representatives have been critical in achieving the return of rail services to the Borders.

“This is a project that has spanned five council administrations and three council leaders; it has required numerous studies, an act of parliament and a significant amount of work by Scottish Borders Council, Midlothian Council, City of Edinburgh Council, the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland and Network Rail.

“Today’s announcement demonstrates that if you have vision and commitment it is possible to achieve what many believed was impossible.”

Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce also welcomed the formal transfer of responsibility, but is now urging the Scottish Government to fund the expansion of the line through to Hawick and on to Carlisle – a move that would re-establish the historic route, which was controversially closed by the Beeching cuts in 1969.

Chamber convener, James Aitken, commented: “After an absence of more than 40 years, the reintroduction of the rail line finally brings some normality back to the Borders and provides huge opportunities.

“Indeed, it is the single most important economic development in the area I can think of in my lifetime. It is a fantastic day for all of the Borders.” However, Mr Aitken said the celebrations were slightly marred by what he termed the years of “unwelcome amount of political squabbling locally” which had gone on over the issue.

“I and the chamber take the view that it is critical to our future and now we are about to enter the construction phase, I would urge that the unwarranted negative campaigning stops and that everyone gets behind the project.

“Getting the railway back is vital because it reconnects us with the rest of Scotland.”

But not everyone is happy, with local Tory MSP John Lamont MSP warning the cost of the project was continuing to spiral, while the completion deadline has been pushed back.

“We have a duty to ensure that we get the best value for money from public funds and so far the handling of this project has completely failed to achieve this,” he said.

However, even arch-rail critic Councillor Nicholas Watson (Leaderdale & Melrose, BP), who founded the Borders Party on the single issue of opposing the rail link, said he would consider using local trains when they become available.

“Our arguments have always been about how the Borders should develop in the future, and I have no doubt that we’ve helped many people across the Borders, including planners, to think hard about the difference between development which is damaging and development that’s well related to local needs and employment,” he said.

“The railway puts massive pressure for suburban development on the central Borders, so the Borders Party message about looking after the region’s particular qualities and assets is more important than ever.”

“That said, if all really is agreed, then I hope they get on with it, stick to the budget – if we are ever allowed to know what that is – and get it to Carlisle.”

Asked if he would use the train, Mr Watson replied: “Of course I would, maybe even three or four times a year.”

Meanwhile, councillors have approved the realignment of the railway at Tweedbank, due to underground power lines below the Black Path.