HomeHeritageA Scottish Romance - the rise and rise of Scottish Railways

A Scottish Romance – the rise and rise of Scottish Railways

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Report by Colin Garratt of Milepost 92 1/2

Railfuture Scotland has proposed reopening more lines and 50 new stations, publishing ambitious plans designed to maximise momentum on the resurgent railway. Single line track needs to be doubled and 23 short feeder lines, including seven existing freight lines, opened up for passenger services.

Once threatened with wholesale closure, Scotland’s railway has powered back with more freight and increased passenger volumes generating an urgent need for greater capacity. The fall and rise of Scotland’s railway perhaps best illustrates the phenomenon of rail resurgence now apparent across Britain and Ireland.

The day before I was asked to put this feature together, I found – in a second hand book store – a dramatic title called the Romance of Scotland’s Railways. An irresistible purchase, it brought memories of Scotland’s exuberant railway history flooding back.

The railway race to the north between the east and west coast routes in 1895 culminated in a time from King’s Cross to Aberdeen of 520 minutes. That’s 523 miles at an average speed of 60.6 mph – 120 years ago, the fastest sustained long distance running up to that time. The opening of the Forth Bridge, one of the railway wonders of the world, added to the romance informing the steel and stone miracle of Scotland’s rail industry. The famous Waverley route from Carlisle to Edinburgh traversed the often overlooked Lowlands, the line’s scenery comparable to the West Highland Line. In terms of wonder, the sight of one of Pickersgill’s beautiful D40 Class 4-4-0s from the Great North of Scotland Railway meandering across Speyside to meet the majestic Highland Railway at Boat of Garten is hard to beat. What wonderful names the Highland Railway bestowed upon its stations and steeds – often using Gaelic among the rivers, castles and clans. Were not the D40s the prettiest inside cylinder 4-4-0s ever built?


Caledonian Railway postcard, depicting engine driver John Souter and the Lambie No. 17 4-4-0 at the end of their record run from London (Euston) to Aberdeen on 23 August 1895.

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Fabled workshop

Scotland is a country of great contrasts. Consider the rural elegance of the north with the railway snaking through forest and glen, curving along a flat mercury-coloured loch, mountains soaring, the haunts of eagles and otters. But the train itself probably started its quiet journey amidst the industrial clamour of Glasgow, fabled workshop to the world.

The skills of Clydebank ship builders, foundrymen and engineers have never been surpassed. Scotland was locomotive builder to an empire and indeed the world. Scottish engineers dotted the planet with handsome, robust, locomotives and fleets of trains that united thousands of cities and towns.

By contrast it remains a disturbing thought that the dark days of the 1970s cast a sullen cloud over Scotland’s railway. Far away lines – both suburban and rural – were the subject of ugly discourse in Westminster as to whether Britain really needed a railway at all. Station and line closures were proposed and there were many ready to profit from the railway’s demise. The anti-rail lobby almost got away with it.

Closures were not just confined to small branch lines but also to main lines such as the Port line from Dumfries and Stranraer, the Strathmore line between Perth and Kinaber junction via Forfar and even the highly revered Waverley line from Carlisle to Edinburgh.

Undoubtedly it could have been far worse. In 1983 the Westminster government commissioned the infamous Serpell Report intended to come up with a list of lines across Britain which, if closed, would enable the railway to pay for itself and not rely on public funding. If Scotland’s section of the report had been implemented there would have been little left – no East Coast main line north of Newcastle and only Edinburgh and Glasgow served by the West Coast from Carlisle.


LNER ex GNSR 4-4-0 D40

Class No. 2280 ‘Southesk’ at Aberdeen in 1946.

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Green light

Analysts and bean counters failed to grasp public dependance on railways. The then Tory government, which commissioned the Serpell report, with a perception once thought rare, put it in the waste bin where it belonged.

A year later British Rail’s (BR) rising star, Chris Green, took over at ScotRail. Rapid change followed. Green reinvented the beleaguered Scottish railway system, giving it a new name and a new identity: ScotRail. The ‘r’is always a capital letter, emphasising the importance of the rail element to a resurgent and confident Scotland.

Green went on to prove that railways can be marketed as an idea not a means to an end. His two-year tenure saw the introduction of new rolling stock – namely 150s, 156s, and 158s DMUs and new Class 318s and 320s EMUs. Stations were spruced up and lamp posts painted red. Green had worked out that a substantial percentage of Scotland’s population lived within walking distance of a station. Professional marketing was brought in to play.

Staff were encouraged to adopt a ‘can do’ philosophy. Combined with effective management this resulted in better performance and greater job satisfaction. Green did much to bridge the us and them gap that still troubles the industry. For instance one legend has it that drivers on the West Highland Line had painted small West Highland terrier logos on their 37s. Middle management was all for scrubbing the dog logo off. Green heard of this and intervened, pronouncing that the terriers would stay on the engines. Staff initiative was to be encouraged. ‘Love me, love my dog,’ a ScotRail press officer quipped at the time.


Larkhall Station, built on the site of the old Larkhall Central Station which closed to passengers in 1965, reopening 40 years later in 2005.   

