Borders Railway extension vital to get region’s economy back on track after lockdown, say campaigners

Extending the Borders Railway into England would help redress the damage being done to the region’s economy by the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, according to campaigners.

A Borders Railway service at Galashiels station.
A Borders Railway service at Galashiels station.

Though the lockdown imposed in March has already led to plans being announced to shut hotels, offices and factories, putting hundreds of Borderers out of work, the Campaign for Borders Rail insists the improved transport links such an extension would deliver would be more vital than ever to help surviving businesses get back on their feet and attract new ones.

Initially at least, it looks certain that hundreds fewer people will have workplaces to go to, and that a larger proportion of those who do will opt instead to work from home more of the time, potentially reducing the number of journeys being made on public transport, but the campaign believes better rail links could have a crucial role to play as the region’s economic fortunes recover.

Campaign secretary Nick Bethune, writing in the organisation’s latest newsletter, says: “Despite the trend for increased home working given impetus by the crisis, it’s clear that the capacity and coverage of the rail network will need to expand in future.

“That’s because of the changes in strategic priorities needed to address the climate emergency and inclusivity goals.

“The new normal might be very different, but the vital need to extend the Borders Railway remains.”

Campaign chairman Simon Walton agrees, adding: “Governments on both sides of the border, and elected representatives from all political persuasions, are united in the understanding that economic development is vital if there is to be a meaningful recovery.

“Infrastructure which demonstrably supports both commerce and community is the best way to invest in that recovery.

“The evidence of the success of the existing Borders Railway, and other rail-based projects nationwide, gives precedent to the business case made by the campaign.

“It is our commitment to push for that consensus to be turned into commitment and move as rapidly as possible through the stages of development and construction to completion and operation.

“We are facing a worldwide crisis that transcends any of our own ambitions.

“Our lives and livelihoods are in turmoil.

“There are stresses and anxieties most of us will never have faced before.

“We are tied down, in a cycle of isolation and immobility, but not for ever. Of this, we must not lose sight.

“When this crisis in our lives has passed – and it will pass – we will have experienced the very best that our community has to offer.

“Our nation will have pulled together in ways we may not have thought possible. We have demonstrated how important it is to pool our resources and value what we have to offer, wherever we are.

“For these reasons, our campaign is more important than ever.

“Bringing communities together, making it more possible to communicate with each other, will be even more important.

“Better connecting parts of the Borders to each other, and to those communities around us, will be recognised for its true worth.

“More importantly, there will be a need to better define our sense of national purpose.

“Projects that bring people together, and serve a national purpose too, will be the most important part of that recovery.

“There is one project of which I can think that answers all those calls and defines our recovery.

“That project is the completion of the Borders Railway.

“Our movements may be restricted for now, but our ambition remains unbounded.”

South Scotland Scottish National Party list MSP Paul Wheelhouse is also optimistic about the campaign’s prospects of success, saying: “Communities like Hawick and Newcastleton, and others along the route, would, I am sure, see significant regeneration and economic development opportunities fulfilled by overcoming their comparative disadvantages in terms of accessibility to tertiary education, health and local and wider employment and economic development opportunities.

“An extension would open communities to inbound, sustainable tourism, jobsand housing-led regeneration.”

Extending the £353m Borders Railway, opened in September 2015, from Tweedbank to Hawick, via Melrose, would add about 17 miles to its current 30-mile length, and carrying on to Carlisle, via Newcastleton, reviving the old Waverley Route closed in 1969, would require another 50-plus miles of track on top of that.

A £10m feasibility study into such plans is being carried out as part of the UK and Scottish governments’ joint Borderlands growth deal and is expected to yield two separate reports.