Book: Waverley Route: the life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway

David Spaven, Ewan Crawford

David Spaven's book 'Waverley Route: the life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway' was launched at the Town Hall in Stow in August last year. At present, March 2013, the paperback is one of the most popular railway titles on Amazon. Clearly it has struck a nerve. Intrigued, Ewan Crawford asked David some questions on behalf of Railscot.

Why write a book on the Waverley Route at this time?

Well, it happened almost by accident! In mid-2009 I spotted an interesting shot by Bruce McCartney in the 'Latest Photographs' section of the Railscot web site - an LMR DMU at Riccarton Junction on the daily 'Scud' service from Carlisle to Hawick, which was the only regular DMU service on the southern half of the line. Given my fond memories of Riccarton, I sent an e-mail to Bruce (whom I hadn't come across before) commending the shot.

Riccarton Junction: The evening Carlisle - Hawick stopping service arrives at Riccarton Junction in 1968. The bay platform to the left was originally used by trains off the Border Counties Line from Hexham. Riccarton south box stands in the background. Bruce McCartney //1968

We were soon exchanging memories by e-mail, and it transpired that Bruce had been thinking about writing a book about the railway. This struck a chord - after all, I'd been involved with the Waverley Route since the early 1960s and had been active in the re-opening movement since 1993 - and I enjoyed writing! With the 50th anniversary of Beeching not that far over the horizon, the timing seemed right, and we soon had a third collaborator on board in the shape of Bill Jamieson - a regular Railscot contributor of course, whom I had first met at university in the early 1970s and who had been a mainstay of the Campaign for Borders Rail since its launch in 1999.

Eventually we concluded that there was so much material that there would need to be two books - with Bruce concentrating on a planned volume on The Life & Times of the Waverley Route, me focussing on Waverley Route: the life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway, and Bill providing photographic, historical and other advice to both of us.

From the start I had been determined to do two things. Firstly to search the archives to get to the bottom of the politics of why the line was axed, and secondly to ensure that history properly recorded the two key initiatives which lay behind the modern re-opening movement - the efforts of Simon Longland and Borders Transport Futures in the mid-1990s, and the key grassroots role of the Campaign for Borders Rail from 1999 onwards.

You mention an introductory trip to Riccarton Junction with your father in 1961. What journey did you make that day and what was it that made the junction magical?

A long time ago now, but I think the whole family (my mother and father, brother and I) left Edinburgh on a morning train - it was in November, and must have been a Saturday - and spent a few hours soaking up the atmosphere at Riccarton. What made it magical? Its glorious isolation in unspoilt countryside, with no road traffic - just trains. And of course the sheer uniqueness of the community of Riccarton Junction, with access only by train. Two names got imprinted on my memory there - Flying Dutchman and Ariel, the Britannia class locos which were working out their last days on the route, and hauled a couple of the trains we spotted there that memorable day.

Riccarton Junction: Britannia Pacific no 70018 Flying Dutchman on the 12 noon Edinburgh-Carlisle at Riccarton Junction on 6th November 1961. This class was a daily sight on the Waverley Route during the brief sojourn of 70018 and classmate 70016 Ariel at Carlisle Canal Shed from September 1961 until May 1962, and then on a less regular basis while operating from Kingmoor between 1963 and November 1967, when the last known Britannia working over the line took place just a few weeks before the closure of 12A on 1st January 1968. [The young admirer is David Spaven.] Frank Spaven Collection (Courtesy David Spaven) 06/11/1961

Were you aware of your father, and other's, efforts to retain the line? Was he hopeful?

My father was a modest man and didn't talk much about his work at the Scottish Office, where - after publication of the Beeching Report - he was making the regional development case for retention of the Waverley Route. However, we were in no doubt about his conviction that the railway was a vital part of the Borders infrastructure. In his spare time he was also an activist with the Scottish Railway Development Association, which argued long and hard for the retention of the railway - and I well remember Tom Hart, who is still a leading light with SAPT (the renamed SRDA), calling at our Inverleith house in Edinburgh to discuss campaigning issues with my father.

It is striking that the branch line to Kyle, serving almost no population along its route, remains open whilst the through line between Edinburgh and Carlisle serving two towns is closed. Is it the different way the campaigns for retention were run that made this difference? Was there some apathy or simply disbelief?

One has to say that there was some rough justice dealt out with 1960s closure decisions - the Central Wales Line survived because it passed through three marginal constituencies (and Harold Wilson stepped in to make the political decision to reprieve the railway), while the Waverley Route was sacrificed in total because the Labour Government was determined to show that it meant business in sorting out the British Rail deficits which had not been eliminated by the vast programme of closures since 1969. And there were no marginal constituencies in the Borders.

When my father moved to the Highlands & Island Development Board (HIDB) in 1966 he argued strongly for the regional development role of the rail network, and I've no doubt that he played an important part in the second reprieve of the Kyle line in 1974. Interestingly, as discovered by the Scotsman journalist Allan McLean in the 1990s, my father had been instrumental in his Scottish Office days in recommending retention of the lines north of Inverness when they were first threatened with closure in 1964. The 'MacPuff' campaign played its cards well, trading on political sensitivities about the Highlands - whereas the later grassroots campaign in the Borders was too little and too late. Even in the 1970s there were still some significant inadequacies in the road alternative to the Kyle line, and of course the creation of the oil platform yard at Kishorn meant an important ongoing freight role for the railway.

