David Spaven: Borders Railway could yet be a success

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IT is disappointing news that train timings on the Borders Railway starting in September have been further slowed – but no surprise. In 2009 Transport Scotland promised a maximum journey time of 55 minutes from Edinburgh to the Tweedbank terminus, but the writing was on the wall for that promise when the Scottish Government agency decided two years later to slash the provision of double track on the railway, from 16 miles to just nine-and-a-half miles. This made the reliable operation of a 55-minute timetable impossible, so Network Rail has been forced to add a time buffer to ensure that trains run as close to schedule as possible.

In fairness, the new train service will still utterly transform the quality of public transport between the western end of the Central Borders, Midlothian and Edinburgh. A comfortable train journey of 50-57 minutes from Galashiels to the heart of Edinburgh will be infinitely preferable to 83 minutes spent on the underwhelming X95 bus service labouring up the A7. From the park-and-ride facility at Tweedbank, peak-hour rail journey times of 61 minutes or less to the city will be a very attractive alternative to car commuting through Edinburgh’s growing road congestion. But in off-peak hours, when roads are much quieter, the now lengthened rail journey times will offer less pronounced advantages.

The way the Borders Railway infrastructure has been designed by Transport Scotland has clearly been sub-optimal, but that is water under the bridge – so what can be done to make the most of rail’s potential?

In the short term, Network Rail and ScotRail will need to devote resources to meticulous management of the new train service beginning on September 6. Looking at the wider picture, the Scottish Government – which is part-way through a £9 billion road building programme – urgently needs to invest in the long-overdue upgrade of the East Coast Main Line (ECML), from Portobello Junction (where the Borders Railway joins the main line) to Waverley Station. The junction is just single-track to the Borders Railway and the ECML has only two tracks all the way to the immediate approaches to Waverley, despite handling an array of local, regional and long-distance train services. These bottlenecks have to be cleared – not just for the sake of Borders Railway commuters but also to the benefit of the wider south-east Scotland rail network.

The “vision thing” has been notably absent from the detailed design of the Borders Railway – so now it’s time for the Scottish Government and its Transport Scotland agency to demonstrate that they really can think strategically.

David Spaven is author of Waverley Route: The Battle for the Borders Railway, to be published in June by Argyll Publishing