Rail's triumphant return

Materials World magazine
3 Aug 2015

Dr Richard Crockett, former President of the Mining Institute of Scotland and Chair of Campaign for Borders Rail, discusses the project and the engineering challenges presented.

Although not offering any engineering challenge comparable with London’s Crossrail, Scotland’s rail renaissance of recent years has been remarkable. September 2015 will see the completion of the biggest revival of all when the Borders Railway opens.

The closure of the Waverley route linking Edinburgh and Carlisle and its feeder branches in the years leading up to 1969 was deeply felt. Towns such as Hawick and Galashiels, each with populations of around 20,000, were left as far removed as any from the national network. Great changes in demographic, social and employment patterns in the central Borders in the past four decades have emphasised the poverty of its transport links, and it was felt that a wide corridor within the Midlothian and Scottish Borders regions would benefit from the revived rail link. This has entailed the re-building of 50km of new railway, largely – but not exclusively – on the old track bed. The route runs from the existing rail head at Newcraighall to a purpose-designed transport hub at Tweedbank, between Galashiels and Melrose. On the Edinburgh periphery, the new Shawfair urban development ought to benefit and, further south, old mining communities such as Newtongrange and Gorebridge should expand.

Almost as soon as the old railway closed, pressure for at least a partial re-opening emerged. By the late 1990s, this had crystallised into a vocal alliance between local political and commercial interests, the regional authorities and various voluntary groups. Taking the lead among the latter as effective lobbyists was the Campaign for Borders Rail (CBR), founded in 1999. In 2001, the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament met in Galashiels and learnt of the strong local sentiment in favour of the railway. The legislative process culminated with the acceptance of the Waverley Railway Bill on 14th June 2006. For some time, further progress was slow, with difficulties in determining the funding model for the £295 million project. During this phase, intense lobbying by CBR countered moves to reduce engineering specifications for the project and ensure that future charter traffic could be accommodated. In November 2012, Transport Scotland signed a Transfer of Responsibility with Network Rail who, in turn, let the main construction contract to BAM-Nuttall. Since then, progress has been commendably rapid and has visibly demonstrated effective management of a large-scale engineering project.

The engineering challenges

The final specification for the railway called for around 34km of single line. The remainder consists of three long loops signalled to allow trains to pass at speed. Six intermediate stations have been constructed. The terminus at Tweedbank contains a long island platform between two lines and will be adjacent to an extensive park-and-ride facility.

It was fortunate for the project that very little post-1969 development had impinged on the line of the old railway. Many of the old bridges crossing the meandering Gala Water were intact and needed little beyond cosmetic treatment. However, had the 23-arch Lothian bridge viaduct 10km south of Edinburgh been demolished, it is unlikely that rebuilding would have been possible.

Major engineering solutions were called for at other localities. In the north, deflection from the old route was needed to ensure a 900 crossing of the (post-1969) A720 Edinburgh by-pass. During the construction of a short burrow-under tunnel, a temporary road was provided, resilient enough to carry a heavy vehicle load. This divergence, in turn, took the line of rail across the curtilage of the abandoned Monktonhall colliery. Ground investigation was therefore undertaken to determine the position of sub-surface voids and guide any necessary concrete infilling.

Some kilometres to the south, at Hardengreen, the construction of a 71.5m prefabricated concrete bridge was the biggest civil engineering requirement of the whole project. Several hundred metres of the old railway embankment had been removed during the construction of a major road interchange. The solution was to place a central pier in the middle of the roundabout. Paired spans either side were then craned in during two weekend road closures. Two other lesser, but still substantial, crossings of the A7 trunk road were necessary at Middleton and near the summit of the line at Falahill. 

Near Stow, the Bowshank tunnel (230m), the only significant one on the line, needed some attention to the old lining. In Galashiels town centre, a further deviation from the old route was necessary because of recent road works. Associated with this was the insertion of deep piling linked with the construction of a new road bridge. This had the extra benefit of ensuring slope stability near a location that had proved troublesome to the old railway.

Track-laying proper commenced in October 2014, with concrete sleepers having been laid out in advance. The highly mechanised process enabled 100m track panels to be set out at a rate of one or two kilometres per day. This was followed by a programme of ballasting, tamping and rail stressing and was largely complete by March 2015. Construction of ancillary works, station buildings, telecommunications, signalling and access roads was completed by the end of May, 2015. This allowed the Train Operating Company (Scotrail/Abellio) to begin operational training on time on 8 June, 2015.

Looking forward

The completion of the project has encouraged discussion as to the possibility of further extensions and enhancements. The case for extending the passenger service a further 30km to Hawick is strong. The Holyrood administration has, however, gone much further and has spoken of reinstatement of the whole of the old route, to Carlisle. The feasibility of this has yet to be demonstrated. Little locally-originating traffic, except possibly timber, can be expected from the sparsely populated country south of Hawick. If through Anglo-Scottish traffic – perhaps including specialised train-load freight – is envisaged, long stretches of single line might be an inhibiting factor. In this context, had the old railway survived a little longer it might have been re-engineered at lesser cost. New traffic on the Settle and Carlisle line, threatened with closure in the 1980s, and the recently re-doubled Kilmarnock-Dumfries route are object lessons.

The rail network of south east Scotland – decimated after the Beeching cuts of the 1960s – is about to experience a remarkable resurrection. The effect upon communities suffering from the decline of traditional industries such as textiles is likely to be profound. Edinburgh, the centre of increasing political and economic power and constrained by the Firth of Forth to its north, will find a new direction to expand