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Trainspotting at St Boswells (January 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

The tosh-spouting, isolationist Jeremy Clarkson tendency may hate it, but the Borders will get their rail link.


In Pillars of Society and An Enemy of the People, Ibsen made the politics of small Norwegian seaports universal; and in the battle over the Borders railway, I seem to have the role of Dr Stockman.

I could see we were in for it as soon as the taxi neared St Boswells for a public meeting about reopening the Waverley line. My childhood village is usually quiet as the grave these days, but there were cars parked along every yard of road.

The Borders party knew how to mobilise, and we duly lost the motion welcoming the rebuilding of the railway to the Borders by 210 to 67: a success for a regional movement that (perhaps uniquely in Europe) is against improving access to its area.

I have to hand it to Nicholas Watson, my opponent, whose previous demeanour had given me the notion that he and his ranks might be converted.

Surely, I thought, they must have had their eyes on Catalonia or the Tyrol or the Black Forest, or the many other European regions where new railways have revitalised industry and tourism.

No, they had not. This was Jeremy Clarkson with a human face.

Out came tosh, and the more I cited European examples, the noisier the tosh got.

All references were prefaced, with clunking irony, "to the professor". Had any of them read a word I had written? Was Tübingen on a different planet?

Watson, seemingly a quiet and diffident character, had his motorists in the palm of his hand. The Gala-Edinburgh line was "a little tram", he said (displaying ignorance of the way tram-trains are revolutionising regional lines in Europe); it was going to cost an awful amount of money (about 1% of what Gordon Brown has poured into Northern Rock); no one would use it (passengers are up on new Baden-W&uum;;urttemberg railways by factors of four to six); for a couple of million pounds, the A7 could be modernised (the two-lane, three-mile Dalkeith bypass will clock in at £8m a mile, more expensive than the railway); a fraction of the cost would give an excellent bus service ...

What was absent from this discourse was the old line that there should be a motorway or dual carriageway to the Borders.

These people actually thought that, with a bit of tarting up, the awful X95 bus would be tolerable. It was then that I realised that, in a year's regular travelling, I had never seen any of these people on that vehicle.

I also remembered a story in the Guardian some months back about a popular commuter railway line in the forests near Moscow that the new oligarchs wanted closed because it lowered the tone of their luxury villas.

One could have adapted, on the Borders party's behalf, Lord George Manners's high Tory poem: "Let law and learning, wealth and commerce die, But spare us still our old tranquillity."

There were a lot of RP accents among the line's opponents. There are many English railway buffs (it is a national specialty, after all) on our side, but the St Boswells majority actually did not want to be connected to the Scottish central belt. The isolation of the Borders region suited these retirees, who once might have settled in, say, Rothbury or Wooler but had come north of the border, where the Scots, supposedly, get a better deal.

Was this trend reflected in the Scottish elections, where the SNP made no progress in Border constituencies and the Conservatives, elsewhere moribund, took Berwickshire from the Liberals?

From a region of fierce Reivers, whose nationality intensified the nearer they got to the border (Hugh MacDiarmid's Langholm was only five miles from England), was the place becoming like Dennis Balsom's "British Wales", where retirees and car commuters remade the identity of the principality's long eastern frontier?

Well, the railway interest will bite back. In the budget debate, on Wednesday 23 January, the finance minister John Swinney reaffirmed that the line would be built. The credit crash is throttling the UK's fantasy economy, which promoted housing-to-retail-to-cars and ignored manufacturing and infrastructure.

The only way out of the foul mess will be to promote counter-cyclical public works investment, and the Waverley line, with all its legal processes behind it, lies conveniently to hand. I am going to be considerably poorer at the end of this, but the Borders will get their train.

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