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by Mark Smith
21 May 2024
Connecting Scotland: How opening stations along the rail network is bringing new opportunities

Tweedbank station | Alamy

Connecting Scotland: How opening stations along the rail network is bringing new opportunities

It wasn’t easy for Mairead Wilson before the trains came. Getting home to her parents in Ayrshire, or going up to Glasgow to see her boyfriend, or trying to have a night out in Edinburgh, was a nightmare of slow, unreliable buses on long, windy roads. “It was so bad,” she says. “Awful.”

Then, in 2015, things changed. The Borders railway reopened and a journey from Galashiels to Edinburgh that by bus took an hour and 35 minutes (on a good day) was cut to under an hour by train. Suddenly, Mairead, in her second year studying textiles at Heriot-Watt University’s campus in Galashiels, could get around much more easily and conveniently. Life got better.

It was similar for Lucille Paterson, who’s 77 and remembers the original Borders line when she was growing up in Selkirk in the 50s and 60s. In those days, she says, she’d go up to Edinburgh for rugby internationals or to see friends and the service was quick and reliable which made the closure of the line in 1969 an especially big blow. Lucille says some parts of the Borders have still never recovered from it.

Since 2015 however, Lucille has seen the positive effects of the reopening. Lots of new houses. Lots of people commuting. More tourists. The property market in Gala thriving. And a relatively healthy high street (the town has the only McDonalds in the Borders, which Lucille’s grandchildren are particularly pleased about). Lucille can also scoot up to Edinburgh to see her partner or go shopping. “I use the train all the time,” she says.

Is it enough though? The Borders railway has certainly brought personal, cultural and economic benefits to the communities along the line and the network is being expanded in other parts of Scotland too. New stations have been built on the East Coast mainline at Reston and East Linton, and early next month part of the Fife coastal route will be reopened at Levenmouth, which, like the Borders, will bring train services to the area for the first time in 50 years.

But Scotland can still be a hard place to get around and there are people in some communities who think we should be doing much more to expand the railway. Last month, campaigners from the town of Winchburgh delivered a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for a new station that would connect them to the Glasgow-Edinburgh line. Many in Hawick have also seen the benefits the train has brought to Galashiels and are campaigning for the Borders line to be extended to their community and beyond.

Christine Grahame, the SNP MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale, was one of the leading campaigners for the reopening of the Borders line and says the positive effects she’s seen in Galashiels and elsewhere in the region make a strong case for an extension.

“I’ve been representing the area for 25 years,” she says, “and I started out when textiles were still on the go. There was a factory in Innerleithen which employed 250 people, but in a very short time, with cheap imports and everything else, that all went and it really was in a bad way in terms of employment and tourism. So I was determined the line should be reopened because I could see the possibilities.”

She says many of the possibilities have been fulfilled in the nine years since the line has been reopened. “We have big housing developments at Newtongrange and Gorebridge and over time what was the fulcrum in the Borders, which was Hawick, has shifted to Gala. Businesses come because that’s where the footfall is.”

This is one of the reasons campaigners in Hawick are fighting so hard for the line to be extended. Chair of the Campaign for Borders Rail Marion Short says her town is still facing the problems Gala faced before the Borders reopening.

“We still rely heavily on cars in Hawick,” she says. “There are bus services but they’re not totally reliable, they’re not always on time and they don’t even fit in with the Borders railway. Hawick is also the largest town in the Borders but does not have a direct bus link with the hospital in Melrose.”

Short also believes some of Hawick’s economic and social issues are a direct result of not having a trainline. “When I first came to Hawick in 1975, it had a population of 18,000; it’s now down to 14,500. We cannot keep young people because if they want suitable employment they have to move elsewhere. One of our housing estates is also classed as an area of social deprivation so it’s necessary for us to have the same facilities and be connected. We’ve suffered for the lack of the train.”

Peter Heubeck, a former project manager with Railtrack and a supporter of the extension to Hawick, agrees with Short and says the regenerative effect has been seen with other projects, such as Airdrie-to-Bathgate which was reopened to passenger services in 1986. He says that although there’s a reluctance from government to expand the railway because it takes a lot of subsidy, the Airdrie line is a good example of the possible returns: it revolutionised travel for work, education and leisure in the area and, like the Borders, stimulated inward investment and housing.

“Airdrie to Bathgate and the Borders could be held up as shining examples of Network Rail being very efficient,” says Heubeck, “because although they are both expensive projects, for what you got, they were excellent value for money. The benefits are multi-layered. You make it easier for people to get to other places, you make it easier for people to travel to the area quicker, and you make it easier for people to travel within the area more quickly, more easily and in a greener way.”

Part of the Fife coastal route is set to reopen

The environmental benefit is one of the arguments the campaigners for the new station at Winchburgh have been making. The West Lothian town is being rapidly developed – ten years ago it was home to 2,400 people, it is now nearly 5,000 – and an independent report commissioned by the developers from the consultants Systra suggested opening a station could remove an estimated 500,000 car journeys off the major central belt motorways every year.

The people who live in Winchburgh also face a lot of the same problems of the people in Hawick. On the bus trip to Holyrood to deliver their petition, I speak to 32-year-old Amy Stewart who’s come along with her baby son Ruaridh. “The bus is unreliable, busy and it’s quite slow,” she says. She believes not only would the train be much quicker (about 15 minutes into Edinburgh) it would be used by people from a much wider area than Winchburgh.

Sue Webber, Conservative MSP for Lothian, was one of the MSPs who collected the petition from the Winchburgh campaigners and says their arguments make sense.

“My sister moved into Winchburgh and bought a house there on the premise that there was going to be a station,” she says. “No one wants to go and sit on a bus for 45 minutes on a good day and if we’re going to get anywhere near meeting our net zero ambitions, this is the only way forward.”

Whether the Winchburgh or the Borders extension will happen is uncertain; Transport Scotland says it is supportive of Winchburgh and both it and Borders Council say they are committed to enabling the Borders extension to go ahead (£10m has been set aside by the Scottish and UK Governments to develop it). After a meeting in Galashiels last month to discuss the plans, transport secretary Fiona Hyslop also said the Borders line demonstrated how transport could be a key driver of economic growth.

People in Galashiels know that’s true because they’ve seen it for themselves. Mairead Wilson, who’s now settled in the area and works at Sinclair Duncan Textiles, says the train is not without its downsides – it’s helped to increase property prices, for example, making it harder for young people to buy – but she also believes it’s helped to maintain the textile industry by making it easier to work in the area and get around.

On the whole, Mairead also believes the train is a good thing for the next generation and therefore good for the town as a whole. “In the past, a lot of young people would have said ‘I’m out of here’,” she says. “But now they have the option of staying in Gala and working in Edinburgh and that would never have happened before.”

Christine Grahame also believes the wider benefits are clear. “You could build another lane on a motorway or another road,” she says, “but you just get more cars on it; that’s what happens. But with trains, you’re investing in something that takes cars off the road, that’s eco-friendly, that’s safe and lasts for decades. I can’t see anything negative about it at all, I really can’t.”

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