Borders Railway Reopening: South West Scotland Next?

In the face of fierce local opposition, the 98 mile Carlisle to Edinburgh railway was closed in 1969. In 1992, Borders Transport Futures was set up and proposed opening the southern section of the route for timber transport in 1997. In 1999, a £400 000 report on the possibility of re-opening the line was commissioned. This recommended partial re-opening of 31 miles of the route as far as Tweedbank. In September 2015 this was achieved. If the venture proves successful, supporters of the railway hope to add a further 67 miles of track to reach Hawick and Carlisle. The main cost of an extension would be the need to re-align the Melrose by-pass which was built over and along part of the track-bed.

The closure of the Edinburgh-Carlisle route was proposed in 1963 because it was running at an annual loss of £ 113 000 according to Dr Richard Beeching’s report ‘The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways’. Strong opposition delayed closure for six years but ultimately arguments based the need to provide a £700 000/ year subsidy to keep the whole line open or £390 000 for the Edinburgh – Hawick section prevailed.

Waverely Line before Closure

Waverley Line before Closure

The Edinburgh-Hawick part of the route was opened in 1849 and the Hawick-Carlisle section in 1862. To the west, a railway route from Carlisle to Glasgow reached Dumfries in 1850. Dumfries was then linked to Stranraer in 1861 and Portpatrick in 1862. This railway was built to serve the shortest sea crossing between Britain and Ireland.

While the Portpatrick branch was a failure, Stranraer became the main ferry port for passenger and freight services to the north of Ireland. However, the introduction of roll-on/ roll-off vehicle ferries on the Stranraer-Larne route in the 1950s led to an increase in the importance of road transport on the short sea crossing.

The railway system in Galloway pre-1965

The railway system in Galloway pre-1965

As well as a reduction of through traffic on the rail route, by the early 1960s most of the stations between Dumfries and Stranraer were losing out to road transport. According to the Beeching report, of the 15 passenger stations between Dumfries and Stranraer, only Castle Douglas and Newton Stewart were profitable and of the 20 stations served by freight trains (including those on the freight only Whithorn branch) only 7 were profitable. The railway from Ayr to Stranraer had similar problems with only two out of nine stations attracting viable numbers of passengers and two out of 12 freight served stations paying their way.

Freight traffic in south of Scotland 1963. Red stations generated less than £5000 of traffic per year.

Freight traffic in south of Scotland 1963. Red stations generated less than £5000 of traffic per year.

Passenger traffic in south of Scotland 1963. Red stations sold less than £5000 worth of tickets per year.

Passenger traffic in south of Scotland 1963. Red stations sold less than £5000 worth of tickets per year.

Dr Beeching’s axe therefore fell on the lines west of Dumfries and south of Ayr. While there was local opposition to the proposals, opposition from businessmen and politicians in the north of Ireland had more weight. In the days before the rise of air travel, the most convenient route for high status travellers between Belfast and London was via the Stranraer-Euston sleeper train.

While researching his book ‘Last Trains- Dr Beeching and the Death of Rural England’ (Biteback Books, 2013), Charles Loft found government correspondence about the lines to Stranraer. Complete closure of both lines would save £300 000, while closure of the Dumfries -Stranraer line only would save £236 000. By upgrading a freight only line via Mauchline in Ayrshire, a sleeper service to Stranraer for Belfast could be maintained. This offer proved acceptable to Northern Irish businessmen and politicians so the rail link from Ayr to Stranraer was saved.

The more direct line between Dumfries and Stranraer along with its branch lines to Kirkcudbright and Whithorn was not saved. All were closed in June 1965, although the track on the main line was kept in place until 1968 in case the decision was reversed. It wasn’t.

Fifty years after the last train to Stranraer (and Kirkcudbright), could the line be re-opened? As things stand today, the answer is no. However, any future moves, driven by climate change, towards a low carbon economy and society could change this to a ‘maybe’.

The biggest obstacle to re-opening is the shift to road and air transport which have taken place since the line was closed. When the line was built road transport was horse-powered and air transport had not been invented. This meant that apart from a lengthy sea voyage between Liverpool and Belfast, a railway was the only practical way to move people and freight between England and the north of Ireland.

The short sea crossing still exists, but flying is now an alternative option. Back in the 1960s and 70s it could take four hours to reach Stranraer from Gretna on the old A75. But with all the major towns including Dumfries by-passed and many rural sections dramatically straightened, the journey time has been cut to two hours. This has increased the attractiveness of the short-sea crossing for long distance road traffic and made the A75 more convenient for regional road traffic.

To give a rough idea of the problem, although approximately 1 million people used the Stranraer (now Cairnryan) ferries annually between 2002 and 2014, on average only 46 000 passengers per year used Stranraer station. Over the same period, Dumfries station averaged 351 000 passengers/ year. In contrast, the new Borders railway is expected to carry 600 000 passengers/ year, rising to 1 million in 5 years. To match this number, every single person using the Cairnryan to Larne or Belfast ferries would have to take the train…

For long distance freight to and from Ireland, road traffic has an a over rail traffic. In Britain the standard railway gauge is 4 feet 8 ½ inches. In Ireland it is 5 feet 3 inches. It was and still is not possible to use ferries to transfer railway wagons from Ireland to Britain. This problem does not affect lorries so the ferries serving Stranraer and now Cairnryan carry over 3.5 million tonnes of road freight annually and more than 250 000 long distance lorries use the A 75 each year.

In addition to the long distance road traffic, the A75 and its feeder roads carry timber traffic from the region’s forests and short distance freight traffic serving businesses (including farms) as well as goods and parcels to households. Before the Beeching cuts, the railways provided a comprehensive parcels and goods service using the thousands of small urban and rural railway stations built by the Victorians and a huge fleet of delivery /collection vehicles. It was a very useful service, but not a very profitable one.

