Borders Rail Link

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 10th November 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 5:01 pm, 10th November 1999

The final item of business is the members' debate on motion S1M-237, in the name of Christine Grahame, on the subject of the Borders rail link. Members who are staying for the debate should leave quietly and quickly in fairness to the member who has the debate.

More members have requested to speak in this debate than can possibly be accommodated—we have half an hour. I therefore ask members to be as succinct as possible.

I was on the last train on the Borders line. I feel that I am revisiting history. I am not allowed to take part in any campaign—I am totally neutral on the issue—but I hope that it is noted that I am here in the chair to take an interest in the debate.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the economic problems in the Borders and, appreciating the necessity for good transport links as crucial to the social and economic advancement of the area and acknowledging the pioneering work of Borders Transport Futures and the efforts of Campaign for Borders Rail, Scottish Borders Council, Scottish Borders Enterprise, and local MPs and MSPs of all parties, gives its support to the cross-party campaign for the restoration of a Borders rail link.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 5:05 pm, 10th November 1999

I think it is excellent that you are here, Sir David.

On 3 February 1962, on the closure of the Peebles through line, that great patriot, Wendy Wood, stood alone on the platform with an impromptu declaration, chalked on a blackboard. The legend read:

"Home rule will reopen the stations again".

I know that because someone who saw it at the time, as a boy, told me. He is Allan Maclean from Virgin Trains which, with Railtrack, has put in £10,000 for the current feasibility study.

In 1968, 600 tickets were sold each weekday on the Borders to Edinburgh stretch of the Waverley line. On 6 January 1969, the last passenger trains ran from Waverley station in Edinburgh along the 98 miles of track, stopping at, among other places, Eskbank, Newtongrange, Gorebridge, Heriot, Stow, Galashiels, Melrose, Newton St Boswells, Hawick, Newcastleton, Longtown and Carlisle.

The journey came after a long campaign to keep rail in the Borders, which we represent in part today. Other parties are named in the motion. Some of those who campaigned are sitting on official chairs in the chamber. Some of us are members of the all-party campaign for Borders rail.

The campaign will not end until the last bit of track connects Waverley, through Gala and Hawick, to Carlisle. That is the position whatever the feasibility study delivers. Feasibility studies, I say to Ms Boyack, are constrained within their terms of reference, which I and other members do not know.

The real terms of reference are whether the Borders will prosper with or without the railway line. I need no feasibility study to direct me on that one. Should the feasibility study indicate a link only as far as Gorebridge, it is not a Borders railway line by definition, because it does not touch the Borders—it would be a suburban link to Edinburgh.

The decision to close the line was taken for the wrong reasons at another time, when rail was seen as a burden on the nation's purse and road and the motor car were seen as the great liberators. There were promises about public transport, even of buses that would run on the old line.

There are some interesting contemporary quotations:

"I cannot understand why any government setting out on development in the Borders should take away travel facilities."

That was said by a Mr Campbell, a Melrose minister. True then, true now.

Another reads:

"The government have ignored the advice of their own Borders Economic Consultative Group and have cut off the remaining railway arteries through an area they are pledged to develop".

That person also called the closing of the line a "catastrophic" decision—a very young David Steel.

Last night, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, sporting a campaign sticky, told me of the Reverend Brydon Mabon, minister at Newcastleton, who lay across the line and was jailed for his protest. Some of us got an e-mail from the presbytery of Jedburgh acknowledging that and supporting the campaign.

Today, 108,000 people are still without a railway station, compared with 250,000 with 57 stations in the Highlands. Borderers and highlanders have much in common, but there is one glaring difference. I suggest that that difference has had social, environmental and economic impacts at the very root of Borders society.

On the social impact, a pertinent question in the Borders might be, "Where have all the young people gone?" Scottish Borders has the highest proportion of people over pensionable age; almost 40 per cent are over 50. That has implications for the development of a balanced society and an obvious impact on various support services. The young people have left to find work, in the main, and to have access to the perceived attractions of the cities.

On the environmental impact, as the A68 and A7 are the main arteries to the rest of Scotland, we are all too aware of how inadequate the road links are—even on the bonniest, driest autumn day—for commuters in either direction and certainly for freight. The topography of the Borders, which makes the area suitable for the mills and the sheep, does not lend itself to the relentless and continual expansion of tarmac.

I now turn to the economic impact. One woman's crisis is another man's problem. On the economic Richter scale, from electronics through textiles to the beleaguered farmers and the fragile tourism trade, the Borders remains very vulnerable, however we look at it, yet the area has a keen and stable work force, its natural amenity is unsurpassed and it forms the natural corridor from Scotland to the south.

