On September 6, the most remarkable reopening of a Beeching closed line will take place. The 30 mile long Borders Railway will be opened by non other than the Queen, marking a key point in railway history as it will give succour to campaigners around the country battling to restore lines. They will be heartened, too, by an analysis of reopenings which shows that passenger numbers have often greatly exceeded expectations.
In many respects, the Borders Railway which passes through sparsely inhabited – but beautiful – parts of southern Scotland is an unlikely candidate for reopening. Countless other similar lines were axed by Beeching and in many cases that was the correct decision given the economics and levels of usage. The closure in 1968 of the near 100 mile Waverley line which ran from Carlisle to Edinburgh via Hawick and Galshiels was typical of many of the lines felled by the Beeching axe. A combination of high costs – 26 staffed signal boxes and
24 mostly staffed stations – together with declining passenger numbers and an apparent lack of interest by BR in boosting freight use or tourist traffic according to the excellent new book on the line, Waverley Route by David Spaven. In the standard BR way, services were cut back, the rolling stock was in poor condition and there was a general air of malaise which inevitably led to closure proposals.
Closure was announced in 1966 and was hotly contested locally with the Scottish Office being opposed but transport minister Richard Marsh, later to head British Rail, announced the final decision in July 1968. Spaven points out that actually the Waverley route, shorter but with greater gradients, could have been chosen as the principal route linking Carlisle with Edinburgh. In fact, it could have been the Carstairs that would have been closed, given it went through an even more sparsely populated region than the Waverley line, but Marsh decided it should be the latter.
It has been a long battle by the campaigners. The reopening was first mooted in the late 1990s by a group of local authorities but foundered when Transport Scotland tried to persuade the private sector to carry out the project through a design, build and operate contract. Like many such schemes, it was all too complicated given that a proper survey had not been conducted and there were difficult legal hurdles to be overcome. The bidders withdrew before any contract was let. That was probably fortunate given what happened to the Edinburgh tram project which also suffered from complexity and an attempt to pass risk on to the private sector.
It was the establishment of Scotland’s devolved Parliament that led to the plan’s revival. The Bill enabling the line to be reopened was passed in 2006 but without any funding being available. Eventually, Transport Scotland abandoned the idea of trying to persuade the private sector to take on risk and, instead, asked Network Rail to run the project and eventually take over the infrastructure. BAM, the Dutch firm (formerly known as Bam Nuttall), was appointed contractor for the project priced at £294m – although pre-contract makes the total cost nearer £350m.
The key question is what is the line for? Having visited the line during construction and seen the remoteness of much of the country, it is clearly not going to be a cheek by jowl standing room only kind of railway. For most of the day, there will be a half hourly service and an hourly one in the evening (there will be trains late enough to attract people going into Edinburgh for evening entertainment), though it will be possible to run more trains in the northern section nearest Edinburgh if there is sufficient demand.
The line has been planned largely as a commuter line, with some scope for tourism. It is, though, its regenerative effect that is crucial and will need to succeed, given the range of opponents who argued it will be a white elephant. Both the mines and the textile industry that once were the lifeblood of Midlothian are long gone, and unemployment in some of the local towns is up to 30 per cent, so regeneration was one of the key reasons behind the Scottish Government’s decision to reopen the route.
The benefit cost ratio for the project, on which the business case rests, was particularly weak, barely 1 to 1, and consequently it is very much a political project. It is, too, a rather spartan railway, single track throughout with few passing loops and no sidings, which will make it operationally difficult if there are problems. David Spaven interestingly muses on what might have happened had the axe never fallen. He suggests the whole area might well prospered had the line been retained. He suggests that the line would not only have been useful as a diversionary route, but would have attracted tourist trains given the beauty of parts of the journey. By the 70s and 80s, he reckons that from the experience of other railways radiating from Edinburgh, there would have been considerable expansion in services and, indeed, ‘a rail-connected Central Borders wouldhave become an increasingly attractive location from which to commute to Edinburgh’.
Now, there are plans to build more houses and it may be, that like other reopened lines, numbers exceed expectations. Certainly, Scottish ministers are optimistic: ‘The lesson we’ve learned from previous rail developments we’ve undertaken is when we complete them, the usage of the railway is significantly greater than we ever estimated’ he told the Border Telegraph last month. Ken Sutherland, the Railfuture’s Scottish development officer, has uncovered figures for many reopenings in both Scotland and Wales and found that nearly all have exceeded predicted numbers. He cites as examples the Edinburgh – Bathgate line reopened in 1986 where trains are now carrying four times as many passengers compared with the original extimate and the same goes for stations such as tiny Beauly station where 57,000 now use it annually, more than double the predicted number when the go ahead for the reopening in 2002 was given.
This, of course, begs the question of the methodology used to predict usage. Sutherland points out that ‘Household surveys (either based on home visits or card return questionnaires , supplemented by roadside cordon sampling surveys, yield more accurate and useful accurate projections of future rail usage’ than conventional surveys which use the traditional theoretical modelling approach and are currently the basis for appraisals.
This has implications for other reopenings. Of course local circumstances are different, but this approach suggests a more accurate way of forecasting future demand and the ‘business cases’ (I use inverted commas because of my scepticism about their value) could look significantly better. In particular, this is important in trying to convince Local Enterprise Partnerships, the business-led local agencies that are flush with cash compared with local authorities but often have a road bias in their transport thinking. Success for the Waverley route will certainly encourage other schemes but if pick up is slow, then it may prove the opposite.
Network Rail and the money go round again
Here we go again. The Office of Road and Rail (can’t quite get used to that name) is again thinking of administering a bit of corporal punishment to Network Rail. The infrastructure company is on the naughty step for failing to meet punctuality targets on Southern, Govia Thameslink and Scotland and the ORR said Network Rail failed ‘to do everything reasonably practicable to deliver the reliability and punctuality’ required by the regulator.
The ORR points to numerous failings, many of which seem very basic such as timetables that are unworkable and weaknesses in the data that are used to draw them up. The difficulty, of course, is how to respond. Insiders in ORR know full well that it has always been completely daft to fine the company and it is now even more ridiculous given that it is on the government’s books. So ORR is saying that Network Rail has the opportunity to offer ‘reparations for affected passengers instead of having to pay the fine’
Frankly, I am not sure that works as an idea either. Paying back a few bob to thousands of passengers is pertty much a waste of their time and our money. In reality, the whole idea of punishing Network Rail financially is daft and the regulator should give up on it, using instead reputational damage and publicity rather than fines.