Before 1914, the British rail network was 23 440 miles long. This had been cut down to 18 000 miles by 1963, when Dr Beeching recommended closing a further 8000 miles. Today there are 9788 miles of railway track managed by Network Rail. At roughly £10 million/mile for the new Borders railway to re-instate the Dumfries to Stranraer line would cost £700 million and to reverse the Beeching cuts would cost £80 billion. A very large number, but one which is still less than the £100 billion (over 40 years) cost of renewing the Trident nuclear missile system.

Scottish railway lines proposed for closure in 1963 shown black.

Scottish railway lines proposed for closure in 1963 shown black.

Current Scot Rail Map

Current Scot Rail Map

The argument for investing £100 billion in the renewal of Trident is that it is an insurance policy against possible future threats to the security of the UK. The UK never used its previous nuclear deterrents and even supporters of Trident renewal hope it will never be used.

In contrast, the argument for a similar level of investment in expanding Britain’s rail network is the existence of a known threat to our future. The known threat is climate change driven by global warming. To limit the damage climate change is going to cause we need to cut the amount of oil and coal we burn. Railways have an advantage over road (and air transport) when this factor is taken in to account. Steel wheels on steel rails generate less friction that rubber tyres on tarmac roads so railways are 20 times more efficient that road transport for moving people while moving one tonne of freight by rail produces 80% less carbon dioxide than road transport.

Unfortunately the reality of climate change has not worked its way through into the rationality of government decision making. So, for example, rather than upgrade the railway line between Perth and Inverness, the Scottish Government have begun a £3 billion upgrade of the A 9 road between the two cities due for completion in 2025.

The problem with this and other road related investments, like the new Forth road , is that they are locking us into to an unsustainable future of increasing climate change and dependency on road transport.

Georg Hegel once famously said that ‘What is rational is real and what is real is rational.’ Climate change is real and its reality is confirmed by the rationality of science. Our failure to reflect the reality of climate change in our actions is therefore not rational. Such irrationality can be maintained in the short term, but in the longer term it cannot. The physical pressure of reality will prevail.

It is in the context of this future pressure of reality that the rationality of investing in large scale railway restoration will become apparent. We are not there yet, but we will be soon. When we are, the need to restore the Dumfries to Strarnraer/Cairnryan railway will become ‘obvious’.

There is still a problem though. By the time it has become obvious that such major changes are essential, the disruptive impact of climate change, such as a rise in sea levels, will be creating multiple crises/ ‘natural disasters’ requiring immediate action. The capacity/ resources to respond strategically by, for example, building new railways, will be diminished as money and effort is poured into protecting existing infrastructure including coastal cities.

On the other hand, when the global banking system appeared to be on the verge of collapse in 2008, money suddenly became no object in the rush to stave off the crisis. The motivation for these extreme measures was to preserve the economic status quo. The challenge posed by climate change is that in order to preserve the environmental status quo- a stable climate- the economic status quo will have to be changed.

Since the industrial revolution began in Britain 250 years ago, economic growth has been driven by the capitalist profit motive. Mechanisation, replacing human and animal labour to speed up production and distribution, has been at the heart of this growth. Such increases in ‘efficiency’ would have been impossible without the use of high carbon energy (coal and oil) sources.

Until recently, the social and environmental costs (negative externalities) of high carbon capitalism have not hindered its expansion. But if the costs of climate change are factored in, what were once profits now become losses. In a worst case scenario, the past 250 years of progress will be undone and the future will be an age of scarcity and poverty rather than surplus and prosperity.

Britain’s railway network was the product of high carbon industrial capitalism. Its coal fuelled locomotives replaced horse drawn carts, coaches and canal barges. For a hundred years railways were the dominant form of transport before replaced by the even higher carbon using lorries, cars and airplanes. So long as ours is a society where the capitalist mode of production/ distribution prevails, the need for speed in the circulation of commodities/ capital will also prevail over the social/environmental costs of such ever faster circulation.

Yet if we are to slow the pace of climate change, then the pace of capital/commodity circulation must also be slowed. So long as the present obsession with high speed rail is avoided, a shift from road to rail for freight and passenger transport would achieve this objective. This would involve the socialisation of the existing rail network and a rolling programme of expansion, mainly be re-opening disused railways but also, where necessary, by building new ones.

In the case of the Dumfries -Stranraer line, rather than following the Victorian route over the hills between Castle Douglas and Creetown, an alternative route (proposed in 1856) using the Kirkcudbright branch line then a new line via Gatehouse of Fleet to Creetown should be followed. Part of the original route could still be re-used for timber transport

It still seems highly unlikely to ever happen, but for the best part of 45 years so did the re-opening of the Borders railway.

The newly re-opened Tweedbank station

The newly re-opened Tweedbank station


One thought on “Borders Railway Reopening: South West Scotland Next?

  1. Pretty comprehensive article, and dispassionate about the costs. For £700 million a range of more cost-effective options serving larger populations spring to mind – some with track and signalling mostly in place for cancelled freight.traffic I’m for more rail reopening, but not this one, and definitely not for Mundell’s idea of a double-track electrified 90 mph railway from Hawick to Carlisle.

    Supporters need to do the maths. 90 million rail journeys from 5 million people is 18 per person. Double this for those who have access to stations and round up to 50, “just ‘cos”. This gives impressively low usage figures for Stranraer to Dumfries, given 46,000 from 10.000 people using the existing Stranraer line ( 46 per person).

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