by Phil Marsh

Borders line Campaigner’s fight broken political promises in Scotland.

Published: 27th January 2014

Transport Scotland held to account by Campaign for Borders Rail

The reconstruction of 30 miles of the former ‘Waverley Route’, now known as the Borders Line between Newcraighall and Tweedbank, is well underway and due to in September 2015. Good news then? To a degree but campaigners for the line, Campaign for Borders Rail (CBR) is asking why the original politicians’ promises have not been kept.

The Borders Railway was promoted and legislated for as an extension to the existing passenger train service from Newcraighall for two passenger trains per hour in each direction to Tweedbank.

Politicians’ Promise

The Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, said in Hawick on August 21 at a Scottish Parliament meeting that the line would attract tourist [charter] trains which would boost the local economy bringing thousands of tourists to the line. When the line was originally designed, just over half was to be double tracked but this has now been reduced by 40% from 16 miles to nine miles.

In addition to this, the politicians had said that trains would take 55 minutes to reach Edinburgh from the Tweedbank terminus to ensure trains would be competitive with road transport. The expected timetable has been released alongside the Scotrail enfranchising exercise and this shows a travel time of an hour and two trains an hour apart from Sundays, in each direction. This also shows that if any trains are more than two minutes late, then subsequent services will be delayed as there is no recovery time in the proposed track layout and timetable.

Political economies

The reduced amount of double tracking combined with the timetable means that it is physically impossible to schedule a charter train to run on the line apart from Sundays. Charter trains do not run on Sundays because of widespread engineering works bringing line closures. Local campaigners led by the CBR say that there are also no train paths for any freight services either as the half hourly Scotrail services will fill the line to capacity from day 1.

On November 4 at a Scottish Borders Planning Committee meeting, the proposal by the CBR that a double-track width new road over rail bridge at Falahill should be provided was rejected in favour of the proposed single track-width bridge. This means that future double-tracking on this section has been lost.

Rail.co.uk asked the Scottish Transport Minister Keith Brown, when charter and freight services would be able to operate and if Scotrail services’ reliability and punctuality would suffer with the reduced scope of the line.

The line is also being constructed for lightweight axle loading (RA3) trains which will bring significant speed restrictions for locomotive hauled charter trains which further throws into doubt how much use the lengthened island platform at Tweedbank will see.

Rail.co.uk assisted by local campaigners have been asking the Scottish Parliament what the difference in cost would be in providing a single line railway with high speed passing loops (as now planned) and associated signalling design and maintenance costs, compared with the costs of building a modern double track line from scratch.

They said

Mr Brown, Scottish Transport Minister replied: “Charter train promoters will be free to run services within the hourly evening and Sunday services. “This timetable provides opportunities for specialist charter train promoters to run excursions to the Borders, improving prospects for leisure and tourism in the region and helping promote economic growth.

In order to establish a firm cost estimate for doubling tracking the entire route, each structure along the route would need to be examined and the additional required land take assessed. Initial estimates put the cost of double tracking the route in the region of hundreds of millions of pounds”.

This begged some further questions as the reply was ambiguous compared to the First Minister’s statement to the Scottish Parliament in August. Mr Brown was asked to comment on the lack of genuine charter and freight train paths and how much the cost would really be to re-instate the originally proposed 16 miles of double track

Mr Brown said in response to the second set of questions;

“As a member of the Scottish Government, the Transport Minister is in very close contact with the First Minister and is – of course – well aware of and in agreement with the First Minister’s assertions on bringing tourist trains to the Borders Railway.

It is simply not the case that there is no meaningful facility for tourist trains. Charter train promoters will be invited to run services within the hourly evening and Sunday services.

The draft timetable provides opportunities for specialist charter train promoters to run excursions to the Borders, improving prospects for leisure and tourism in the region and helping promote economic growth.

Transport Scotland is satisfied that the timetable development for the Borders Railway has been modelled resulting in a high level of performance robustness.

On the Borders Railway, Network Rail will lay the track in the optimum position for operating on the current single track. This will mean in some areas it will be in the centre of the formation whilst in others it may indeed sit on an alignment where a second track could be laid alongside”.