The area's vulnerability and decline will continue until one radical, simple step—the railway line—is taken by the Executive. That step would meet the needs not only of the Borders, but of Scotland and beyond. From it would flow prosperity in economic growth and quality of life. In the new millennium, that step would signal mature thought on transport for the next century, benefiting country and town.

We choke on the fumes of cars that move through our congested cities more slowly than a pedestrian would and the great and expensive motorways conduct traffic nose to tail. Villages are shaken by the thunder of articulated lorries hauling felled forests on winding country roads. People in the cities contract road rage and people in the country are isolated by the cost of car and fuel. The time for rail is now.

The vision of a Borders railway that fuses with an urban network in Edinburgh, as proposed by CRAG—the Capital Rail Action Group—is the way forward. That would give Borderers and freight access to and from the city and encourage the flow of entrepreneurs to set up homes and businesses in the Borders, thus redressing the current demographic imbalance. Railtrack is keen, Virgin Trains is keen, ScotRail is keen, we are keen—but what of the Executive? The heart may be willing but I suspect that the head is not.

The cost of reinstating the line will be £100 million—possibly more. The cost of the line to Gala would be £25 million. Where is that money in the transport budget? Gordon Brown has gathered stealth taxes from the motorists of Britain, let alone Scotland, with his fuel escalator. He has built up a war chest for the next election. He has his priorities and I suspect that they are not those of the Borders people. Westminster will pay out billions for the Thames barrier, for the Jubilee line to the London docklands and for Trident, but—unless we keep beating at the Treasury's door—not the comparative pocket money that a Borders rail line would cost. Compared with the Goliath that is greater London, the Borders is David—but we know who won that combat against the odds.

Fine words are no use if action does not follow. A political commentator recently bemoaned the Opposition's lack of ideas. I give him Borders rail as an idea whose time has come. Let that be a test of the Scottish Parliament. The Borders people want their rail line, which a Labour Government wrongly took away from them 30 years ago. I call on the coalition to put that right now. Many people believe that this Parliament will not act; they have come to expect so little from their politicians. I have a petition with thousands of signatures from Borderers and more signatures are being gathered every day. All it takes is political will. Let this Parliament prove that Wendy Wood was right. Let home rule open the stations again.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat 5:14 pm, 10th November 1999

I, too, am glad that you are here, Sir David. I remember that, in around 1965, you gave me a rather grubby copy of a report that you had compiled about the railway.

Last week, when we discussed the strategic roads review, the minister said frequently that travellers must be given a choice. As she will know, my constituents have virtually no choice in transport. There is no sea transport—although that is no one's fault—no air transport and no rail transport. There are only roads, and they are, as Christine Grahame said, under severe pressure. There is a patchy bus service, but there are problems with the quality of the buses, timetables, accessibility and costs.

The choice for the Borders is clear—we must extend the rail system and create a permanent link to our capital and the rest of the nation. When people talk about the Waverley line, there is a danger that they talk about it nostalgically and sentimentally. We cannot work with nostalgia and sentiment. Rail campaigners are not looking backwards—although I do not say that they never look back—they are looking forwards to the sustainable future that we need.

We must be realistic. A feasibility study is coming. I welcome that and the information it will give us. If we are to change things—as we must—we must have vision, courage and commitment. We must be prepared to take serious note of the feasibility study but we must also examine it critically. I hope that the study does not present only a technocrat's view—I want to see a vision of the potentially vibrant future that a rail link could bring to the Borders.

A rail link would create a corridor of economic activity that would bring jobs to the area and bring people to live, work and have their being there. It would help shops and trades to be viable in the future. It would give our people access to the heart of Edinburgh and it would give tourists access to the heart of the Borders. It would stop hundreds of cars coming and pumping out pollution and taking up hundreds of parking spaces. All those people could travel on a single train.

A line to Carlisle would give us access to the south and open up the Borders to English and European tourists. In the economic development plan that was endorsed by ministers such as Gus MacDonald and Brian Wilson, two of the main issues were the creation and maintenance of vibrant communities and making the Borders a connected place. Ms Boyack, you have a chance to do that with your decision on the rail link.

The transport infrastructure of the Borders must be improved—that includes roads, rail and public and private transport. The biggest single thing the minister could do is bring the railway to the Borders. If you and the people involved in the feasibility study really believe—as I think you do—in the value and importance of rail as a catalyst to sustainable economic growth and success, I ask you put your weight and authority behind the campaign to bring rail to the Borders.

