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It’s here. The Borders Railway has arrived. The question is, will it be a gravy train for business?
The Borders Railway has captured all the headlines of late - most of them good. There’s been acres of coverage of the Royal Opening - there were almost as many news helicopters as trains on the day the Queen came to visit. Waverley, Newtongrange and Tweedbank stations were flooded with well wishers - thousands of them - and the entire 30-mile route was lined with flag waving, or just waving, subjects. The building sites of Shawfair and the fields of Fountainhall were replete with joyous legions, as Union of South Africa steamed through, and the longest reigning monarch in British history declared the Borders Railway open for business. Now, it’s the turn of the Borders to open up for business.
Railways have a habit of exceeding expectations. From the Bathgate Branch to the Stirling - Alloa link, once it’s built, the passengers have come in droves. Bathgate, opened as a branch line with one train an hour to Edinburgh on weekdays, now enjoys eight trains an hour to destinations all over Central Scotland, and has grown from a hardly noticeable platform behind a retail park to a staffed station with 450 parking spaces in high demand.
Every other opening in the UK in the last three decades has generated more traffic than expected - and none has higher expectations than the Borders Railway. New commuters, leisure travellers and tourists are all expected to take to the rails - either for the regular services, or the booked-out steam specials, for which the Royal Train was a foretaste.
Those looking to exploit line-side opportunities can already see green shoots of encouragement. Stow station, famously mispronounced on early service announcements, is proving an unlikely hub. There are plans for a shuttle bus service from Lauder, just five miles distant, and the historic station house, saved like the station itself by the Campaign for Borders Rail has attracted enquiries from arts, crafts, and would-be commercial occupiers. The potential for country cycling too is prompting enquiries from bike hire operations - and encouraged ScotRail to include more cycle provision as it steadily upgrades the trains operating the line.
Tourism attractions are benefitting. The National Mining Museum is so close to Newtongrange Station (not that far from our own office at Eskbank) that there’s a walkway direct from the platform, proceeding straight through stylised gates, mimicking the path many a Midlothian miner took to the pithead in decades gone by. From the terminus at Tweedbank, it’s a short bus journey or a longer stroll along the banks of the Tweed to reach Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott, whose Waverley novels gave the route its traditional name, by which the line was known prior to closure as part of the Beeching Axe.
It’s also just a couple of miles from the ample park and ride plaza atTweedbank to the bustling heart of Melrose, a destination that campaigners would soon like to see added to the route as part of an extension to Hawick and ultimately Carlisle.
Back in Galashiels - now a mere fifty-minutes from Princes Street - the Royal Train slowed to a crawl, to allow the thousands of well wishers more than a fleeting glimpse of the Queen, and to allow the Queen more than a fleeting glimpse of the opportunities for regeneration and development that the former textiles town offers. “One could even put a hotel in here, and still serve the Edinburgh market,” may have been the regal repartee. Better hurry, Your Majesty, we hear that’s already been the subject of some enquiries.
Eagle-eyed developers will already be sizing up ideas they never considered, until the opportunity presented itself to view them from the windows of a ScotRail train. Following Midlothian housing developments, could those Fountainhall fields be next in line for a planning application?
Train drivers have already commented on the quality of the line’s engineering. It’s certainly a smooth ride. It’s up to business at large to prove now that taking advantage of the opportunities presented in Midlothian and the Borders can be translated just as smoothly into wealth generating reality.