by SRB

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

September 20, 2012 | by SRB

A rather dense looking book on railways wouldn’t normally recommend itself for review especially as I don’t know a BRCW Type 2 from an A3 Pacific. However, I make an exception for David Spaven’s Waverley Route: the life death and rebirth of the Borders Railway.

I was a youngster in Galashiels when the Waverley line closed in 1969 on the back of the Beeching Report. At the time, I didn’t see that much to be concerned about. My friends and I would no longer be placing coins on the track to see how trains distorted them. On the other hand, nobody had to put an ear to the rail and listen for approaching trains before we passed through the Torwoodlee tunnel in search of more productive fishing spots.

Many years later I realized that the closure had a wider family consequence. My parents both learned to drive in their forties so that they could visit my brother who was a long term Inpatient at Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh. A torturous bus journey was the only alternative.

According to Spaven, my apathy was echoed in the adult community, though in a different way. The campaign against closure was fatally weakened by a Borders sense of “Aye been”. In other words, “that’s what’s going to happen and there is nothing we can do about it”. This contrasts with the outcry in the Highlands which helped save the railway there. Another factor was the transfer from the Borders to the Highlands of Spaven’s father Frank who was a persuasive pro-railway civil servant in the Scottish Office.

Spaven Jr. also blames closure on a failure to see the railway as part of a bigger development plan for the Borders, Governmental structures which ultimately had a London-based ministry with statutory powers for all railways, realpolitik around public spending pressures, and short-sighted strategic decisions taken by British Rail in the 1950s. It’s also fair to say he’s not happy with certain politicians and their civil service advisers ‘supposedly representing the public interest’.

The practical consequence of all this was that the Waverley line became the longest cut made under Beeching and Hawick, for instance, suddenly found itself forty five miles from the nearest railhead. The economic, social and (much neglected) psychological consequences of being summarily cut off from the national train-transport system are more difficult to assess, though Spaven makes a good fist of it.

These are serious issues matched by the author with serious analysis. Spaven doesn’t really do humour. He uses ‘back on track’ and its various derivatives without apparently meaning to be punny. And if he saw irony in the fact that a rail area manager in Hawick missed a meeting because he was off taking a driving lesson, he doesn’t say so. The convoluted calculations in the section ‘How much subsidy did Edinburgh-Hawick really need?’ are as challenging for the reader as the grade at Falahill once was for locomotives.

However, if the amateur reader loses his way a bit through some of the denser sections, he snaps to quickly enough when the author excoriates those individuals and institutions he considers were either implicated in the railway closing or are – to put it kindly – unhelpful in its restoration (now due in 2014).

The latter category includes various authorities who gave consent for building on the rail solum which resulted in transgressions ranging from the Asda store in Gala to a private garage in Stow; certain (though not all) members of the Waverley Railway Partnership which was promoted by Scottish Borders Council; the Borders Party whose leader has suggested that the money be better spent in Glasgow; and a current MSP who has seems to be arguing that no railway at all would be better than one that only goes to Galashiels.

The book is enlivened by anecdotes picked up in various interviews conducted with those involved in the railway issue in the 1960s. One is David Steel, long time Borders MP, who descended ‘into the freezing night’ from the last sleeper train south and addressed the people who were obstructing the line at Newcastleton.  Incidentally, even Steel, a dedicated opponent of closure and leader of petitioners to London, is rapped on the knuckles by Spaven for not carrying out ‘his earlier threat to resign as MP and precipitate a by-election’.

I now know that a BRCW Type 2 is a diesel and A3 Pacific a steam engine and lot more besides (including why it has taken so long to deliver a new Borders railway and why the cost has escalated so much). I am not sure who is going to read this book apart from railway enthusiasts and current or former denizens of the Borders, but it deserves a much wider audience. Social historians should certainly be interested and, above all, any contemporary planners who find themselves in a situation where long term vision is posited against short term cost cutting. 

[The Waverley Route: life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway is published by Argyll Publishing]

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