This episode of Train Time takes us to the borders region of Scotland, an area with storied history and dramatic scenery. Simon Walton tells the story of how, over the course of two decades, the Campaign for Borders Rail has made a case for the reconstruction of 35 miles of a passenger rail line that was removed in the 1960s. This new service is designed for the 21st century, and has been recognized by the developers of Britain’s high-speed rail as an essential part of the future rail network. Simon explains how his organization has been so successful, and how they are now working to see the line extended a further 65 miles, to again connect Scotland and England via the Scottish Borders region.
Simon Walton is chair of the Campaign for Borders Rail. After over two decades with the BBC in London, Simon founded Almond Bank Communications, a PR company working in travel, transport and tourism. He was founder editor of Group Travel Today magazine, edited Scottish Local Retailer, and has been behind the launch of more than 20 quality bar and restaurant businesses. He’s proud to have been profiled as “Edinburgh’s Mr. Pub.” He divides his professional time between retail business consultancy and acting as UK Correspondent for RailFreight.com. Photograph by Shan Liu.
New York Times: “Shrinking Lives in the English Countryside” 2019
“A free bus pass is of little use if buses no longer reach you, and many retired people have discovered that apparently minor cuts — the elimination of a bus route, the closing of a tiny health care center, community center or post office — can profoundly upend their lives.”
BBC: “Borders Railway extension ‘more important now than ever'” 2020
“One part of the multi-million pound Borderlands Growth Deal for southern Scotland and northern England is a study to look at taking the line to Carlisle. / Mr Walton said he believed that after the current cycle of ‘isolation and immobility’ the scheme would have even greater value.”
Note: This transcript was created using AI and is imperfect. For purposes of quotation, please check the actual recording! It is time-stamped , which is useful as a guide to finding a point in the recording, but please be aware that the time-stamps are not a perfect match to the published podcast.
SPEAKERS: Simon Walton, Karen Christensen; recorded Tue, 5/25 2:07PM
Karen Christensen 00:02
Well, good morning, Simon. I think it’s good afternoon for you. It’s tea time for you, isn’t it?
Simon Walton 00:10
It is, yes. But we could be listening at any time. So I’ll just say, Hello, Karen, it’s a great pleasure to be speaking with you.
Karen Christensen 00:18
We’ve been trying to do this for a while. I’m very keen to hear the story of Borders rail, because it seems to me that it has some very useful lessons to offer those of us who are working in the United States to restore passenger rail. I was in Argyll when a friend sent me a link to your website to the Campaign for Borders Rail. And I’d like you to, please, step back in time a little bit and give us a sense of how this very successful campaign began and how it’s evolved to this point?
Simon Walton 01:06
Certainly, we started by saying, we’ve been trying to do this interview for quite a long time. You know, we’ve been working at the campaign for quite a long time as well. This campaign was actually founded last century, in 1999, to be precise. What it’s all about is, it goes back in history to something which happened in the UK, in the 1960s. That wasn’t the best of times for real. In the UK at all, the railway network had never really recovered from the privations of the war in Europe. And it had progressively been rundown. The thing about Britain was that, you know, we proudly claimed to be the first industrial nation and the first railway network in the world. But with that goes, a lot of baggage, not least, but everyone else had the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. And very much that the railway network is fairly much an unplanned agglomeration of railway lines. Throughout the country, there was much commercial duplication, and many lanes that were built, which were never going to be financially viable. And much of that was inherited into the, the 20th century. And after the Second World War, the railways really well on their commercial knees, to the extent that it was taken into public ownership, the entire network in 1948, January the first of that year. And the railways sold your own in in the face of many problems. Both problems, economic problems, social and I guess, problems political as well. And that several decisions were taken, probably with the best of intentions to make the real with resilient and self-sufficient for the future, which is probably why Britain persevered for two decades longer than anyone else with steam traction, which was outmoded, expensive and in the light of burgeoning auto industry, and governments which were progressively more in wedded to the idea of personal mobility and personal freedom, really neglected the railways. To the extent that they were losing money hand over fist in the 1960s, a government sponsored review, which is commonly known as the Beeching Acts.
