Transport chiefs accused of lack of vision over Borders Railway

The Borders Railway at Stow.
The Borders Railway at Stow.

Transport chiefs and campaigners have defended the Borders Railway following criticism that short-term thinking during its planning could hamper its potential for future expansion.

Independent think-tank Reform Scotland has hit out at cost-cutting compromises made during the building of the £350m Edinburgh Tweedbank track, saying that they will either end up costing taxpayers more in the long run or making any extension to Hawick or further south to England unviable.

Former MP Tom Harris.

Former MP Tom Harris.

In written evidence submitted to Transport Scotland’s rail infrastructure strategy consultation, Reform Scotland advisory board member Tom Harris, a former UK Government transport minister, slams the infrastructure choices made during the creation of the Borders Railway as short-sighted because it is not electrified and is mostly single-track, with bridges not built to accommodate any expansion to double-track capacity in future.

Mr Harris, a Labour MP for Glasgow South from 2001 to 2015, said: “We are in danger of missing the bigger picture when it comes to discussing rail in Scotland.

“What we actually need is an injection of some creative, strategic thinking so that we can give the Scottish people a rail system built for the future and one to be proud of.

“Reform Scotland believes that the Scottish Government should create a Scottish rail infrastructure commission to examine what ambitious, transformational projects and new railway lines we need to boost the Scottish economy and transform our connectivity as a nation.

“The Borders Railway showed us that there is an appetite for new railways in Scotland, but it also showed us that our thinking is too small and our planning too short-term.

“That ship has now sailed, but we must learn the lessons from it – think big, and plan long – and that is why the need for a commission is now critical.”

South of Scotland Coservative list MSP Rachael Hamilton has backed up that criticism, saying: “The Borders Railway has proven to be a success, but that success should not be limited – it should be boundless.

“Unfortunately, it appears the Scottish Government’s short-sighted view will mean Borders Railway’s full opportunity won’t be fully realised.

“We need to give the Borders Railway the support it needs and ensure it spreads more positive benefits to the Borders and to Midlothian.”

A Scottish Government spokesman defended the new railway, however, saying: “We were always confident that, in time, it would deliver major economic opportunities and attract new investment, so it is pleasing to see strong evidence that visits and spending are up significantly as a direct result of the new railway.

“With more than 1.2m passenger journeys in its first year alone, additional seats on peak-time services and more improvements and initiatives in the pipeline, we look forward to seeing even more investment and interest in the months and years ahead.

“We are grateful to Reform Scotland for its comments, as we are to all respondents to our consultation on our future investment strategy for Scotland’s railways. The think-tank has raised issues about structure and vision.

“While there will be different views on structures to realise the vision for Scotland’s railways, it is clear that the ambitions for our railway to be a driver of economic growth and a positive, integral part of our social fabric is an ambition that is shared right across Scotland.”

The Campaign for Borders Rail also believes that the opening of the 30-mile track in September 2015 should be hailed as a success story rather than lamented as an opportunity not fully exploited.

Group chairman Allan McLean said: “The most important fact is that there is a Borders Railway, which was built in the face of opposition.

“That railway has successfully attracted large numbers of people.

“What needs to happen now is that this success is built on by enhancing the existing railway and by extending it to serve more communities directly.

“Taking trains back though Hawick to and from England by Carlisle for the first time since 1969 would be wonderful.

“Galashiels has had trains again since 2015. Hawick deserves trains too.”