Two items of news this week — the start of route learning on the section from Newcraighall to Tweedbank and confirmation that officials from the Scottish administration have looked into the feasibility of reopening the section south from Tweedbank to Carlisle, this restoring a fourth cross-border route — suggest that one of the more controversial closures of the Beeching era may yet be fully reversed.
The line owes its origins to one of the most historic in Scotland. The 4ft 6in gauge Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway opened primarily for the shipment of coal from the Dalkeith area to Edinburgh and to the port at Leith. Authorised by an Act of Parliament on 26 May 1826, the line was engineered by James Jardine and was designed for the use of horse traction. The line opened from St Leonards to Craighall — near modern Newcraighall — on 4 July 1831 before being extended to Dalhouse Mains (Eskbank) in October 1831. Further extensions saw the Edinburgh & Dalkeith reach Dalkeith, Leith and Fisherrow.
Although originally intended as a freight line alone, passenger services began between St Leonards and North Esk on 2 June 1832. These were promoted by a local entrepreneur, Michael Fox, with the railway assuming operation four years later
On 4 July 1844 the North British Railway was incorporated following a further Act; the new railway was authorised to construct a line from Edinburgh to Berwick along with a branch to Haddington. In October 1845, following the granting of parliamentary powers in July 1845, the new railway acquired the Edinburgh & Dalkeith with the intention of extending the line towards Galashiels and converting the existing line to standard gauge. The line was closed in 1846 to permit the conversion work to be completed with the now standard gauge line opening from Edinburgh to Gorebridge for freight traffic on 7 July 1847 and to passenger traffic on the 14th.
Southwards to Hawick, the line was promoted by the Edinburgh & Hawick Railway, which had been incorporated following an Act on 31 July 1845. This nominally independent company was to be significantly funded by NBR directors and its transfer to the NBR had already been authorised by the NBR (Edinburgh & Dalkeith Purchase) Act of 21 July 1845 — 10 days before its actual authorisation. Work commenced and the route was opened to Hawick on 1 November 1849.
Whilst the original intention may well have been Carlisle, the further extension southwards was not authorised until 21 July 1959 when the 43-mile long Border Union Railway was authorised. The new line opened from Carlisle to Scotch Dyke, near Riddings Junction, on 12 October 1861, thence to Newcastleton on 1 March 1862 and finally through to Hawick on 24 June 1862. Initially this new line was almost a white elephant; little traffic was generated as, inevitably, the dominant London & North Western at Carlisle sent most of the Anglo-Scottish traffic onwards via its partner, the Caledonian. It was only the opening of a new competitor — in the shape of the Midland Railway’s Settle-Carlisle route (to freight in August 1875 and to passenger traffic on 1 May 1876) — that brought the potential of new traffic to the line.
Despite this, the Waverley route was very much the ‘Cinderella’ of the Anglo-Scottish routes — a fact that the Pacific-hauled expresses that operated over the line could not really disguise. Traffic was always much more viable on the original line north from Hawick but the opening of a brand-new marshalling yard at Millerhill in 1963 seemed to bode well that the route had a future as a major freight route between England and Scotland.
One man can perhaps be regarded as having thwarted those aspirations. Dr Richard Beeching in his report published in March 1963 effectively dealt a deathblow to the line in two ways. Firstly, the passenger service was slated as one of those to see all services withdrawn. Secondly, in his examination of future freight patters, Beeching effectively condemned the traditional wagonload freight business, consigning yards such as Millerhill to history almost before they were completed. Millerhill, as with many of the marshalling yards completed at this time, was never used to its full potential and was finally to close in 1983.
The threat to the Waverley route, as with so many other lines listed for closure, galvanised opposition and a long a bitter campaign was fought to try and keep the line open. In the end these efforts were to prove ineffective and, on 6 January 1969, passenger services ceased. The final services to operate were disrupted by opponents of closure and a mock coffin was transported to mark the demise of the route.
The closure of 6 January 1969 saw all traffic withdrawn from the Hawick to Longtown section; freight traffic was withdrawn between Hawick and Lady Victoria Pit, just to the south of Edinburgh on 28 April 1969. The southern section, from Brunthill (in Carlisle) to Longtown closed completely on 31 August 1970 and the section from Lady Victoria Pit to Newtongrange succumbing on 20 December 1971. The final section, from Millerhill to Newtongrange, closed on 28 June 1972.
The closure of the Waverley route led to one of the most ambitious early preservation schemes. Promoted by the Austrian-born broadcaster and inventor Bob Symes (Robert Symes-Shutzmann), who died in 2015 at the age of 90, the Border Union Railway was a proposal to take over, lock, stock and barrel, the line from Edinburgh to Carlisle. Although much reported at the time, these proposals eventually came to nothing and the line was dismantled.
More recently preservation has returned to the line through the Waverley Route Heritage Association, which has established a base at Whitrope with the first track on the route being relaid in September 2002.
The lifting of the line and the gradual demolition of the infrastructure — such as the viaduct at Hawick — might have been the end of the story. However, on 3 June 2002, passenger services were restored at the northernmost extremity of the line to a new station at Newcraighall, immediately to the north of Millerhill, and in June 2006 the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish parliament. This permitted the restoration of the line southwards as far as Tweedbank, just to the south of Galashiels. Although some preliminary work took place earlier, formal construction work commenced on 3 March 2010 at Galashiels when Stewart Stevenson MSP, the then Scottish Transport Minister. The final section of track was laid on the revived route on 12 February 2015 at Tweedbank.
The announcement that route learning duties using Class 158 units brings the return of passenger trains to this part of the Scottish borders — scheduled for 6 September 2015 — closer and, along with it, the tantalising possibility that, should the feasibility studies prove positive, another of Beeching’s closures be reversed.