I want you to go to your colleagues in the Scottish Executive—

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

I am sorry, Sir David. I want Ms Boyack—

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

I used to think that your signature tune should be, "There'll Never be Another You" or, "You Drive Me Crazy". [Laughter.]

I hope that Ms Boyack will go to her colleagues in the Scottish Executive and ask them to make this a flagship project for Scotland. It is a project that embodies many of the ideas about transport that Ms Boyack espouses. Here is an opportunity to reduce the flow of commuter cars into the capital city; a chance to move freight from roads to rail; a chance to demonstrate the Executive's commitment to sustainability; above all, it is a chance to bring the Borders into the forward-looking Scotland that we all want to share.

Remember Dr Beeching. Where Dr Beeching was destructive, I want Sarah Boyack to be creative. Where Dr Beeching made cuts, I want Sarah Boyack to promote the extension of the rail system. Where Dr Beeching made the Borders feel isolated, I want Sarah Boyack to bring Scotland together, for everyone's sake. I want her to show us that we are coming into a new era of sensible public transport policy where sustainability and economics come together. I want Sarah Boyack to follow her heart because I know that she really believes in this. We cannot afford not to take this chance.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:20 pm, 10th November 1999

I wonder how many members have used the Waverley line. I remember using it as a child when I was growing up in Hawick. The viaduct across the Teviot dominated the landscape. I remember my mother trailing me up to the station yard to pay the weekly coal bill and all the merchants who clustered round the station. The railway line was at the heart of the community and was an important artery.

I left Hawick in 1960 and have lived in many other parts of Scotland since. Wherever I have lived, there has been a train station. It would be hard to find a substantial community that does not have fairly ready access to a railway line.

Ian Jenkins and Christine Grahame are correct: the railway initiative relates to important issues for the Borders. There is a loss of young people in the area. There is a difficulty in attracting inward investment. There are deep-seated problems in the Borders of low wages and lack of variety of employment opportunities. I suggest to the minister that there is an important social inclusion aspect, particularly near Hawick, where it is difficult for people to travel distances to find employment.

Opening up a rail link from the central Borders in each direction would enhance the industrial and employment prospects of Borders people and afford an important boost to tourism. I hope that the Executive will see this as a strategically important economic and social issue. I think that there is substantial support for the motion from all parties.

I will stop at that point as I realise that many members want to speak.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party

I have not made a request to speak, Sir David.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party 5:22 pm, 10th November 1999

There is no doubt that, throughout the Borders, there is a tremendous desire for an improvement in the quality of life, for jobs to be created and to enter the 20 th century, if not the 21 st . It seems that, when development takes place, other places are given priority and Borders people feel left out.

The fact that we are having this debate symbolises the fact that the Borders deserves attention from the Parliament. If one were to poll the people of the Borders on what issue they would like attention to be paid to, the No 1 issue would be that their area should feel connected again to the whole of Scotland and particularly to Edinburgh.

There are questions about the viability of a rail link that would go all the way to Carlisle. The essential nature of the debate, however, is the ability of the Executive to give the people of the Borders an indication that they are being listened to and that there is a desire to help them.

I am always nervous when we get to a debate and the Executive has not leaked anything. It makes me think that we will not hear anything from it in the debate. It is possible, however, that the minister is holding on to a nugget of information that she will allow us to have. If that is the case, we will be immensely grateful. However, if the people of the Borders hear nothing, that will send a message that will not be lost on them.

There is a great deal of resentment about what happened with Viasystems, a matter that my friend Christine Grahame was deeply involved in. There is resentment over the continuing erosion of traditional industries, not only in textiles but in farming.

If, today, the people in the Borders hear that nothing, or that the minimum, is to happen, that message will be pressed home strongly in the area—not just by the minister's party, but by a party that is in partnership and seems to have gained little out of that partnership. I ask the minister to give us some hope.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

If members are brief, I shall try to allow everyone to speak.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 5:25 pm, 10th November 1999

I pay tribute, as is done in the motion, to those who have campaigned steadfastly over many years for a rail link to the Borders. Between 1969 and 1970, a short-lived Border union railway company pioneered some work. Recently, Borders Transport Futures Ltd has kept the flame alive.

