Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson, who was in Galashiels to cut the first sod of the Borders Rail Project, promised it would breathe new economic life into the region by replacing the Waverley line that was axed in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.
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The beginning of ancilliary works yesterday formally triggered a clause within the Waverley Rail Act that commits the Scottish Government to complete the scheme within five years -- although this can be extended.
“When finished, the railway will act as a catalyst for economic growth right across southern Scotland, supporting hundreds of jobs during its construction,” said Mr Stevenson.
“It will also increase business development and housing opportunities across the region, whilst helping promote inward investment.”
Building the 35-mile line, including 10 stops and seven new stations, will cost between £235 million and £295m. It will be paid for by a consortium of companies under a PFI-type private finance contract.
However, the cost to taxpayers over the 30-year length of the scheme will be far higher and will not be known until a contractor is appointed to undertake the main construction work.
The scheme has proved controversial in the Borders, where opponents claim the railway is being built to serve the interests of Edinburgh commuters and that it will lead to unwelcome housing developments.
It has also encountered criticism over costs, with an early business case being rejected after it was found to have relied on over-optimistic estimates of passenger numbers.
But it has been backed by the council and Liberal Democrats, who argue that the Borders’ economic decline is linked to it being the only area of Scotland not served by a rail link.
David Parker, leader of the Scottish Borders Council, said he was “absolutely delighted” with the progress being made.
“Today’s announcement is the most significant step forward and everyone can now look forward with confidence to the railway’s delivery,” he said.
“The triggering of the bill is a significant commitment by the Scottish Government and there can be no doubt [that] today represents the beginning of the actual physical delivery of the line.”
The tendering process to identify a contractor to design, build, finance and maintain the line began last December and initial submissions are due back this month. Transport Scotland, the Government agency overseeing the project, is due to appoint a contractor to start construction in 2011 and aims to see it completed by 2014.
Yesterday’s announcement was welcomed by the environmental transport charity Transform Scotland. Its director, Colin Howden, said: “The closure of the route in 1969 was one of the worst disasters of the Beeching axe, so it is very welcome that the Scottish Government is now committed to putting the Borders back on the railway map. We expect the new Borders Railway to well out-perform current traffic forecasts, just like other recent Scottish rail reopenings.”
However, Liberal Democrat MSP Jeremy Purvis said he hoped construction could be faster. “This means it needs to be completed in five years, but ministers have a power to extend this for a further five years.
“I am confident, however, that it can be brought forward.”