To recap, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said on August 21 in Hawick that “It’s important that we maximise these opportunities, offering passengers every reason to travel on the new line, and I am delighted to announce that talks are now underway with charter train firms to ensure that people have an unforgettable experience travelling along this incredible rail route on some iconic rail engines.”

“We have already announced plans to expand the proposed new station at Tweedbank to cope with the influx of tourist trains expected on the line after its completion, and I hope that the glorious thought of some historic and symbolic trains winding their way down the new 30 mile track will be enough to tempt even more people to spend some time in the Borders.”

If the latest proposed design remains unchanged, it will also preclude a more intensive passenger service to operate in a few years if demand is strong or the line is reinstated back to Carlisle. Network Rail’s East of Scotland Director Alex Sharkey is quoted as saying “Build it and they will come”. He was predicting that the boom in Scottish rail travel would continue. Hopefully Transport Scotland will take note of railway professionals.

The railtour market view

Rail.co.uk contacted major charter train companies Compass Railtours and the SRPS Railtours. Compass’ Kevin Melia and Roger Haynes from Scottish Railway preservation Society (SRPS) Railtours echoed campaigners and the general charter industry views. Mr Melia said; “That realistically, as it stands, there is no opportunity to run charters from say West Yorkshire to Tweedbank because if Sundays are the only available day, engineering works will preclude these services.

On the other hand he says, there may be a chance to run charters from Tweedbank early in the morning and return in the evening, but this of course does not provide any local economic benefit”.

Mr Haynes said that the SRPS would actively look at running charters from Tweedbank but saw the timetable constraints as a barrier to running charters to Tweedbank. This included from within the Scottish lowlands as all trains would need to have a locomotive at each end making the cost of running trains prohibitive.

But Keith Brown reiterated that “Charter train promoters will be free to run services within the hourly evening and Sunday services. “This timetable provides opportunities for specialist charter train promoters to run excursions to the Borders, improving prospects for leisure and tourism in the region and helping promote economic growth.

Simon Walton from the CBR told rail.co.uk that: "The Campaign was of course delighted when Keith Brown announced that the Tweedbank terminus would be built to accommodate charter-length trains. It's just a pity that the line will have difficulty doing the same. While the length of loops has a potential impact on reliability of the scheduled service, as it stands the only charter capacity will be either in the evenings and on Sundays, neither of which are particularly attractive to operators."

Have we been here before in Scotland?

The 13 mile Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line was reopened five years ago after a gap of 40 years with no passenger trains at a cost of £80 million and is already in need of substantial repairs costing £20 million. Local rail experts are suggesting that this is due to cost cutting in the planning stages, strikingly similar with those on the Borders line. The line will be closed for a week at a time starting in February and further week long shutdowns will continue for the next few years for repairs to be made.

And finally!

The CBR has announced the news that ‘guidance’ issued by Transport Scotland for the next ScotRail franchisee requires the new operator to adjust the Borders Railway timetable to accommodate tourist charter trains. This emerged without warning from Transport Scotland so it seems that the campaigning has yet again held the politicians to account given the answers to questions made recently.

It now seems likely that when the line opens charter services may operate on Saturdays as Transport Scotland’s Draft Invitation to Tender for the ScotRail franchise [1] specifies (in Section 2.6) that:

“The Scottish Ministers consider that it is desirable to allow the operation of charter and tourist services by other operators on the Borders Railway to promote tourism. The Franchisee will be required to facilitate such operation, and cooperate through alterations to its regular timetabled service, at no additional cost.”

The CBR says that sensible campaigning has worked and said that: “working with Claudia Beamish MSP, we were instrumental in convincing Transport Minister Keith Brown that the platform tracks at the Tweedbank terminus should be lengthened to accommodate commercially viable charter trains and that CBR’s research demonstrated that route capacity had to be made available in the middle of the day on Saturdays to allow the Borders Railway to properly tap the charter market.

It seems likely that LNER A3 Flying Scotsman and LNER A4, Union of South Africa will officially open the line since Transport Scotland’s Draft Invitation to Tender for the ScotRail franchise specifies that:

“The Scottish Ministers intend that the opening of this railway should be a major celebration for the Borders and Midlothian communities along its route. The opening ceremony is expected to include celebratory steam hauled services. The Franchisee is required to cooperate with the organisation of this event.

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