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Borders on track

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Near Newcraighall, five miles south east of Edinburgh Waverley, is a siding with a folding buffer stop.

It is this siding that is to be extended by 49 kilometres to form the new Borders Railway, the longest new UK domestic railway for over a hundred years. The line will open in autumn 2015. Principal contractor for this project is BAM Nuttall with Siemens sub-contracted for signalling and telecoms.

The project was described in detail in issue 110 (December 2013) but, with all of the work starting to come together, it was time to make another visit. Project director Huw Wark was, as always, only too pleased to show the progress that his 800-strong team has made. With a budget of around £15 million a month, there’s a lot going on.

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Track laying set to start

The main phase of track laying is to commence in October when frequent engineering trains will pass through this buffer stop. These trains will not require possessions as special instructions have been written to transfer the trains from Network Rail infrastructure to the project.

Bottom ballast for the track will have to be supplied by road – about 5,000 lorry loads will be required. Ballast stockpiles are already being created at access points. Track laying is to be done by a team from BAM Rail in Holland using the technique employed on the HSL-Zuid, the Dutch high speed line. This is expected to lay track at the rate of approximately 1.2 kilometre a day and complete track laying by the end of the year.

Ballast is already in place at the top end of the line. Further down, structures are substantially complete but some earthworks remain, especially at the southern end of the project.

Beyond the buffer stop

The area between the folding buffer stop and the city by-pass is to be transformed by the new railway. Here, Shawfair station has been built on the site of Monktonhall, a large modern colliery which closed in 1998. Not surprisingly, this section of the line required mining remediation and, as recently as August, revealed a hidden mineshaft. With the track solum now complete, the mine should give the project no more surprises.

Folding Buffer [online]

For planning reasons, the railway is in shallow cuttings in this area with surplus soil generated as a result. This has not been wasted as it is being used for landscaping in the area, requiring frequent lorry trips, many of which are off road using disused railways.

Structures Challenges

The largest structure on the line is the Hardengreen viaduct. Here, a road improvement scheme cut away the original railway embankment and replaced it with a roundabout. The approaches to the viaduct use the reinforced earth system of precast concrete facing panels tied together with galvanized steel reinforcing straps held in place by the backfill. This system, supplied by Reinforced Earth Company (RECo), is used on some of the other project structures  and is a good solution where there is a restricted footprint, as at Hardengreen. It does not, however, provide the foundation for a derailment retention parapet such as that provided on the actual viaduct. For this reason the track over the approaches will have guard rails.

Fifteen kilometres south of Hardengreen is the line’s summit at Falahill. Here, getting the railway under the A7 requires another significant structure. Constraints at this location included a national grid pipeline, local cottages, a rocky outcrop and the A7. Satisfying the requirements of various stakeholders at this location proved difficult and resulted in two changes to the original parliamentary plan.

The solution adopted is a long, highly- skewed bridge. Currently, the 200 metre long, slightly curved concrete box that will carry the single-track railway under the road stands alone, with earthworks to carry the A7 over the bridge under way. Much of the adjacent rock was removed by blasting to provide useful material for construction. The resultant hole is now being filled with surplus unsuitable spoil.

Hardengreen Viaduct [online]
Hardengreen Viaduct
The line has two tunnels, Bowshank and Torwoodlee, respectively 39 and 43 km from the start of the new line. Bowshank tunnel has double track as it is part of a four kilometre dynamic loop. With the requirement for passive provision for electrification, tunnel clearances are tight. For this reason, the floor of the 200-metre tunnel has been lowered and Rheda 2000 slab track installed. When visiting in early August, it was seen that the Down Loop track had been installed after two weeks work and that work had just started on the Up Loop.

The tunnel rails, supplied by Tata Steel, have Railcote® for corrosion protection.

End of the Line

The town of Galashiels is in a narrow river valley and was expanded around the original railway which took up much space in the town. After its closure in 1969, almost all of the railway land was built on. As a result there is now just enough space to get the railway through the town with some deviation from the original route and bridges to raise the railway over new roads. These bridges are now complete although most of the associated earthworks have yet to be completed.

Just beyond Galashiels, the original line was in a deep cutting that had since been filled in. This cutting, where a considerable number of utilities all converged, has now been excavated except where a BT fibre optics cable crosses the line which is now supported by a scaffold bridge. This enables the infill below it to be removed and, if necessary, the track to be placed underneath, before the cable is diverted through a new bridge at the end of the cutting.

After this cutting, the line crosses the River Tweed on the five-arch Redbridge Viaduct. The new single-line railway shares this viaduct with a footpath which is part of the Southern Upland Way.

Beyond is the end of the line, Tweedbank station. This is intended to be a railhead for Borders towns to the south and so will have a 240-space car park. A relatively late project design change, announced by Scottish Transport Minister Keith Brown in November 2012, was the requirement for it to have 220 metre long platforms to accommodate charter trains. There are, however, no run round facilities so any such train will have to be ‘top and tailed’.

Tweedbank may be the end of the line but, when The Rail Engineer visited, ballast had been laid ready for its switch and crossing which was to be installed on 16 August.

Slab Track in Bowshank Tunnel [online]
Bowshank tunnel.
Also to be seen at Tweedbank during this visit was the cable plough. This ploughs a small- diameter, multi-way tubular fibre duct into the ground along the route. Fibre cables are then blown through these ducts. There will be no troughing along the railway. Instead there is this buried cable and signalling islands at each set of points, each with a relocatable equipment building fed from the nearest power supply.As far as telecoms is concerned, the Border Railway requires 15 radio masts along its 49 kilometres. This indicates the nature of its terrain as the new 22km Airdrie-Bathgate line only required two.

Slow start, rapid progress

For various reasons, it has taken a long time to get the Borders Railway project started. It took ten years from the Bill being first presented to the Scottish Parliament in 2003 to the start of main works last year, although some advanced works were undertaken from 2010. Those along the line could therefore be forgiven for thinking that the project was not going to happen.But there has been rapid progress since last year and, within a few months, construction trains will be seen on the line. Civils works have been prioritised to clear the northern end of the line for track laying and, with all earthworks expected to be complete before winter, this should reduce any potential delays from bad weather.

Although, as with all projects, some uncertainties remain, the Borders Railway is well on track for project completion in summer 2015.

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


  1. I applaud the decision to make passive provision for future electrification. Logical and sensible. But in that case why was not passive provision also made for doubling the track in future by building bridges to double track width? Inconsistent and ridiculous. It just doesn’t make sense – all that is required is for the bridge decks to be double track width; the piers and abutments are required anyway.

  2. why where there not stations, on the original route, at Heriot and fountainhall included in this project? it means that commuters and tourists from those two villages will have to drive to either Stow or Shawfair stations to catch a train which passes through them?


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