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Larkhall relaunch

Chris Green’s departure after only two years to create London’s mighty Network SouthEast was a loss to ScotRail. However, the seeds of resurgence had been sown and the benefits were to come. It was the reopening of the freight-only Bathgate line to passenger traffic in March 1986 which marked the start of line reopening in Scotland. Every reopening in Scotland since has exceeded expectations in terms of success. South Lanarkshire benefited in 2005 when Strathclyde PTE pulled off a real winner by reopening the Larkhall line (closed in 1965). This line was constructed on the trackbed of the former line from Hamilton to Hawkshead and reused the old Larkhall Central Station site, the platforms of which remained.

New stations reopened and new railways became part of ScotRail’s culture, it’s raison d’etre. BR’s Scottish Region had by now been replaced by an organisation intent on implementing new development schemes such as Conon Bridge and Beauly north of Inverness. Scotland’s track record is impressive compared with other parts of the UK. Seventy stations have been added to the Scottish rail map over the last 30 years. In 2005 responsibility for rail transport passed to the Scottish Government. In the 10 years since, rail passengers in Scotland have increased by 33 per cent to 88 million passengers a year.

The proposed reopenings make even more heady reading. The Scottish Government has provided funds to reopen the line from Stirling to Alloa – where the track has been lying derelict for several years. This was the reopening of an abandoned line on which the track was still in place.[/text_block_nav]

Construction site of Tweedbank station.

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Take it to Tweedbank

The rebuilding of the Waverley route, now the Borders Railway, first gathered momentum in 1994. The biggest challenge was to find a way to take the rails under the Edinburgh city bypass and across the A7 trunk road at Hardengreen, Gore Glen, Falahill and Galashiels. Road improvements had obliterated much of the formation, elsewhere the tunnels and the distinctive bridges over the Gala water which is crossed 13 times on the way south mark a superb peace of civil engineering conducted with minimal fuss and great aplomb.

The first section was authorised in the famous 114-1 vote by the Scottish Government in June 2006. Construction was begun by Network Rail in April 2013. Tracklaying began on the 8 October 2014 and should be complete in February. The present terminus at Tweedbank stands midway between Galashiels and the historic town of Melrose where the listed station building still stands by the Melrose bypass offering the tempting potential for future expansion south towards Hawick and Carlisle. Both are currently on the radar and once the line to Tweedbank opens on 6 September 2015 they are expected to be moved further up the lobbying agenda. This is truly the stuff of legend and the opening to Tweedbank will add another seven stations to the Scottish railway network.

There are a number of other reopening schemes now gathering momentum. Railfuture Scotland has identified further projects including the reintroduction of passenger services on eight existing freight lines, five new lines and the reopening of 11 lines on former formations. Incredible! Included is the line to Levenmouth, currently mothballed.

The freight-only Grangemouth line is heavily used for container traffic. The Edinburgh suburban line which runs from the East Coast line at Portobello to join the Carstairs line at Slateford is another line that frequently appears on the opening agenda. The line is currently used by freight trains bypassing Edinburgh Waverley. Many of the former stations remain in place albeit not in the best condition. A number of other lines and stations are suggested as additions to deal with the growing commuter requirements of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. Two further stations will open at East Linton and Reston as part of the new ScotRail franchise.

A local service will be introduced between Edinburgh and Berwick upon Tweed. This will relieve pressure on the heavily used line at Dunbar in particular. Other stations are already being planned such as Beattock on the West Coast main line amongst some 50 proposed by Railfuture and other campaign groups. Edinburgh airport is now served by the recently opened Edinburgh tram network, another aspect of social sanity where the steel rail replaces the rubber tyre.[/text_block_nav]

Construction progress at Stow as of December 2014.

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Return to St Andrews

The university city of St Andrews attracts students from all over the world, yet it relies these days on a bus link from Leuchars Junction on the Edinburgh – Dundee line. It is not surprising that the campaign to reintroduce rails into St Andrews is becoming more evident every year. The ancient historical city attracts many visitors but its streets are often gridlocked and its car parks full. The staging of the British Open and other major golf tournaments at the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, formed 1754, is another reason why a rail link would be desirable.

Even Kerr’s miniature railway in Arbroath bears testimony to the rail community’s indomitable will to survive. When the line suffered the sad death of Matthew Kerr II closure was feared. However, the Kerr family, along with a team of volunteers, have not just kept the railway thriving but have announced considerable extensions to the system – the first since 1931.[/text_block_nav]

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Bad Romance

When it comes to building railways and reopening stations, Scotland is an inspiration to the railway industry world wide. Transport Scotland has a pro-rail stance, one that builds rather than commissions yet more feasibility studies.

However, it is the passengers and railway staff that have come together to bring back Scotland’s railway. In such a small article it is hard to pay adequate tribute to the hard work of staff at Network Rail Scotland, ScotRail and the supporting army of contractors, local people and community partnerships. Station adopters have made a huge difference to wayside halts and urban stations alike.

For too long Scotland’s railways were caught in a bad romance. That’s all changing now as a confident Scotland reopens its railway, part of a dramatic gateway to a successful and prosperous future.[/text_block_nav]


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