The Scottish Borders Railway

By | Category: Travel destinations
pulling into Tweedbank

pulling into Tweedbank

Last autumn, the first railway line to be re-opened in Scotland for many years came into being and the Scottish borders became linked by rail once again to Edinburgh.

The 57 minute rail journey from Edinburgh Waverley to Tweedbank was constructed quickly compared to how long it takes Network Rail to carry out much of its work. And now that it is up and running with a half-hourly service in both directions, I wondered whether it might become one of the scenic routes that visitors would using rather than locals who might still prefer the bus or the car.

The first figures of how many people have been using the line suggest that a million people will travel on it in the first year but as this is based on winter figures and the attraction of something new, will the numbers hold up?

I took a trip one April morning to see how it compares with other picturesque Scottish lines on which I have travelled.

As you might expect, the first few miles are pretty uninspiring as you travel through the south east edges of Edinburgh past warehouses, building plant sites and sidings as well as Brunstane, still an Edinburgh suburb. And the train wasn’t very full either as I headed down from Edinburgh but maybe 9.24 in the morning is a bit early for visitors to be up and about.

The first few stations were already pat of another line so they contain large parking areas for the commuters that will fill the train in rush hours. The sign at Newcraighall tells me that a courtesy bus is just 150 metres from the station and that the bus would take me to the racecourse at Musselburgh. But finally, after leaving there we are on to the new line and at the next station – Shawfair – you can see the difference with the new minimalist yet functional station layout.

but stop aawhile and the bus will take you to Rosslyn Chapel

but pause awhile and the 527 will take you to Rosslyn Chapel

At the next station, Eskbank, the train collected obvious tourists, walkers by the look of the sturdy shoes, and rucksacks but then who doesn’t have a rucksack these days? Briefcases and attaches have been supplanted by the walkers’ stock-in-trade holdall.

At Newtongrange, a poster proudly notes that this is the station for the National Mining Museum and rail posters announcing that the Scottish Borders railway is now unwrapped.  From here you can take a hop-on, hop-off bus – the 527 service which costs a fiver for a full days travel – which takes you to Dalkeith Country Park, Butterfly World, Roslin, (for the famed Rosslyn Chapel) and Loanhead where Stewart Brewing resides and so will you if it’s a hot day!

After leaving Newtongrane, the countryside is open land with views across fields to the right and hilly banks with woodland on the left. Trees have been planted alongside the track but they are still minute and protected by white, plastic sheathes to save them from the ravages of animals. But there are still remains of the old railway. A bridge outside Gorebridge looks like a remnant of the old line which once linked Edinburgh with Carlisle and then on down to London. More farmland, more valleys and at one point on the right, the remains of a ruined stone structure that once was a reasonable size.

As you get closer to Stow, the landscape changes. There are streams tumbling over rocks on the left and the ground becomes stonier. It is beginning to look more like border country. There are more dry-stone walls, very little traffic on the roads and sheep – even lambs – outnumber houses. The track weaves its way between the hills as the roads have done for a hundred years and tracks have done for centuries.

Bal, Newcraighall, Shawfair, Eskbank, Newtongrange, Gorebridge, Stow, Galashiels, Tweedbank

the old station is still at melrose waiting for the line to be extended there

The old station is still at Melrose waiting for the line to be extended there

After leaving Stow, it seems to me to be “proper” border country. There are more rivers, the valley floor is wider with hills dotted with sheep all around. The houses are stone built looking strong and fierce against the winds and the weather shifts of winter. In another ten years, all those trees that they just planted will shade the train from the fields but will it be long after that before the first trains of the day are delayed by leaves on the line? Maybe the trees are all conifers.

Galashiels is the biggest town on the route and the only stop at which the train announcer gives out information asking passengers to alight here for border bus connections. There isn’t even a remark to say that Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott is only a mile and a half away. After all the open space, the cramped togetherness of a big town is a surprise. There is even industry to see. A lone photographer at the station takes a picture of our train as it departs. It might be a big town compared to others that the train has passed but it is hardly more than a minute or two before we are back in the countryside. A rugby ground on the right reminds me that we are into the borders country where the famed rugby commentator, Bill McLaren was born and grew up. He was a Hawick man and the line doesn’t stretch there yet but given time, it will.

Finally it is Tweedbank and the end of the line. For now. Campaigners would like the line continued to rejoin the main line at Carlisle and link other communities in the borders. From Tweedbank to Melrose is just a couple of miles and you can leisurely walk it in 30 minutes. The old railway line is now a walkway used by joggers, walkers and cyclists as well as the odd horse and rider. In spring it is patrolled by thousands of daffodils and does make a spectacular sight as the photograph shows. If the railway extends, and that must be a real possibility with the success of the Border Railway so far, the daffodil situation will need careful thought!

Walk along and you’ll come to the old Melrose station complete with station sign and railway bench. Part of the buildings now form an Italian restaurant but it wouldn’t take much to turn it back into a real railway station.  That would be the beginning of re-installing the line, then down to Hawick and on to Carlisle.

...except that now the trackbed is a pathway escorted by thousands of daffoldils

…except that now the trackbed is a pathway escorted by thousands of daffoldils

At the outset I asked if this would be a scenic route to rival the run, for example from Dingwall to Thurso, Perth to Kingussie or Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. In truth it won’t. Pretty in places but not outstanding this is a convenient way of linking the borders to Edinburgh without having to put up with Edinburgh traffic. At Tweedbank station car park – described as a park and ride – there were over 150 cars parked there out of the 220 spaces that are available. Some days it is completely full. The majority must have been commuters for on my return journey after lunch, there were still hardly any tourists.

But come the summer the tourists will come as well the “ambassadors,” people who will be available to supply information about the visitor attractions, what can be seen and where to stay.

Since the line opened a little over six months ago, over 650,000 passenger journeys have been made. The planners said half a million would use the service a year. By 2020 the plan was for a million passengers. Something tells me the numbers will be exceeded long before then.

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