We should not forget that until the 1980s the Kyle line was still a multi-purpose railway - carrying passengers, parcels, Post Office mails and freight. Nowadays, the overdependence on tourist traffic is worrying, and my father - who travelled to New Zealand, Norway and Sweden to study highland railways for a post-retirement MSc degree at Aberdeen University - was convinced that routes like the Kyle line needed freight (such as timber) to make their economic role unassailable.

Was the size of the subsidy grant the specific reason for closure or was there a form of animosity against this particular route?

Barbara Castle and then Richard Marsh both argued that reprieving (and then grant-aiding) even the Hawick-Edinburgh section would be a hostage to fortune, and would put pressure on Government to concede other reprieves and thereby further inflate BR losses at a time when public expenditure was under pressure (isn’t it always!?) following the devaluation of the pound in 1967.

I do think the Waverley Route as a whole offered a symbolic 'scalp' for BR cost reduction, but the problem was that the far more viable section north of Hawick got dragged down by the latterly hopeless economics of the remaining double track over 'the Debatable Land' between Hawick and Carlisle.

BR quoted a grant subsidy of 220,000-310,000 pounds per annum whereas your study with Bill Jamieson suggests the figure could have been closer to 119,000 pounds. How did BR misjudge this so badly? Was the existing poor timetable partly to blame?

Unfortunately very few BR papers from that time have survived, so nobody has been able to go through the detailed make-up of their figures other than the basic published breakdown into movement / terminal / track & signalling costs and a global figure for revenue. However Bill and I used authoritative base data to build up a more optimistic picture on costs and in particular revenue. The latter had been declining year-on-year - and no wonder! An irregular timetable involved gaps of up to five hours between trains and there had been no concerted efforts to develop the tourism potential of the line. Bill and I concluded that the decline could have been arrested in 1969 by a new service north of Hawick (on a rationalised 'basic railway') based on:

- regular-interval operation
- an increased frequency of 10 trains in each direction - compared to seven/eight in the 1968 timetable
- faster average journey times - as all minor stations would be closed
- car parking facilities at stations, more attractive fares (reflecting elasticities of demand) and better promotion of the railway.

Do you recall the announcement of closure and your (and your father's) reaction?

We were both devastated (I was 16 at the time) when we heard in mid-1968 that Richard Marsh had approved closure - by that time we had been living in Inverness for two years. I even wrote a letter of protest to Harold Wilson!

When did you last travel on the line?

On Thursday 2nd January 1969, my father and I caught the 07.06 stopping train from Waverley and spent an hour at Riccarton, chatting to the signalman at the South box (who had been offered relocation to Inverness, ironically), before leaving this unforgettable location for the last time on the 10.20 departure to Edinburgh. I have long vowed that I will never return unless the railway also returns.

Is there a particular photograph (or photographs) of the line which evoke your strongest memories of the line? If you were present what do you recall of the occasion?

Standing beside the footplate of 70018 Flying Dutchman at Riccarton on 6th November 1961, and 4 and half years later watching a Peak power up the bank past Riccarton North box with the Carlisle-Edinburgh service conveying through coaches from St Pancras. On the latter occasion my father and I had walked in cross-country the day before, from Roberton to Riccarton by Hermitage Castle, and I recollect that we only reached the railway as dusk was falling - we climbed up the side of the embankment and walked along the line to Riccarton, where we camped overnight in sight of the North box. An unforgettable experience.

Riccarton Junction: The photographer's son, during a camping holiday with his father at Riccarton Junction on a late spring afternoon in 1966, savours a Leeds 'Peak' battling up the 1 in 75 towards Whitrope Summit with the daily Carlisle-Edinburgh service conveying through coaches from St Pancras. Riccarton North box - a more attractive structure than its surviving sister at Riccarton South see image [[23830]] - still survived despite having closed in April 1959. Frank Spaven Collection (Courtesy David Spaven) //1966

Who should we thank for starting the movement to re-open the line?

Unquestionably Simon Longland, whom as I describe in my book surveyed the whole solum from Millerhill to Harker on his motor bike in 1992 - and later founded Borders Transport Futures which came very close to re-opening the southern section of the line to timber traffic, and put re-opening north of Tweedbank firmly on the agenda.

Selkirk Junction: Simon Longland - whose 1992 motor-bike trek to survey all the surviving structures of the Waverley Route started the process which should culminate in the 2015 Borders Railway re-opening - admires the surviving steam deflectors below the pedestrian footbridge spanning the railway at Langlee at the south east end of Galashiels, on 2nd April. Given the design of the bridge, and the steam-related deflector requirement, this adornment must have been created in the early to mid-1960s. Beyond the bridge, a stretch of the old solum has been infilled and will need to be re-excavated. See image [[46466]] David Spaven 02/04/2010

Why is a line in the Borders viable now, but was not in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

Depends what you mean by viable! Most railways are not 'commercial' in the conventional sense because of the high cost of operating and maintaining segregated track infrastructure, but are valued for their wider economic, social and environmental benefits. However, I would expect the Borders Railway to cover its operating costs.

