Borders Railway: 1m passengers, but must improve

More than one million passenger journeys have been made on the Borders Railway between Edinburgh Waverley and Tweedbank near Melrose since it opened a year ago — far exceeding expectations and giving a huge boost to the Scottish Borders economy.

However, critics say the reliability of the service has to improve and serious plans should be made to extend the service to Carlisle via Hawick.

Such is the demand to travel on the line that more seats will be introduced on peak services next year along with plans to introduce longer trains on more services from 2018.

Investment of more than £14 million will be made in rolling stock and trains over the next two years.

Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf and ScotRail Alliance managing director Phil Verster unveiled the passenger numbers at a special event in Edinburgh Waverley to mark the line’s first birthday.

Tourist attractions in the Borders have been quick to see the benefits of the new line with Abbotsford House, Sir Walter Scott’s home, recording a 12% increase in visitor numbers this year.

Research by the Moffat Centre has shown that overall visits to Midlothian and Borders tourist attractions increased by 4% and 6.9% over the first seven months of 2016, compared to the same period last year.

Yousaf said: “I am delighted that we are continuing to see the Borders Railway go from strength to strength with over one million passengers using the line during its inaugural year.

“Not only has the railway linked the communities in the Borders and Midlothian with the wider Scottish rail network for the first time in 46 years, but the increased accessibility has breathed new life into the region, boosting tourism and employment opportunities.

“We are now committed to working with ScotRail to strengthen the railway operationally, increasing capacity and delivering a comprehensive programme of refurbishments to rolling stock, which will mean more passengers can travel in greater comfort in the future.”

One rail expert expressed scepticism.

David Spaven, author of Waverley Route: The Life, Death and Rebirth of the Borders Railway, told the BBC: “It is encouraging that the transport minister has now acknowledged the scale of the reliability problem on the Borders Railway, and hopefully the ScotRail Alliance improvement plan will be able to deliver some worthwhile enhancement of performance.

“But sadly, due to Transport Scotland’s lack of strategic vision over the last five years, there are underlying problems with the line’s largely single-track infrastructure and its Class 158 trains that cannot be fully resolved by any quick fix.”

Dominic Booth, managing director of Abellio UK, said: “As with anything new of this scale, we know there is room to strengthen and grow.

“We are excited about what lies ahead for the Borders line and are proud to be celebrating the first year, with a positive outlook of improvements and developments to come.”

Verster said: “The new line has brought the Borders closer to the economic and social opportunities of Edinburgh and given visitors to the capital a new way of reaching one of Scotland’s most beautiful and historic regions.

“We are very proud of the popularity of the new line, are striving to continually improve the service we offer on in it, and look forward to welcoming even more passengers aboard Borders’ services in the years ahead.”

Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, said: “Delivered on-time and to-budget in just two years, the completion of this line was a major engineering challenge.

“All those who worked on the project can be proud of the part they played in reconnecting communities in the Borders with the wider rail network.”

The Borders Railway project included constructing 30 miles of new railway and seven new stations – at Shawfair, Eskbank, Newtongrange, Gorebridge, Stow, Galashiels and Tweedbank.