The Borders.

The Scottish Borders are a region almost completely isolated from the railways. To the east and west the main lines bypass the Tweed valley and the towns it contains. This state while lamentable does allow the provision of railway services through the Borders to begin afresh.

It is foolish to assume that we should necessarily reconstruct the main lines of the past, simply because they were the main lines. The economic circumstances have changed and with them the location of people and industries. Not recognising this fact was a major failing of railway nationalisation. Rail nationalisation offered an opportunity to reorganise the rail network. Many of the irregularities that had plagued a system built up by many different competing companies could have been removed. Now as we consider re-establishing lines through regions shorn of their railways we are again faced with the responsibility of deciding where railways would be most valuable.

The Borders are perhaps less changed than the majority of southern Scotland because they lacked the coal which underlay the Midland Valley. Many of the Borders traditional industries remain, farming and textiles are still important industries as they were in the 1840s when the original rail network was constructed. The most important change to the economy of the Borders is mobility. People are far more mobile now than before, and this increase in mobility should be an important consideration for any new rail strategy. The Borders are within commuting distance of Edinburgh, and providing renewed rail services between that city and the region would be of benefit to both. The question remains of how that aim is best achieved. Because of the geography, we can not generally avoid building on or parallel to the old railway lines. It is useful therefore to examine what was built through the Borders.

In the 1840s the two great Scottish railway companies the Caledonian and the North British clamoured to build a line through the Border Counties. The North British to connect Edinburgh with Carlisle, the Caledonian Railway to connect Berwick to Ayr.

It was the North British Railway’s plan that succeeded, which prevented the Caledonian Railway from starting its plan. The railway was built from Eskbank (Dalkeith) via Gorebridge, it opened to Galashiels and St Boswells in February of 1849. The line was completed to Hawick later in 1849, and to Carlisle in July 1862. In the meantime the Caledonian Railway completed its own line from Edinburgh to Carlisle via Carstairs in February 1848.

To the west the Peebles Railway company began its line to Edinburgh from Peebles. Reaching the Waverley line at Eskbank (Dalkeith) in July 1855. The line from Peebles to Galashiels was completed in June of 1866 by the Innerleithen and Galashiels Railway. The I.&G.R. blocked a revived plan by the Caledonian Railway to build a line to Galashiels, from their line at Symington. The C.R. did however build a line from Symington which connected to Peebles in February 1864.

To the east the North British Railway line was extended to Kelso by June 1851. It met the Tweedmouth and Kelso Railway allowing trains to run from Galashiels to Berwick.

The Berwickshire Railway Company completed the development of railways in the region with its line from Reston on the east coast to a point just north of St Boswells, in October 1865.

The Berwickshire Railway Company and the Peebles Railway Company were later absorbed by the North British. An act that ensured the dominance of that railway company in the Borders. The absorbtion of the Peebles lines in particular saw the decline of what had been a prosperous county line into a poorly run branch line.

It is clear that to connect the Borders to Edinburgh that there are only two serious routes possible. The first of these, and the most obvious, is the North British Railway’s route between Edinburgh and Carlisle, christened the Waverley Route. The second is by the Peebles and Innerleithen Railway Companies route.

The Waverley Route has the advantage that it was a purpose built main line railway. It was double tracked throughout, and travels by the most direct route from Edinburgh to the central Tweeddale towns of Galashiels, Melrose and St Boswells. It has the disadvantage that it winds steeply up from Gorebridge to its summit near Heriot, and then winds through the narrow valley of the Gala Water to reach Galashiels. When it was designated a main line in 1875 it was regarded as the toughest in Britain. Queen Victoria was unimpressed by her journey along the line, regarding the experience as alarming owing to the motion of the train at speed.

The Peebles Route, has the combined disadvantages of being longer, and being constructed as a single track railway. It has the advantage that a railway traversing it would connect the additional towns of Peebles and Innerleithen. It is also more level than the Waverley Route, and is much straighter.

Map comparing the two possible routes between Edinburgh and Galashiels

Map comparing the two routes from Edinburgh to Galashiels.

Generally it has been the accepted wisdom that the Waverley Route should be reconstructed. Forming a link first with Edinburgh and the Borders and then latterly from Edinburgh to Carlisle. This is an excellent example of the danger of simply reconstructing a mainline because that was what was built. The Waverley Route was built primarily as the North British Railway’s route to Carlisle. Construction of the Waverley Line was slow, because by the time the railway was in a position to be built to Carlisle there was already a line from Carlisle to Edinburgh. That line still exists, it is the Caledonian Railway’s Carlisle, Carstairs and Edinburgh line. The Carstairs line is the better line for goods and passengers from Carlisle to Edinburgh because it more level and straighter. Since the line through Carstairs has been electrified, it is the only logical choice for traffic between Edinburgh and Carlisle. Promoting the Waverley Route because it would restore a lost link between Edinburgh and Carl isle is to miss the point. It may even hinder the reinstatement of rails through the Borders because it is unviable compared to the Carstairs line. The point of the exercise is to promote rail links in the Borders. It is that aim that we should concentrate on initially.

The Waverley Route would certainly be able to reconnect the towns of Galashiels, Melrose and Hawick to Edinburgh, however this may not be the best option for the Borders towns. Despite its extra length the Peebles Route offers advantages over the more considered Waverley Route. Since a new Borders line should initially be constructed mainly to act as a commuter line, then ideally it needs to serve the largest possible population as quickly as possible, and preferably as comfortably as possible.

