In April 1969, I read an article in Railway World magazine about the closure of the Waverley Route. The report had a profound effect on me which has stayed with me throughout my personal professional life.
Only a few months before I had felt let down by the loss of steam traction from the National network. I’m sure that many others shared this feeling. As well as this, the Buntingford line closed in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts. This was a short distance from my home in Stevenage yet I don’t recall travelling on it as a child. I had never traveled over the Waverley Route either, but the account of the closure of the line was shocking. In particular, the fight and protests by people living along the line provoked a feeling of a kindred spirit. Although still a youngster, I wanted to help reverse the lunacy of the destruction of our railways.
No-one in my family owned a car so we always travelled on buses and trains. Fortunately for us we lived on the East Coast Main Line which wasn’t under threat. I simply could not understand why they were closing a main line in Scotland. My interest in railways from an early age meant my geographical knowledge of Mainland Britain was reasonably good. Even I could see that closing the Waverley Route meant huge swathes of people in the Scottish Borders would loose access to a railway.
Was it safe to close the railway?
The final weekend of the Waverley Route operation was 4th and 5th of January 1969. It saw the culmination of protests by locals who weren’t going to let the line die peacefully. They had fought a long but unsuccessful campaign to keep the line open. Sometimes in life, people only realise the value of something when it is gone. In the case of the Waverley Route it was a travel option that would no longer be possible. I don’t know what the weather was like in the Winter of ’68-’69 but I think possible ice or snow would make traveling by road unpleasant and perhaps downright dangerous in the Scottish Border region. A morbid thought, but I wonder how many road users sustained deaths and injuries? Those who had previously used the railway on journeys North to Edinburgh and South to Carlisle.
The protesters were visibly angry. They held placards bearing slogans such as ‘Railway Murder‘and ‘Don’t cut our life-line‘. They held a coffin with the words ‘Waverley Line born 1848 killed 1969‘ emblazoned on the side. A lady called Mrs Madge Elliott from Hawick had spearheaded the campaign to save the line. Apparently police warned her not to carry out a plan to lead protesters in a ‘sit down’ on the track. Instead they all wore black armbands and distributed leaflets captioned with ‘It’s quicker by hearse‘.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Why did no-one listen to these people? The old argument of ‘if you don’t use it, you will lose it’ appeared to be sound advice to those opting not to use the trains.
Fit for Purpose Timetables keep lines open
A railway timetable HAS to be attractive to potential travelers. If it is not, they won’t use it. It is as simple as that. Years ago I had a discussion with a senior manager in the rail industry. He had spent all of his career in London and South East where the passenger loadings are particularly high. He proffered that there was no case for the Barnstaple line in Devon to remain open because passenger loadings were low. I pointed out that the timetable offering was very poor. There were huge gaps between trains. The regular pattern of timings and services did not meet the needs of those commuting into Exeter or Barnstaple. When I joined the newly formed Wessex Trains in 2001, I had the good fortune to meet and work with Tony Crabtree. He was Head of Train Planning and he too thought that the Barnstable line timetable offering was poor and wanted to do something about it.
A modern day approach
Wessex Trains held meetings with the excellent local rail user group for the line who were very pragmatic. They worked with us to produce a timetable within the constraints of the line and the diesel multiple units available. The timetable also met the needs of both existing and potential users with an hourly service throughout most of the day. An hourly service might not seem a great deal to some of you reading this, but this along with the sub 60 minute journey time Exeter – Barnstable was a great improvement. The increase in passengers was significant. Today, some fifteen years later, the line continues to be very popular.
With the investment by Network Rail in the track reducing the number of temporary speed restrictions, punctuality has improved over the years. A couple of years after introduction of this improved time table, I invited a senior manager from the Department for Transport to accompany me on a mid-morning service on the line. On departure from Exeter, the train was very busy. He was extremely surprised given his preconceived expectation of a train running with one or two passengers.
Waverley Route timetable
When I look at the timetable for the Waverley Route in 1966 or indeed 1968 (just prior to closure as illustrated above) it is NOT attractive for passengers. Consider commuters, for example. There was a train from Hawick at 06:58 that would get commuters into Edinburgh for 08:26 but the return journey didn’t see a departure until 17:54. As for commuting towards Carlisle, the first service from Hawick arrived at Citadel station at 08:00 but the next arrival was not until after 10:00. Ignoring a Summer dated service, the return journey was not until 18:13. Hardly an attractive timetable offering was it? I invite you to decide and comment for yourself.
The closure of the Waverley Route
On the last operational Sunday of the Waverley Route on the 5th of January, a Railway Correspondence and Travel Society special hauled by Deltic D9007 Pinza struggled up the gradient to Whitrope Tunnel. A considerable amount of grease had been deliberately applied to the rail head along a large distance. It will probably never be known who did this but feelings were running high.
The final Southbound run on the Sunday was the 21:55 off Edinburgh, the Night Midlander Sleeper. Reading the account intensified my anger against closure. Protesters carried a coffin labelled ‘British Rail‘ along the platform at Hawick. They even managed to unlock the parcels van and load it inside. At Newcastleton, the level crossing gates had been chained together so that the line was blocked. The protests were led by the local minister, the late Rev. Brydon Mabon, resulted in him being arrested. He was only released after a deal brokered by the MP David Steele who was travelling on the train. Heavy stuff and reading about it had a profound effect on me particularly as I was just a young boy.
Re-Opening the Waverley Route
In recent years I read about the possibility of the line re-opening at least in part. On 6 September 2015 I’m delighted to say that the line re-opened from Edinburgh to Tweedbank. A few weeks prior to this Mrs Madge Elliott MBE, who had been Honoured along with her husband for voluntary work in Hawick, had the opportunity to ride on a pre-opening special train. She must have been absolutely delighted and I applaud her whole heartedly. What an absolute legend she is.
I was very fortunate in being able to secure a place on one of the steam specials hauled by A4 Pacific 60009 unit South Africa in October 2015. Geoff Brown accompanied me on the trip. He is also a railway engineer whom I have known for nearly 40 years. We were delighted to be travelling on this spectacular route. The scenery is akin to the Settle and Carlisle Railway. You really must take the opportunity to travel on this reopened line now called the Borders Railway and operated by Scotrail.
Passenger estimates were provided by consultants as part of the business case for the reinstatement of part of the line. It transpired that these were wildly underestimated. I really hope that, as a very minimum, they extend the Borders line towards Hawick and then ultimately to Carlisle. People don’t just want to go North from the borders to Edinburgh, they also want to go South to Carlisle and connect with other services there on the West Coast Main Line. The Waverley Route Heritage Association is committed to bringing the route back and has established a base at Whitrope where they have relaid track. Why not support them and also get behind the Campaign for Borders Rail.
May I also recommend the following books . ‘Waverley Route – the life, death and rebirth of the Borders Railway by David Spaven, The Waverley Route – It’s Heritage and Revival by Ann Glen, Borders Railway – The Return Journey by Peter Ross and the excellent Memories of Lost Border Railways by Bruce McCartney for more of a historical contex along with The Last Years of the Waverley Route by David Cross and The Waverley Route – The Post War Years by Robert Robotham.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the DVD The Railways of Scotland volume two The Waverley Route