THE Borders railway will be one of the most scenic in the UK and is set to cash in on the tourism passenger boom currently enjoyed by rural routes in England.
That is the view of Scottish Borders Council leader David Parker as he countered Borders Party claims, reported last week, that the line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, due to open in 2014, will not be value for money.
The anti-rail party claimed 87 per cent of 183 members of the public shared that pessimism when surveyed at three recent local agricultural shows.
Mr Parker, however, has cited figures published at the weekend by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) which revealed there were now around 40 million local and rural rail journeys made each year with significant increases in passengers over the past three years.
ATOC’s data is based on 27 stretches of track designated as community rail routes by the Department of Transport, typically low-speed, countryside routes provided by one operator.
Examples of successful lines included Truro to Falmouth in Cornwall (up 90.6 per cent in the last three years), Bristol to Severn Beach (up 90.3 per cent), Derby to Matlock (up 86.2 per cent) and Par to Newquay (up 52.6 per cent).
ATOC’s director of corporate affairs, Edward Welsh, said such lines were helping rural communities by bringing in “hundreds of thousands of people into towns and villages”, adding that the increases were partly down to more people holidaying in the UK, allied to better promotion and more reliable services which could also be used for commuting.
“The significant growth in passenger numbers in rural railways in England is extremely interesting news in the context of the Borders railway,” said Mr Parker.
“I believe the reinstated line will have a massive impact on visitors to the Borders because it is very scenic and a huge number of people will choose to travel on it purely for the journey alone.
“The Borders has much to offer visitors in terms of walking and historic/tourist attractions and many people will be encouraged into our region to access these.
“The critical issue will be marketing everything correctly and work will be done on that, but we know that railways across the UK are having a major impact in encouraging day-trippers and tourists into different parts of the country and the Borders railway will be no different.”
Mr Parker admitted the original business case for the railway played down the impact of tourism and the projected passenger journey figures were “very conservative indeed”.
But he told us: “I have no doubt these predictions will be exceeded, particularly given the experience of other railways over the last decade.
“Rail travel generally has increased significantly over that period and on some lines with tourist potential, such as the Borders railway, that increase has been greater.
“It is also the case that in Scotland, recently reinstated lines, including Airdrie-Bathgate, Stirling-Alloa and Hamilton-Larkhall, have all easily outstripped their original passenger projections, which were all much more optimistic than the way we calculated things for the Borders railway.
“There is no doubt in my mind that with everything our region has to offer, the Borders railway will significantly boost visitor numbers.”
Mr Parker will doubtless stress the tourist potential of the route today when he faces a question from Conservative councillor Gavin Logan, who will ask: “With regard to the Borders railway project, can you give members an indication of the maximum financial cost that could be incurred by Borders council tax payers if there was a shortfall in developer contributions due to a prolonged downturn in the local housing market?”