‘So much passion can only rub off on you,’ said ScotRail driver manager, David Campbell as railway staff set to work on the new Borders Railway. The 31-mile Borders Railway grabbed headlines as the Queen travelled on the new line the day she celebrated becoming Britain’s longest ruling monarch.
Everyone is talking about the new railway, said David, particularly the friends and families of the new drivers.
David managed the driver training programme for the new line, something he also did for the new Airdrie-Bathgate line. But he had no doubt that the Borders will offer an interesting challenge for drivers. Airdrie-Bathgate has nothing to compare with driving a train at speed through the double S curves down the 1 in 70 gradient from the 880 ft Falahill summit.
For the new line, ScotRail had to train 54 of its drivers plus a small number of freight drivers who act as conductors on steam specials. Of these, 36 were existing drivers based in Edinburgh and 18 were newly recruited from the Borders region.
The driver’s route training requirement was based on a risk assessment which took account of a number of factors, says David, including gradients, number of stops and speed changes. It also considered the virtual reality model of the line. After discussion with trade unions, it was concluded that each driver needed five full runs on the line, plus a two- hour one-to-one briefing.
The full driving course for newly recruited Borders drivers also required use of the simulator. However, this was not used for route learning. Instead, it was used to simulate extreme conditions such as low adhesion and foggy weather that could not otherwise be easily incorporated into a driver training programme.
Yvonne Pilots Press Train
Driving the media preview train on 4 September was Edinburgh driver Yvonne Reid, who thinks the line is stunning. RailStaff was fortunate to have a place on the train – a Class 170 with a special Borders livery. There was a real buzz on the train. It was also a smooth ride. At one point, newspaper journalists could not believe that the train speed was 85 mph. However, Falahill summit was topped at 57 mph.
Service trains will be Class 158 units, 40 of which are being refurbished at Knorr-Bremse Springburn workshops as part of a £14 million modernisation programme that includes seats being better aligned to windows, better lighting, at-seat power sockets and improved accessibility.
Before the media train’s departure there was a photo-call which featured supermodel Anna Freemantle modelling Pringle knitwear.
An actor dressed as Sir Walter Scott travelled on the train, which stopped at Newtongrange next to the Scottish Mining Museum. Here school children dressed as miners greeted the train. This is also the stop for Rosslyn Chapel, of Da Vinci Code fame, where taxis will be on hand to take tourists to the chapel five miles away. Goodie bags with Borders produce were given to the journalists on the train.
All this hype was intended to promote the region as well as the new railway. Also on the train was Samantha Smith, of the Scottish Borders Council, who is the Borders Railway blueprint programme manager. The blueprint programme, set up in November, aims to realise the full economic benefits of the line.
There are 100 development sites along the line. These include a 4,000- home development at Shawfair and a Central Borders Business Park at the line’s Tweedbank terminus. In 2017, Tweedbank is also to be the home of the 160 panels of the Great Tapestry of Scotland. Samantha said the railway was a ‘game-changer’ for Midlothian and the Borders.
She anticipates a two-way flow of opportunities as the new rail connection makes the Borders more attractive to business to create jobs along the whole corridor.
The line’s most high-profile tourist initiative is its steam trains. Although this is a pilot scheme, it will no doubt be repeated, as its 10 steam trains up to 18 October are a sell out, with 4,000 tickets sold. However, equally important is giving those who use normal service trains easy access to tourist sites.
Samantha’s blueprint addresses this issue. She explained that local bus services have been extended in the evenings to connect with the train and that there is also a new Borders Weaver tourist service. This is a hop- on, hop-off bus in the same livery as the special Borders train which will call at Galashiels, Tweedbank, Melrose, Scots View, Dryburgh and St Boswell, and will give those using the train easy access to the local tourist sights. For those wishing to walk, Melrose Abbey is a pleasant two-mile walk along the River Tweed from Tweedbank station.
Wrong type of critic
Whilst the reaction to the railway in Scotland is mainly positive, the line does have its critics. Some consider that the line is not worth the money spent on it. It is true that, on paper, the £294 million Borders Railway had a marginal business case, with a return of only £1.50 for every pound invested. As this is below the 2:1 return set by the Department of Transport, the line would not have been built had it been south of the border.
However, Scottish Infrastructure Minister Keith Brown has no doubts that the new line offers good value for money, and that it will bring real benefits to people in the Borders. He noted that when the 13-mile Stirling to Alloa line was opened in 2008, it was expected to carry 80,000 passengers in its first year and actually carried 400,000 passengers.
Other critics consider a single line with dynamic passing loops to be shortsighted, especially as any weekday steam trains require the cancellation of a passenger train. Yet, had it been designed for a higher frequency service, or even with passive provision for double track throughout, it is doubtful that the line would have been built given the marginal nature of its business case.
As it is, there is passive provision for double track to Gorebridge, if a 15-minute service was to be required from Midlothian to Edinburgh. The line also has passive provision for electrification throughout. To get the required clearances for this, extra expenditure was required in Bowshank Tunnel, which is on one of the dynamic loops.
Onwards to Carlisle?
Opening this line has also prompted calls from campaign groups to re-open the closed Waverley route a further 17 miles to Hawick and eventually the remaining 35 miles to Carlisle at an estimated total cost of £500 million. Yet it was these campaign groups and local councils that made the case for the new Borders Railway, and 20 years ago, few would have imagined that the line would re-open.
It is 46 years and eight months since the Waverley route closed after Dr Beeching concluded that the line was not economically viable. If the enthusiasm that greeted the opening of the line generates the expected benefits, the new Borders line will prove him wrong.
Written by David Shirres
Photos courtesy of Visit Scotland