Published: 15 September 2016
The Borders Railway running between Edinburgh and Tweedbank has just celebrated its first anniversary and in the first year of operation carried far more passengers than was forecast. But unfortunately the punctuality and train reliability fell way below the anticipated level and this was the subject of campaigners’ worries years before the line was built.
The first anniversary of the opening of the Borders Railway is an occasion to look to the future, the Campaign for Borders Rail has said.
But despite the problems which have seen buses replace trains due to unreliable 25 year old Class 158 trains the Campaign for Borders Railway (CBR) says that the passenger numbers demonstrate the need to extend the railway to Carlisle after the enhancement of the existing Borders Railway has been carried out.
“Official studies into the potential for future extension of rail services to bring direct benefits to even more places should be seen as just the beginning of the next stage of railway development in the Scottish Borders,” said Allan McLean, the retired railway manager who chairs the Campaign for Borders Rail (CBR).
“I appreciate that it will take time to extend the railway. In the meantime, there is an opportunity to enhance the existing service to make it more reliable. Cancellations and delays to the current trains must not hinder future development. In fact, recent experience can inform the future so that lessons are learned to maximise the very real benefits that a reliable train service can bring.”
He added that forecasters had got it wrong when they seriously underestimated the number of passengers who would be attracted to the new line between parts of the Borders and Edinburgh through Midlothian.
“The experience of serving many more people than the numbers of passengers officially expected should help inform preparations for future services. Problems that have been experienced can be overcome and should not hinder progress towards extension of the railway.”
The CBR initially campaigned to reopen the line, closed in 1969 and once political approval for this was announced, they criticised the layout and operating procedures and consequential timetables saying that paring back the double track by 50% would lead to delays. Several sections of track have been constructed using bridges that can only accommodate one line rather than two which has created several pinchpoints on the 32 mile route.
As the CBR says, more double track allows greater flexibility of operations and better reliability. Infrastructure improvements have been proposed separately for the eastern side of Edinburgh which would benefit long-distance trains on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) and local services between Edinburgh and East Lothian.
This would improve the operation of the Borders Railway as it joins the ECML on a stretch of speed-restricted single track at Portobello Junction, about three miles east of Waverley station.
Too many cancellations and delays leads to £14million improvement project
The CBR says that there have been too many cancellations and delays on the Borders Railway which can be surmounted by replacing the unreliable Class 158 two-car diesel trains (used across the UK) with more powerful newer Class 170 three-car diesels.
Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf announced a package of measures to improve the Borders Railway service on the first anniversary of the line’s re-opening. He blew out the first candle at Waverley Station and then announced a ScotRal Alliance £14 million improvement plan to include replacing the unreliable Class 158 diesel trains and to work on the unreliable signalling system.
They said: Mr Yousaf said: "Not only has the railway linked communities in the Borders and Midlothian with the wider Scottish rail network for the first time in 46 years, but the increased accessibility has breathed new life into the region, boosting tourism and employment opportunities. "Performance on this line in my view has not been acceptable. "I am pleased the ScotRail Alliance has put together an improvement plan. "I will push them to do that as quickly as possible, and expect reliability to be significantly improved.
The first week in September should have seen 132 scheduled trains but six were cancelled and 90 were late - only 36 arrived at Tweedbank on time and punctuality has never provided right-time arrivals higher than 70 per cent across any one week since last October and recently dipped below 30 per cent.
Railway campaigner and author David Spaven said that although he was pleased with the announcement he warned not to expect a quick fix. "It is encouraging that the Transport Minister has now acknowledged the scale of the reliability problem on the Borders Railway. "But due to Transport Scotland’s lack of strategic vision over the last five years, there are underlying problems with the line’s largely single-track infrastructure and its Class 158 trains that cannot be fully resolved by any quick fix."
ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster was delighted that well over one million passenger journeys had been made since the opening last year.
He said: "We are very proud of the popularity of the new line, are striving to continually improve the service we offer on in it, and look forward to welcoming even more passengers aboard Borders services in the years ahead.”
More seats will be introduced on peak services next year along with plans to introduce longer trains on more services from 2018 – providing longer term increases in capacity. These improvements include fitting power sockets, flooring, lighting, painting, re-livery and creating spaces for wheelchairs.
Managing Director of operators Abellio UK, Dominic Booth, added: “As with anything new of this scale, we know there is room to strengthen and grow.
"We are excited about what lies ahead for the Borders line and are proud to be celebrating the first year, with a positive outlook of improvements and developments to come."