Lack of progress on extending Borders Railway prompts election candidates to point fingers of blame both north and south

Where blame lies for the lack of progress being made on having the Borders Railway extended south of Tweedbank continues to be disputed by the two front-runners for the UK Government’s Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk seat.

Calum Kerr at BBC Scotland's general election hustings at the Heart of Hawick.
Calum Kerr at BBC Scotland's general election hustings at the Heart of Hawick.

It’s the Scottish Government that is dragging its heels over extending the 30-mile track and its UK counterpart that is leading the way, according to Conservative candidate and sitting MP John Lamont.

Scottish National Party contender Calum Kerr, his predecessor as MP, believes blame for the failure of a full feasibility study into extending the £353m line to Carlisle to materialise since its opening in 2015 lies at Westminster rather than Holyrood, however.

That dispute stemmed from backtracking over such an extension by Scottish Government first minister Nicola Sturgeon during a visit to Hawick last month in support of Mr Kerr’s election campaign.

John Lamont at BBC Scotland's general election hustings at the Heart of Hawick.

This time round, she warned that there are “big, complex issues” to be addressed before the railway could carry on into Cumbria via Hawick.

That caution was far cry from her promise of a full feasibility study during a previous visit to Hawick in 2016 to back SNP candidate Paul Wheelhouse’s failed bid for the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire seat at Holyrood, held, in the event, by Mr Lamont,

Such a feasibility study has yet to be carried out, though, only a pre-appraisal having been completed by Transport Scotland since then.

At general election hustings held by BBC Scotland at the Heart of Hawick today, December 9, Mr Kerr blamed that lack of progress on the Conservative government in Westminster.

He said: “I’m a huge supporter of extending the Borders Railway, and, again, this should be something cross-party that we all work on.

“I’m delighted that John has seen the light because – it’s not difficult to find. You only need to Google it – in the Guardian, you’ll find John described as a vocal critic who is actually trying to get the money spent on the roads.

“By the way, we should spend money on the roads. It’s not an either or.

“I’m a massive supporter of it. We’re completely behind it.

“There is a challenge, and this is where I’d like to know what John’s been doing on his bahookie down in Westminster the last two years, because the Scottish Government have done what they need to do in terms of the pre-appraisal, and we need the UK Government to step up here.

“What we need is someone in Westminster who works cross-party, as I did with David Mundell and Rory Stewart, to find consensus and get Westminster doing their part, because at the moment they’re not.

“We need the Tories to step up.”

As he talked about Mr Lamont’s alleged criticism of the Borders Railway, Mr Kerr held aloft a print-out of an article by journalist Severin Carrell published in the Guardian newspaper in November 2012.

It reads: “John Lamont, a Tory MSP, has been a continuing critic of the project. He said there was ‘huge frustration’ in other parts of the Borders about its heavy cost and the length of the route.

‘The more they have looked at it, they say it’s not a railway to the Borders, it’s a railway to Galashiels. The vast majority of residents won’t get any greater access to rail than they do at the moment,’ he said.

That £295m budget had drained spending from other public transport improvements in the region and could have been better spent on roads and bus links.

‘It’s more than just the Galashiels community that needs to be served with better public transport. It’s everywhere in the Borders,’ he said.”

Chairing the hustings, BBC political journalist Kirsten Campbell asked for Mr Lamont to respond, and he denied that it is the UK Government to blame for Hawick apparently being little nearer getting back on track.

He told the panel: “I very much support extending the railway to Hawick and Newcastleton and on to Carlisle, and I’m pleased the Borderlands growth deal has released some funding to ensure the next part of the process can continue.

“There was a huge amount of alarm when the first minister visited Hawick and all of a sudden suggested there are many, many obstacles in the way of the railway extending compared to what she said previously when she visited Hawick and said there was an absolute commitment to this. Now, all of a sudden, that appears to be have been diluted significantly, so there is concern about that.

“I absolutely support extending the railway, and we need to ensure we have an integrated transport network, because we can’t have a situation like now where only those people who can access train stations are able to access good transport links.

“We need to ensure that all communities, and outlying communities in particular, have good buses, and good roads, to be able to access the opportunities ...”

Mr Kerr then interrupted Mr Lamont, saying: “On that specific point, the Treasury’s green book guidance says there has to be a pre-appraisal. This is cross-border. It has to be in England too. There has to be a pre-appraisal done and it has to come from Westminster.

“We’ve done our part. Have you got any progress in London? Because that needs to happen too.”

Mr Lamont replied: “The transport fund has made it very, very clear that they are supporting this and funding is there.

“I’m interested in the fact that you haven’t denied that the first minister ...”

Mr Lamont was then cut off again as the debate became unintelligible, with both men talking over each other and Ms Campbell struggling to regain control.

Once the two men had quietened down, Ms Campbell wrapped up the programme, ending that falling-out.

Voters go to the polls on Thursday, December 12.

Read what Mrs Sturgeon had to say about the railway last month ...