Karen Christensen 04:05
I moved to Britain as a teenager in the 70s, late 70s. And I heard then about Beeching it became it was sort of a familiar name. And I really wasn’t that long before, actually. Yeah, that’s true.
Simon Walton 04:22
Richard Beeching the man who carried out this review, he had been a businessman. He was chairman of a chemical industries company. And he was an outsider brought in to review the railways and he did so he answered his remit and I could go on at length about how that that remit was rather unjust and was promoted by a transport minister who had vested financial interests in building freeways. So the outcome was no surprise to anyone. It was clear to see and the unequivocal fact that came out of that review was that 50% of the network was carrying 4% of the traffic. So, Mr. Beeching or Dr. Beeching, in his name, as title, made the commercial decisions that half the network had to go. And it did. How he went about that is open to question, but to cut a long story short, the biggest single closure in his proposals was the 100 miles between Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, and the English town of Carlisle commonly known in, in folklore as the Waverley route.
Karen Christensen 05:55
and tell listeners, please who aren’t familiar with this what Borders, is it?
Simon Walton 06:03
Okay, this, this, the borders the Scottish Borders are the area which is the very south of Scotland and borders onto the very North of England. These lands have been historically disputed. Of course, over the centuries, we’ve all seen Braveheart documentary. But these lines have changed hands between Scotland and England many times over the centuries. And as such a growing resilience of their own and a growing community and a culture of their own. They are not the central part of either Scotland, Northern England, and they are close to the railway is hugely changed the borders for the answer. They brought together many disparate communities made it possible to travel between them made it possible to connect and communicate with the centers of government in both Scotland and England.
Karen Christensen 07:19
Edinburgh is in Scotland and Carlisle is in England on to the west. So it’s a sort of diagonal.
Simon Walton 07:28
Yeah, it’s actually it’s almost a straight line. That’s just the way that Britain leans drunkenly over but remarkably, Edinburgh is actually further west when Carlisle of Edinburgh is on the east coast of Scotland and Carlisle is on the west coast.
Karen Christensen 07:44
All right, we’ll have to include a map. Even less, even more ignorant perhaps than.
Simon Walton 07:51
The geography is not really that the relevant point here the relevant point is the remoteness of these communities. And they’re not large communities by global standards, but we are talking our language directly served about 100,000 people, often it’s 100 miles, which is certainly not dense urban figures by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, because the communities were widely separated, the surface was not very attractive. So readership was ready law. And beaching Of course, saw that as a
Karen Christensen 08:36
true side there. What is it like to stay to drive around? I mean, what does it look like?
Simon Walton 08:42
I think the easiest way to describe it is it’s the Scottish Highlands in the lowlands. The countryside is quite hilly, not quite as mountainous as, as other parts of Scotland but not flat by any means. wide areas of forest and agricultural land. interspersed with what I can really only describe as archetypical Scottish towns. Beautiful stone-built High Streets,
Karen Christensen 09:15
Very beautiful. I’ve looked at some of them.
Simon Walton 09:17
It’s inspirational, but not just to me, it’s inspirational to the writer Walter Scott. Walter Scott made his home in the borders is, this house actually lies less than two miles from the current terminus of the borders railway. And if anyone needs any confirmation of Walter Scott’s popularity in his lifetime, he outsold Jesus. He actually sold more copies of his books were sold in the Western world of the Bible. That’s so popular he was that’s why that’s why there’s a 250-foot monument to him in the center of this most famous works, an epic series called the Waverley novels.
Karen Christensen 10:06
Oh, I see. Yes, I hadn’t made that connection.
Simon Walton 10:11
That actually is the reason why the main station in Edinburgh, which is one of the biggest stations in regression is called Edinburgh, Waverley city. And this line that runs through the borders was laterally promoted as the Waverley route, since it runs through makes
Karen Christensen 10:30
makes complete sense.