Newtown St Boswells1100
St Boswells1100

Table 1. Populations of Borders towns, potentially connectable by a reinstated Railway (1991 census data).

The Peebles Line obviously has the advantage, it serves two extra towns, Peebles and Innerleithen. The largest population lies along that route, see table 1 for the populations of Borders towns. However it is only able to do this by being longer; the distance from Edinburgh to Galashiels is roughly 50km by the Waverley Route, or 70km by the Peebles route, a difference of 29% or a 1/3 longer. This extra distance may not be the impediment it first seems. What is more important is the average speed a train can maintain on the line. Let us assume for the sake of argument that a train can maintain an average speed of 60kph between Edinburgh and Galashiels on the Waverley Line, which would take 50 minutes. A train travelling via Peebles would have to maintain an average of 85kph to cover the extra distance in the same time. Even if the average speed of 60kph were equal the journey would only take 20 minutes longer along the Peebles line. There is however good reason to expect that the average speed would be greater on the Peebles line than on the Waverley Line. The reason is that because of its extra length the Peebles line is generally flatter than the Waverley Route, and more importantly it is straighter. It is likely that a journey along the Peebles Route from Galashiels to Edinburgh will take only a few minutes longer, and provide a service to a greater population. Additionally the Peebles route would be the more comfortable to travel. With fewer curves, the ride would be smoother and more enjoyable, as well as potentially allowing a higher average speed.

The Peebles line would also be easier to reconstruct than the Waverley Line. The Waverley Line is much more heavily constrained by the geography it passes through. The breadth and straightness of the Tweed and Eddleston valleys offers more opportunities to diverge from the original trackbed. Enabling a reconstructed line to be straighter and have grades reduced further. This would be difficult in the narrow winding valley of the Galla Water and the heavily engineered descent from the summit at Heriot into the valley of the Gore Water. Furthermore there are no tunnels on the Peebles line to restrict the height of cargoes sent by that route. The main disadvantage to re-engineering the Peebles route is that it was built as a single tracked line. Fortunately there are almost no cuttings on the route that need to be widened, and as bridges and embankments would have to be rebuilt their single tracked nature is not a significant difficulty. It may be an advantage as it will encourage the raising of narrow bridges to allow higher cargoes, or even electrification.

Probably the Peebles line’s greatest advantage is that it is more expandable than the Waverley line. Both lines offer an obvious extension to Hawick roughly 30km to the south of Galashiels.

Map of lines discussed in the text

Map of borders showing all lines discussed on these pages

After that the Peebles line offers a more structured expansion than the Waverley Line. From the Peebles line a 30km line from Peebles west to Symington allows direct traffic to Glasgow from the connected Border towns. This line could undoubtedly be built from the Waverley Line, but is less attractive than simply running services to Glasgow via Edinburgh. Peebles, Innerleithen and Biggar, are unlikely to be reconnected if the Waverley Line is built.

Once a Glasgow line has been built it becomes more obvious to build a connection east from the Borders from St Boswells. The line could provide a much needed link between Western Scotland and the east coast main line. Currently freight travelling to or from Western Scotland has to pass over the high summit of Beatock and Shap, or be sent through Edinburgh. It would be much more convenient to create a through route for freight along the Tweed valley to bypass these places. This would be best built along the route of the old Tweedmouth line, to Kelso and Coldstream. From Coldstream two routes are possible, the first runs to the main line at Tweedmouth. The second possibility is to traverse the Till and Aln valleys to Wooler and Alnwick in Northumberland before reaching the main line. The completed rail link would also have provided a rail service from the Borders not just to Edinburgh but to Glasgow and Newcastle too. Table 2 gives the sizes of towns that could be connected through the extensions to the initial Borders railway. While none of them is large enough to justify a link on their own, they are large enough to affect the consideration of the route of a reconstructed railway. Again this is an unlikely line to be constructed if the Waverley Line was rebuilt. Since the best route to Glasgow via the Waverley Route is over Heriot Summit, there is no longer an advantage in utilising the Tweed Valley as a rail corridor for avoiding the summits and Edinburgh for freight trains. Without that advantage the eastern Tweed valley is unlikely to be reconnected to the railway system.


Table 2: Populations of towns that could be connected through extensions to the initial Borders Railway.

Carlisle would be connected to the Borders through the junction at Symington once the link to Glasgow was built. This is a long way round but is probably the most logical connection for the Border towns with Carlisle. If once other connections had been made a more direct route to Carlisle was thought necessary, it would be more sensible to construct it along the route of the A7, the proposed Caledonian Railway route to Hawick, than by the constructed North British Route through Sandy Edge. A route that would avoid having a tunnel on the line. Neither line would serve a large population centre, with Langholm or Newcastletown the largest settlement on their respective routes.

It is my own opinion that railways should once again grace the towns of the Borders. It is also my belief that previous plans for redeveloping railways through the Borders have been too focused on the reinstatement of the Waverley Line. A revised rail plan for the Borders putting the town of Peebles at the centre of it, would offer much more to the people of the region. That plan would serve a larger section of the population of the Borders, and offer more opportunities for expansion, than a reinstated Waverley Line.

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