A formidable and perhaps unexpected ally recently emerged in the shape of Mr John Nelson, the former director of Network SouthEast and the east-coast main line manager at the time of electrification. He told Rail magazine:

"I am convinced the Waverley scheme is a runner. When I first heard of it, I admit I was very sceptical, but I have met Borders Transport Futures, visited the route and came back thinking 'It's not a crazy idea'."

Mr Nelson says that there is a strong case for considering a third Anglo-Scottish through-freight route, because the east-coast railway line is already booked solid and the west-coast line may soon follow suit. He says:

"The line has to be properly project-managed. It's a case of taking it a piece at a time."

That is clearly the way forward. We should not regard this as simply a branch line of the railway network; we should view it as a national scheme. We should not worry about spreading the costs over several years, as there are huge advantages in doing so. If someone takes the line to St Boswells, for instance, they may then be able to go in two separate directions—down to Hawick and through to Newcastleton, or to the eastern Borders on a link through to Berwick.

I urge the minister to give due consideration to the feasibility study and I endorse what other members have said. The Borders is awaiting some action. Furthermore, this should not be regarded as a project simply for one part of Scotland; it would benefit the whole nation.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I ask the Presiding Officer whether the debate can be extended, to allow as many members as possible to speak.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

Much as I would, personally, like to do that, I must stick to what I agreed with the other Presiding Officers, which was published in the business bulletin yesterday. We will not normally extend a member's business debate, and I cannot do so on this occasion.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

In that case, at what time did this debate begin?

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

The clocks are showing that 21 minutes have elapsed. We have 30 minutes for this debate. If members are brief, all will be able to speak.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 5:28 pm, 10th November 1999

I support the motion, although, unlike the Presiding Officer and Mr Murray Tosh, I am too young to remember the railway in the Borders. I was born and brought up in the Borders—as they say, you can take the person out of the Borders, but you cannot take the Borders out of the person. I am proud of that. It is an excellent regional community that is made up of people who care very much about where they live and what they do. They are rightly proud of their local communities.

The extension of a railway line into the Borders would help to keep young people in the Borders—young people such as myself, who moved away because they had to go to university or for jobs, training or other education. A rail link from the Borders to Edinburgh would play a vital role in keeping those young people at home. It takes someone who lives in Jedburgh two hours and 10 minutes to travel by bus to Edinburgh, and it costs £6.25 for a single ticket. It is simply not feasible for a student to stay at home while maintaining their studies. That holds true throughout the Borders.

I welcome the feasibility study. It shows that, at last, a Government is taking the Borders seriously. It is an area of Scotland that has been neglected, and viewed as irrelevant, for far too long. The Borders is the entry to Scotland for many people, and what they see when they enter Scotland forms the impression that they have of the country. We should rightly be proud of the Borders and should seek to expand the opportunities that are available to people there. The extension of the rail link is an important step for the whole Borders community. I hope that the minister—in future, if not today—will be able to give that rail link her full support.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

If they take no more than a minute each, I shall allow Mr Mundell and Mr Harper to speak. I hope that they can manage that.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 5:29 pm, 10th November 1999

I will use my minute on forestry. People in the southern part of the Borders, and perhaps in Dumfries and Galloway—in Canonbie, for example—have to live with forestry trucks going through their villages as timber is moved from two of the largest man-made forests in Europe, at Eskdalemuir and Kielder. The southern part of the proposed line would be an important infrastructural asset to get that timber out of Scotland without having lorries thundering through villages.

I also want to raise the issue of the enormous increase in the number of people who want to travel from Lockerbie to Edinburgh by train—the journey takes around 60 to 65 minutes by train, but by car it takes much longer. I hope that the minister, by putting pressure on Railtrack and its engineering practices, can allow that journey to be made more often. That exhibited desire shows that people will use services if they are available. Lockerbie to Edinburgh is one of the fastest-growing Virgin routes in Scotland.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:31 pm, 10th November 1999

I left pressing my button until last because I was born in Thurso. It is connected by rail to Edinburgh and I have taken a party of children there from Edinburgh by train. It is a well-used line.

Now that the fuel price escalator has been swept aside, only rail is left as a major way of achieving traffic reduction. There are enormous pressures to extend the road network, which would be entirely inappropriate in the Borders. As the minister knows, there are very strong environmental arguments for developing the railway.