Simon Walton 10:33
All of the places that that you’ll find in Walter Scott’s novels. That’s the historical context of this world. It’s not the only connection between Scotland and England. And that really was its downfall. It’s difficult to rain as I said, it’s quite hilly. And there are lots of river crossings, viaduct and some very difficult tunnels on this line. And off the routes between Scotland and England, it was clearly the most expensive to maintain, and not the fastest either by any by any means. It was in any rationalization, it would be the first one to go and see what happened that it was lost. And it was lost in January the sixth 1969.
Karen Christensen 11:32
But the people of the area clearly didn’t forget about it.
Simon Walton 11:36
No, they fought very hard to retain their line. So much so that one small community on the line, the population, padlocks shut the gates on the level crossing, which is a very serious offense. So much so that the serving the serving minister, the Reverend, the religious Minister for the town, was actually arrested. And he is only to this day, he’s the only the only serving member of the cloth to have been arrested for breach of a piece
Karen Christensen 12:18
was he Scottish? He was that was a fear spanned.
Simon Walton 12:25
I think I think rather than his nationality. It was his commitment to the community. That was the reason behind his taking part in this very heartfelt protest. In fact, the campaign actually committee is represented and the tone of Newcastleton which is the small village Not to be confused with the English thing the city have almost the same name. They reenacted the padlocking of the precisely assess the 50 years after the after the event. I hope that’s
Karen Christensen 13:01
on YouTube, because we’ll have to link to it. Yeah. That so the campaign began again in 1999. Well, our the campaign started
Simon Walton 13:13
Yeah, formerly the campaign was incorporated in 1999. But there’s been a movement to reestablish the railway ever since it closed.
Karen Christensen 13:26
Yes, I imagine that that’s certainly the case here in in places where you meet people who’ve never forgotten. And yet, it has to be many,
Simon Walton 13:39
many reasons why the community were up in arms about this closure. They felt that the review process had been inefficiently undertaken, hadn’t really taken into account any of the hardships that we bring. And it’s true. The economic hardships in the borders are well documented. This part of Scotland was beautiful. I have to say it’s among the most economically deprived in the entire country. And the campaign would argue that it’s lack of communication, lack of connectivity that has contributed most to that state of affairs. And it was for these reasons that the campaign was formed. I should point out that we are not a heritage railway organization. It’s not our intention to have built a railway that tourists will enjoy. Yeah, any more than the community will use on a day to day basis. And that has always been her intention. And attention has always been the reinstatement of this entire main line this 100 miles between the capital of Scotland
Karen Christensen 14:55
and where is it now it runs it doesn’t run them full 100 miles at this
Simon Walton 14:59
No, it doesn’t. And that are two, two sides to that tail as well. The campaign has been the most successful grass roots lobby organization in in the country, in that we have persuaded government to rebuild 35 miles of railway line between the City of Edinburgh and the community of Galashiels, which is in the center of the Scottish Borders and
Karen Christensen 15:33
that last line was abandoned. It didn’t have anything running.
Simon Walton 15:38
It was completely abandoned, the tracks had been lifted. Most of the stations had been demolished. That the only thing in our favor was that the Victorian infrastructure in so much as the earth works or in engineering terms, the soul of the lane, broadly speaking, still existed. That made it economically possible to
Karen Christensen 16:05
make I saw on a photograph and amazing viaduct
Simon Walton 16:09
that is actually not far from Edinburgh. That is Lothian bridge via torn newbattle via Docker has two names. 17 Stone arches, it’s about it’s only 10 miles south of Edinburgh. It offers spectacular views from the train, I’m glad to see the countryside and the tone around. The rail runs through several small counties small by United States standards, but it runs from the City of Edinburgh through the county of Midlothian into the Scottish Borders briefly into Dumfries and Galloway before crossing the border into Cumbria, in England, and eventually into the city of Carlisle less than a mile of the lane, which does not have a spectacular view. So despite the fact that they’ve said, This line is not built for tourists, it’s no open and it is used hugely by tourists. Because that is such a spectacular.
Karen Christensen 17:16
I have to say the line that I focus on the Berkshire line from New York City to Berkshire County is very similar. We’re not nostalgic about it, but it actually will be a very beautiful ride. Yeah, that’s one. I’m glad to hear about that. Because it’s nice to be able to combine those.