In the 1960s the timetable was irregular and infrequent, and road congestion in and around Edinburgh had yet to become a serious problem. At the time, most - but not all - people thought the future was the car and the lorry. For decades now, house prices in Edinburgh have 'forced' many who work in the city to live elsewhere, and commuting distances have become steadily longer. The Borders Railway will play a key role in providing an attractive alternative to the car and the bus from both the Borders and Midlothian to Edinburgh (and for intermediate journeys).

What was it that convinced the Borders Council to support re-opening?

The late 1990s industrial down-turn in the Borders - notably the closure of electronics plants and the continuing decline of the textile industry. The railway was seen as a key tool of economic regeneration, increasing access to employment and education, and making the region a more attractive location for younger people.

Have you come across any lesser known public archives during the research process?

I made some fascinating discoveries at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh - including copies of many of the letters of objection to the closure proposal in 1966 - and was getting tantalisingly close to the final explanation of how and why the closure was approved by Government in 1968 when I had the great good fortune to be introduced to a London-based 'amateur' archive researcher, Bernard Lamb, by Bruce McCartney. The National Records of Scotland had revealed much of the debate between the 'doves' of the Scottish Office and the 'hawks' in the Ministry of Transport to within days of the final decision on closure, but it was Bernard's assiduous research at the National Archives at Kew which unearthed the Minutes of the crucial Ministerial Committee meetings in London which sealed the line's fate. These were the critical last pieces in the jigsaw.

Did the recent reopening of the Larkhall branch, Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line and Airdrie-Bathgate line have any bearing on the re-opening?

I think these re-openings - but particularly Edinburgh-Bathgate in 1986, which is the only one which preceded the launch of the Borders rail campaign - have been extremely useful to supporters of rail re-opening to Tweedbank. And the much greater than forecast success of these new routes has also been a key argument against some of the unbelievably pessimistic 'business case' projections for the Borders Railway - not least the latest from Transport Scotland, which astonishingly equates to just three passengers per train at Gala!

The reinstatement of Edinburgh Trams has been difficult throughout, were lessons learned from this?

You need to have the right skills on board - and arguably the original Waverley Railway Partnership did not always have this, employing consultants who did not necessarily understand the subtleties of the territory they were dealing with, notably the tourism potential of the Borders Railway. Although there had been many senseless breaches of the Waverley Route solum, there were none of the complexities of long-buried utilities which plagued the Edinburgh tram project.

Do you think this re-opening could encourage further major re-openings in Scotland and throughout Britain?

I think this will depend on the economic situation - and whether we continue to have a Scottish Government which is obsessed with prioritising wasteful and unnecessary trunk road-building schemes.

It seems to me that there are certainly strong arguments for reconnecting Leven / Methil and Buchan to the rail network. Once the Borders Railway opens in 2015, Gala and Hawick will lose the unwanted mantle of the towns of their size furthest from the British railway network to Fraserburgh (population 13,000, and 40 miles by road from Dyce station), and Peterhead (population 18,000, and 31 miles from Dyce). Grangemouth and St Andrews also have a case for the return of passenger train services - and indeed the South Sub in Edinburgh, perhaps based on use of 'tram-trains'?

Will you be on the first train to Tweedbank?

Well, I'm not sure how me and several thousand other folk are going to get on board this particular train!

As I recount in my book, the last northbound Anglo-Scottish freight over the Waverley Route was headed by D6851, which as 37 667 is still hauling main-line freight for DRS. For some time now I have been working on my good friends at DRS to persuade them to run a special from Carlisle to Tweedbank via Edinburgh (perhaps initially via the Harker stub too) as soon as the railway re-opens, with this amazing survivor at the front! And they wouldn't have to twist my arm to accept a footplate pass …

Ardrossan South Beach: Platform scene at Ardrossan South Beach on 24 April 2012 with DRS 37194+37667 passing on the 6M22 Hunterston - Carlisle Yard nuclear flasks. [Editor's note: Locomotive 37667 (then D6851) hauled the last down Anglo-Scottish freight over the Waverley Route (the 08.30 Kingmoor-Millerhill) on Saturday 4th January 1969.] Ken Browne 24/04/2012

Related links

Border Union Railway
Edinburgh and Hawick Railway

David Spaven signing a copy of
David Spaven is a rail transport consultant and author. For more details visit the Deltix website .

Cover of Waverley Route: the life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway by David Spaven.

You may buy David's book:
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Barbara Castle was Minister for Transport from 23 December 1965 to 6 April 1968.
Richard Marsh followed on from 6 April 1968 to 6 October 1969.


1986 Edinburgh-Bathgate
2005 Larkhall Branch
2008 Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine
2010 Airdrie-Bathgate

Possible re-openings

Leven Branch
Buchan Line
Grangemouth Branch
St Andrews Branch
Edinburgh Suburban

Site links

Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway

Edinburgh and Hawick Railway (North British Railway)

Border Union Railway (North British Railway)

North British Railway