A new rail line to England borders on the absurd

A new rail line to England borders on the absurd

by Jonathan Stanley
article from Monday 17, April, 2017

I REMEMBER my first model airplane and also my last. It was the same one. The Boeing 747 didn't turn out so well, even with dad's help. It was just not in our blood to make model airplanes. Every now and then we'd get it out the shed, have a cup of tea and add to the glue encrusted Frankenstein before loosing faith and shelving it again for a few more weeks.

The SNP has its own maladroit, melancholic model airplane it occasionally tickers with and that is the Borders railway. A feasibility study has been launched to extend it to Carlisle and I can't help thinking, 'oh dear, is there an election on?' It seems strategic to have a third railway from Scotland to England in case of a line going down and finally reunite the denizens of Hawick with humanity and with England too.

Except of course that it isn't a third line to anywhere. It would be a second line from Edinburgh to Carlisle and as lovely as Carlisle is in July it's hardly worth it. Claims are made it would be useful in case either of the other two lines went down because of, say, bad weather that hit the west and east coast but skipped Melrose. 

This is really a study of nodes and networks and critical paths. The origin of the route would be Edinburgh as any destination north would have the existing Edinburgh Carlisle route to compete with it. The destination would be Carlisle, as everything after Carlisle would follow the same route: the West Coast Main Line. 

Any increase in reliability earned from a second Edinburgh Carlisle line could only happen between these nodes, which is not very far at all. The current route is not congested and though south of Wigan capacity restraints are an issue this would affect the new line too. 

A quick look at the timetable from the old Waverley Route in the 1960s shows the case is dire (see above). This was always a slow line and was not built to be otherwise, given it started as a freight route. Being single track has, likewise, restricted capacity already for the new Borders railway. Back in the 60s Edinburgh to Galashiels took an hour, now it's about 50 minutes, assuming it arrives on time. Edinburgh to Carlisle via Hawick took 2 and half hours! Stopping at every station took it up to 3 hours. Assuming there were no stops between Edinburgh and Carlisle maybe we could get it down to say two and a quarter or even two. If so what would be the point if it misses out all the newly reconnected stations? 

The current service takes about one and a half hours so one assumes the business case for extending the borders railway to Carlisle is to service the Borders and to add spare capacity just in case the current line goes down north of Carlisle. For £1.5 billion? Really? This is madness. An express bus service through Hawick to Carlisle from Galashiels could be run for free for no more than a few million a year at the most. 

The current Borders rail only made sense as far as Gorebridge and the first year saw many passengers take the train for the novelty, we are nowhere close to having multiyear data showing a viable trade. Even if there turns out to be an evidence-based case, the Borders line to Tweedbank to is a commuter service without a rail competitor and cannot be used to model what would be a long distance line to duplicate an existing one.

Could it be, possibly, that in the 40-odd years since St. Boswells was dragged out of British Rail's splendid service against its will that people have gotten used to not living in the fast lane? Not one family in Hawick lives on their knees praying for the rail to return. We have as a nation become far more footloose through mass car ownership than we were back then. Those who live far from the madding crowd do so out of choice, and not without good reason. 

The Waverley Route was closed for a reason and if there had never been a route back then would we even consider one today? Mansfield has a rail service through the Robin Hood Line linking it to Worksop and Nottingham. Reopened after many decades it was planned to take rail freight and be extended to surrounding villages. It never happened. Mansfield has 100,000 people and Hawick has fewer than 15,000. Most villages along the Waverley route add up to nothing close to Mansfield. Nonetheless the line lost its Sunday service after it was revealed to continue public subsidy would cost £50 per passenger trip, more expensive than taking a taxi. 

We have learned lessons UK-wide on rail reopenings. Romantic as they are they have proven repeatedly to offer marginal returns on investment at best and are funded by taxation instead of local land taxes which would be much more preferable. We have a half decent and expensive Tweedbank commuter service to Edinburgh now, taking traffic of roads that are already hardly overused. The extension to Carlisle would be for a totally different indication for a service slower than the current one. 

Let's call a halt to this nonsense now instead of wasting more time and money on feasibility studies we know the answer to. There are disused stations at Beattock and Symington that could be redeveloped for a tiny fraction of this project's cost and connect as many people. Both in the Secretary of State's seat. I don't hear him shouting from the rooftops for them. There may be a reason for that.

Pictured: The old signal box at Shankend viaduct on the Waverley Route.


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