Simon Walton 17:35
It’s been a long haul to get to where we are from, it took a long time to get the political persuasion behind the building of the line. But when the Scottish Parliament because transport issues or responsibility of the Scottish Parliament when they decided the line was going to be built. They did take a long time to go through the administrative process but from the first sword being cut to the first train running was precisely two years.
Karen Christensen 18:14
Oh, excellent. That’s the most aggressive which is which? And it shows that it can be done. That’s really impressive because you’re saying they were placed they had to rebuild the track.
Simon Walton 18:27
Yeah, yeah. They as I said, the earthworks were largely there. I, I paraphrase slightly because there were some civil engineering challenges to be overcome. But nonetheless, it was quite remarkable that when everyone actually got their hard hats and the work boots on, it took two years to build the
Karen Christensen 18:51
Simon Walton 18:53
I am I did at the time have a house, the garden of which actually abuts onto the lane. And I can recall in 2014 on November the 24th, which is my birthday, the track leading train came by the bottom of mine and the lead. I don’t remember being asked Simon, what did you get for your birthday? And I said a train set those are the new set or what scale I said 12 inches to the foot
Karen Christensen 19:37
what it’s really an exciting it’s really exciting to see new engineering. I mean we’re seeing that now but it’s not you know we have a an existing track here. And there are places around the states where freight trains are still running. So it’s a it is a somewhat simpler process, but the political side of it too. What do you attribute the success of this? And what lessons Do you have to share with the rest of us who are working on similar things?
Simon Walton 20:13
All right. But that’s a quite a lot to unpick. But I think, let me, let me grasp the political nettle. The campaign has always been, as we, as we say, in political terms, crossbench, we have always dealt with all political persuasions, because there is not one political party that will tell us that it’s not a good idea to better serve the communities. Our job has been to engage with those who are elected representatives. And make sure that building the railway is the top of their agenda for serving their communities. So if I can give any pointer to any organization, it will be engaged with politics. But remember whose side you’re on, you’re on the side of the community. And if you’re on the side of the community, then every political party will be on your side. We have quite a complicated political structure. In in Scotland, there are five main political parties that share our so it’s been complicated. And it’s to the campaign’s credit, that we’ve been able to engage with environmentalists, socialists, conservatives, liberals, everyone around the table, nationalists for some years now. And work with them all to the greater good. I sometimes feel that the campaign would make a better government than the government, because every ideology, because every ideology has at its heart, the welfare of the community in one shape or another. I would say that patience is definitely a virtue, that the political machine will never move as quickly as the campaign machine will move. And it will always take longer than you hope to achieve what you essentially do, but by having that long everything, then you will get there. It took us nearly 20 years to see the borders really, as its branded, opened. And that’s the 35 miles that run between Edinburgh and Galashiels. But for the remaining 65 miles, we still consider that to be phase two of our operation.
Karen Christensen 22:55
Simon Walton 22:56
we’ve not given up on that. In fact, I would say no, that we are more ambitious, and more confident than ever, that we can see this project completed. And yes, it will take time. And I’m often asked, how long will it take? And I say the same thing. As I’ve always said, that first shovel went in, and two years later, the first train ran. So there may be things that are in the corner that we don’t know about. But if the will is there, then it could take a shorter thing is that when I’m asked, I say, Well, imagine I’m a weatherman. I can tell you that in 10 years’ time, it will definitely have rained on our community. I can maybe see in six months’ time, with every likelihood that it will have rained on our community. But if you ask me, Simon, will it rain tomorrow? I have less certainty I can’t see for absolute certainty. So if you ask me if there’s going to be a train tomorrow, that runs onward, Foos, hike. And onto Carlisle. I can’t tell you but I can’t tell you with absolute certainty. In 10 years, I believe it will be. And we will see through trains running, not just between Edinburgh, Galashiels hike and Carlisle but on connecting Edinburgh at the borders with London with the rest of England, the rest of Scotland and we’ll see this restored as of Lytle arm of the national network.
