Michael Moore writes…A celebration of the Liberal Democrats who made the Borders railway possible

The campaign to restore the railway to the Borders, enthusiastically championed by David Steel, was already a couple of decades old in the late 1990s, pre devolution. But in 1998 the region was hit by the economic tsunami of the closure of the Viasystems factories, a major printed circuit board manufacturer, and the world famous Pringle knitwear operation in Hawick – thousands of jobs were lost with some clicks on a financier’s spreadsheet.

Archy Kirkwood and I led a delegation to St Louis, Missouri, to seek to persuade the owners of Viasystems to keep the factories open. While the mission failed, it heaped pressure on Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar and his Industry Minister Gus MacDonald. A taskforce, led by a remarkable civil servant, Godfrey Robson, produced a plan which included regional funding support, a broadband link (it was all new fangled then…) for our local Heriot Watt campus and, crucially, the desktop study, by engineering consultants Scott Wilson, into the re-start of the railway.

The Scott Wilson report upended the thinking on the railway – instead of reinstating it south of Hawick as a freight line taking timber from Kielder Forest southwards, it was to start in the village of Tweedbank and head north as a commuter and tourist line. More work was needed, but here was something tangible to grab hold of, which is exactly what the Campaign for Borders Rail, the council, Scottish Enterprise Borders and the region’s two MPs did.

But whereas the other parts of the package were pledges of cash and assistance, there was no commitment from the Labour government to deliver anything more than the study. So, we kept campaigning and, in the aftermath of the first Scottish Parliamentary elections in 1999, we secured a commitment to the restoration of the line in our negotiations with the Labour party. As one of Jim Wallace’s negotiating team, having chaired the party’s election campaign, I was able to provide the background and support needed to get the commitment in place. Thereafter, Jim, with Ian Jenkins and Euan Robson kept up the pressure against a sceptical Labour team and a very sceptical civil service. In Westminster I took advantage of the Transport Bill of 1999 to move amendments about the Waverley Line, testing the patience of both the committee chair and my good friend Don (soon to be Lord) Foster in the process.

Scroll forward to the next Scottish Parliament and Jeremy Purvis and Euan Robson were there working on the Bill while we all helped Tavish Scott and Nicol Stephen justify the business case. I remember Nicol meeting us in Langlee, in Galashiels, just before he appeared in front of the Bill Committee in the local community centre. He was poised to overrule the advice from civil servants and approve the expenditure and endorse the legislation. He confessed, however, that on his drive down the A7 he had ended up counting all the bridges needing repaired and the built up areas that would need to be skirted round – were we all sure about this idea? ‘Yes’ came the loud reply! Reassured, he delivered the endorsement and cleared the path to the legislative powers that the railway needed.

There were many campaign heroes over the decades, of most parties and none: Jeremy spent years harrying the SNP minority government to get the funding package in place, while the council leader in the Borders, David Parker. played an immense role in forging and maintaining the complex alliances needed to get the whole project delivered. And without the heroine of the cause, Madge Elliot from Hawick, perhaps none of this would have happened. So, we should make sure the credit is properly allocated, but not be shy about celebrating the roles of many Liberal Democrats, from David onwards, who were part of the team that helped to deliver this magnificent railway.

It was an immense privilege to be on the first train out of Tweedbank on Saturday morning, but now everybody can celebrate the success of the campaign and enjoy the train from Tweedbank to Edinburgh – please do!

* Michael Moore was the Liberal Democrat MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk from 1997-2015 and Secretary of State for Scotland from 2010-2013.

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4 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 7th Sep '15 - 11:50am

    To be opened by the Queen? (according to the Sunday Times).

    Michael Moore please also comment somewhere on the use of aid money in country as proposed by the Chancellor and First Minister on Sunday 6/9/2015.

  • Now get it extended to Carlisle and really see the benefits!

  • >Now get it extended to Carlisle and really see the benefits!

    My first thoughts, were that you were being a little optimistic, so I took a look at a map to refresh the memory and released that I had put Tweedbank nearer to Berwick than it actually is; namely only 50 miles from Carlisle and 63 miles from Newcastle upon Tyne (distances “as the crow flies”). So given the existing rail routes in the area, a not unreasonable suggestion 🙂

  • I’m not a fan of the Lib Dems but I suggest somebody in the Lib Dems has a go at rewriting the Wikipedia version of this issue. Their version jumps from 1992 to 1999 and totally ignores the Scott Wilson report. In fact it totally ignores the role of the Lib Dems and the first politician they credit is an SNP MSP.

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