I am a member of the Capital Rail Action Group, which is fairly advanced with its plans, so I would find it rather embarrassing if rail development in the Edinburgh area went ahead without any sign of the Borders railway being planned. A five or 10-to-15-year plan encompassing the various steps proposed for Borders rail is an essential part of planning for the Borders. So much in the future of the area in terms of forestry and other developments could come on line if we knew we would have the Borders railway.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I have left the minister very little time. I will generously allow some overrun, but could you be as brief as possible.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

We should finish in three minutes but obviously you cannot reply to the debate in three minutes.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I will try to be brief. I thank Christine Grahame, who has taken an interest in reopening the Borders railway, for lodging the motion and for enabling us to have an all-party discussion on the issue.

I start by agreeing with the sentiments of the motion about the importance of railway lines to the economic and social well-being of any region. In that respect, the Borders stands out. The Scottish Executive's transport policy shares—indeed, has at its core—that general premise.

That premise underpins recent announcements such as the outcome of the strategic roads review and the latest round of public transport fund awards, which amount to £26 million. We know that good transport links are essential. That is as true for urban areas as it is for remote rural locations. The Borders railway feasibility study is part of an overall approach to improving rural transport. I do not want to look just at rail; I want to reflect on how we can improve choice for people in the Borders. The points were well made about car dependency, infrequent services and the poor quality of public transport, which are problems for the elderly and the unemployed in particular.

I assure members that our response to those challenges has been to explore and support a number of practical steps, including innovative transport projects, such as voluntary or community transport initiatives through the rural transport fund and the public transport fund. The development of a national transport timetable will mean that people will know what choices are available and that we can strengthen existing public transport opportunities.

A working party with members from Scottish Borders Council, Scottish Borders Enterprise and the tourist board has done much work to tackle rural isolation in the Borders and to look at economic regeneration there—the investment made through that is important.

Recent developments have included the information and communications technology link to the Heriot-Watt campus at Galashiels, the links with Locate in Scotland to promote the area to inward investors and the new long-term jobs in Selkirk. The work that is being done is critical. It has led us to have the feasibility study to examine the Borders railway line. It is important to view the feasibility study as a positive development in itself. I assure members—

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

There is general agreement that we need to consider a direct rail connection, inward investment and access to employment and learning opportunities, as Karen Gillon said.

We all know that the Beeching cuts were a tragedy but it is in that context that we must consider the feasibility of reinstating part, or all, of the Waverley line. I will not make showy announcements today, but I give a commitment that the great interest that Mike Russell, Euan Robson and Ian Jenkins said existed in the Borders will be taken into account when the results of the feasibility study are considered. Today is not the day to make an announcement, as we have not received the study, but I assure members that we will consider the study seriously.

A great deal of work has been done by Borders Transport Futures Ltd and the Campaign for Borders Rail. I welcome that work and thank those organisations for, in effect, putting this item on our agenda, which has led to this debate.

Our railway industry is different from the one that we had 30 years ago, but that gives us opportunities. The UK Government inherited a privatised and fragmented rail network, but the demand for rail travel is growing dramatically. That does not make it easier to examine the industry, nor does it solve our problems, but it does create a new climate. We have the opportunity to create an integrated transport system, and that will come from the UK Railways Bill and from our work in this Parliament.

The devolution settlement gives us a role in promoting the railway industry. Our funds are not inelastic, as members will know, but we already support passenger rail in Scotland with £208 million a year. I want to examine how we can make that support more effective. The points made by David Mundell are precisely the ones that I am looking at—how can we expand our rail services as well as look to new rail services and investments?

I know that members are coming to me with demands for new rail investment. I welcome that. We must examine our priorities. We know that public support for rail investment is critical. The economic and value-for-money arguments alone mean that we need to invest the money. That is a challenge because we do not have an unlimited budget.

I want our railway network to grow. We need to demonstrate value for money and we must look at the priorities in the context of an integrated transport system, reduction of congestion, improvement of access and of inclusion and social, economic and environmental gains. Those are the criteria against which we must measure the expansion of new railway services, and they will apply to all proposals in Scotland, such as the Borders railway proposal and the feasibility study.

I am sure that that study will take us further down the road of looking at the options and the finances. The study will not make the decision, but it will be important in giving us more information to think about options. The final decision will rest with me, in partnership with the various public and private bodies that members have mentioned, and it will have to be set against the other important and justifiable claims on our tight resources.

However, as Christine Grahame observed in her introduction, home rule enables us to focus on transport issues. The choices are not easy, but our feasibility study will allow us to consider the options that are available. That is a great step forward. If there is a message to take back to the people in the Borders, it is that we will give the study careful consideration.

I thank members for staying behind to take part in this debate. It is an important subject, and one to which I hope we shall return.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I thank the minister and members for their co-operation in keeping to time.

Meeting closed at 17:39.