Karen Christensen 24:39
Yes, and that that I’m just looking at a map and I can see that making that full connection is that it’s like a vital piece of a system quite well. it easy to see visually.
Simon Walton 24:55
Yeah, there are a lot of reasons to back up my rhetoric. In the past, we’ve understood the importance to the community, we’ve understood the importance to the region. And it’s not been too difficult to get those messages across. What has been difficult is to see build this real way, and it will be part of the national network. But the reason I can say that with more confidence now is that we do have the attention of stakeholders across the UK. And particularly, our listeners may well be familiar with the high speed to project. Yes, the high speed railway that’s being built between London and Birmingham, the two biggest cities in the UK, you may ask me why this railway in the south of Scotland should influence a railway that’s being built in the south of England. And the reason for that is that HS two is being built at phenomenal expense. And the stakeholders in that project have said, we need to extract the best return on that investment. And that means improving the capacity of the network as a whole.
Simon Walton 26:21
HS two will feed into something called the West Coast Main Line, which connects many big cities, between London, the northwest of England, and Glasgow, in central Scotland. It’s actually the busiest mixed route, mixed use railway in Europe. And it’s particularly busy on the stretch between Carlisle and Glasgow. And it’s going to get even busier when HS two opens and feeds new services into that line. And the problem is being a mixed use railway. Cutting both passenger and freight means that its capacity is compromised by slower moving freight trains, moderately moving regional trains and very high speeds express trains. So if you can take some of that traffic off the west coast mainline and unify the speed, but trains travel, you can greatly increase the capacity on that line. And that’s where borders real we would play its national park. And that’s not me saying that. That’s high speed rail Group, a consortium of stakeholders in the HS two project who’s actually said, to get the best return on investment for our Railway, complete the borders. Really,
Karen Christensen 27:44
that is terrific. What a what a useful point. This is for us in the United States where there’s something of a debate between, you know, should we go high speed should we go? You know, the higher performance restoring rights. It’s not one it’s not a zero sum. It’s not either or,
Simon Walton 28:05
I think that the states need to Roosevelt for real because the freeway building program that transformed the United States unified The United States
Simon Walton 28:19
as run its course, but for 30 years of investment on precedented levels. And because of it abstracted from the real network, which, you know, in many ways was the envy of the world. Is the stuff of fantasy, the long distance real travel in America and in the 30.
Karen Christensen 28:44
Simon Walton 28:46
I’ve seen North by Northwest more times. And I think for the United States to look to its connectivity in the 21st century. It would take the same sort of societal and structural change that brought about the freeway network to bring about a modern 21st century railway network. And I choose my words carefully there. I didn’t say bring back in the same way as I’ve not said bring back the Waverley route. Yes, because that is not what the campaign is doing. The campaign is working towards a viable railway fit for purpose in the 21st century. The service that exists at the moment, albeit a short line or a branch line, as we call them here is more frequent, and runs for longer than more hours in the day than any time in the history of that railway. It’s used by more people now than it ever was when it was opened as a main lane. The huge bus Potential workers were to be realized by completing this line is plain for anyone to see. And I know that I’ve had the privilege of debating this with the first ministers of Scotland more than one of them. And they’ve said to me, Well, we’ll see how it goes. And I can only say that well, you know, after five and a half years of seeing it go, like a train. isn’t the time to complete this project?
Karen Christensen 30:33
Yes. Well, we’re going to be watching this with great interest, both because it makes sense for the UK, obviously, and Scotland, Scotland and England. But it but it also is really very interesting and relevant to projects that are being discussed or campaign for this state. So I really appreciate the chance to at least talk to you. And we’ll be following you closely. Let’s stay in touch and I next time I get to London, I am going north and I’m going to go and see this. See this for myself.
Well, I hope calendar before too long. You’ll be able to choose to go from London to Edinburgh here, Carlisle and the borders.
Karen Christensen 31:21
I will be on that train at Waverley station. Yes. Okay, great. Thank you so much, Simon. Thank you for joining me today.