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Borders takes off

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Galashiels saw its last passenger train on 5 January 1969, the 21:56 Edinburgh to St Pancras sleeper. This was last train between Edinburgh and Carlisle over the Waverley route – one of Beeching’s most savage cuts which left the Scottish Borders as the only UK region without a train service.

The route was not protected after closure, so houses were built on the trackbed which was also cut by road improvements including the Edinburgh city by-pass. These blockages are now being removed as the northern part of the route is being re-opened. After an absence of 46 years, Galashiels will soon be seeing passenger trains again.

The new Borders Railway starts at a turnback siding at Millerhill and is 30.5 miles long with seven new stations. To provide a 30 minute service frequency, the line will have three passing loops of 2.1, 3.8 and 4.0 miles long. It will use the signalling island concept with power supplies provided only at loop ends and train detection by axle counters. The only continuous cable will be a buried fibre optic for communications.

Getting to the start line

Following a feasibility study in 1999, and three years of debate in the Scottish parliament, the act authorising construction of the Borders Railway received royal assent in 2006. Transport Scotland’s original intention was to let a Design, Build, Finance and Maintain (DBFM) contract for the project. However, after all but one of the bidders withdrew, it was decided in 2011 that Network Rail should deliver the project.

At this time, Network Rail could not undertake any significant works. Design and constructability studies were needed for a robust estimate of cost and programme before the agreement for it to become the Authorised Undertaker could be signed. This requires the project to be complete by summer 2015 for start of service in autumn 2015.

The signing of this agreement last November enabled the main contract to be awarded. This is a £294 million design and build contract let in December 2012 to BAM Nuttall, which also happened to be the one remaining bidder for the original DBFM contract. The contract is target cost with pain/ gain/share arrangements.

Prior to this, a significant amount of advanced works had been undertaken. In preparation for the DBFM contract Transport Scotland had arranged utilities clearance and work to protect the route such as scour protection. Advanced works undertaken in 2012 under BAM Nuttall’s framework contract included vegetation clearance, fencing, environmental mitigation, mining remediation and property demolition.

The contractor gets a GRIP

In March 2012, BAM Nuttall was awarded a framework contract for advanced works. This included a £2 million package of design work which was contracted to URS, Atkins, Donaldson and Delta Rail. This early involvement had the benefit of its original DBFM work influencing design at late GRIP3 (option selection) stage. For example, the whole life costing exercises which Network Rail and BAM Nuttall have undertaken has influenced the decision to use concrete sleepers.

To encourage local companies to become suppliers and subcontractors, BAM Nuttall arranged a ‘meet the buyer’ event in March. Over 200 local businesses attended the event and, during 2013, more than 450 companies from the Lothians and Scottish Borders have provided products and services to the project. These include Forth Stone, which is restoring stone structures including the iconic Lothianbridge Viaduct, and RJT Excavations, currently working on major ground works.

BAM Nuttall will be calling on BAM Rail from Holland to lay track using the technique used for HSL-Zuid, the new Dutch high speed line. Unlike the recent track laying on the Airdrie Bathgate line, this does not require welded rails to be in place beforehand.

The main works started in April and now the scale of the project is obvious to anyone driving by. After a good summer, major earthworks wereEncapsulated bridge over Gala Water [online] completed by the end of October and signs to BAM Nuttall’s 41 access points are evident. This was therefore a good time to accept project director Hugh Wark’s invitation to see how the works are progressing.

Roads in the way

The tour starts at the derelict site of the old Monktonhall colliery on the outskirts of Edinburgh. For its first 2.2 miles, the Borders railway follows a new alignment which will soon transform this area into a development of 4,000 houses around a new station at Shawfair (0.8 miles).

However, this requires significant alterations to the existing road network. For example, the new alignment overlays the A6106 for 600 yards. There are many utilities in these roads which require diversion to yet-to-be-built new roads. Track laying will start here next summer making these roadworks very much on the critical path.

The Edinburgh city by-pass (2.0 miles) requires a new rail overbridge immediately east of the busy Sheriffhall roundabout. Diversion of traffic onto a temporary dual carriageway in September enabled the original carriageway to be excavated down to track level for the new bridge construction which is being built with passive provision for a future grade separated road junction. After its completion, traffic will use the original carriageway by May, allowing removal of the temporary road.

Improvements to the A7 created two further blockages. At Hardengreen (3.8 miles) part of the embankment has been replaced by a roundabout. At Gore Glen (6.4 miles) the A7 crosses the original line in a cutting. These obstacles require two substantial new viaducts. To further complicate matters, some of the original line’s cuttings have been filled with excess material from these previous roadworks.

To the summit

From Gorebridge, the tour continued along the trackbed in Hugh’s LandRover. The line’s tourist potential is evident from the excellent views from the top of a massive embankment, including some of Borthwick Castle where Mary Queen of Scots was besieged in 1547.

Cutting work stabilisation work is underway at Tynehead, including the installation of rock-fill drains to prevent the landslips that had been a problem when the original railway was operational.

After twisting and climbing at a gradient of typically 1 in 70, the line reaches the 880 feet summit at Falahill (13.0 miles). Here is perhaps the most difficult road interface for the project with the road and rail design having to avoid the properties at Falahill. A proposed revised layout recently received planning approval. This new scheme will avoid problems with underlying peat and a high pressure gas pipeline.

Hugh explained that each local resident was consulted prior to this submission. His team is trying to address their concerns within the project constraints but he acknowledges that “there is no easy solution at Falahill that satisfies everyone”.

Rock south of Falahill has to be removed regardless of this outcome. This is being done by blasting with two blasts a week planned for 14 weeks requiring short precautionary closures of the A7. A derogation to the Code of Construction Practice, which prohibited blasting, was agreed on the basis that it is the least disruptive technique.

Bridges and tunnels

After the summit the line follows the twisting Gala water which it crosses on 14 bridges. This is a salmon river and an environmentally sensitive area with in-river work only permitted between July and October.

Hugh advised that the bridges are generally in good condition. Currently each one is being encapsulated for repairs including blasting back to bare metal to apply new surface coatings.

At two particularly inaccessible locations, bridge beams were removed when the railway was dismantled. It is not known why this dismantling stopped after only two bridges but Hugh was glad that it did. As part of the work to reinstate these bridges in September a 450 tonne crane installed four new 20-tonne beams at the Ryehaugh Water bridge (27.0 miles).

The line has two tunnels – at Bowshanks (24.0 miles) and Torwoodlee (26.9 miles). The line in Bowshanks tunnel will be double-tracked as part of a dynamic loop. Tunnel clearances are such that this, and the design requirement to provide clearance for future electrification, is challenging. For this reason the tunnel will have slab track.

Recently, Bowshanks bat flaps made the news – Hugh commented that any stories involving wildlife on the project website always get large numbers of hits. The tunnel was boarded up and a series of one-way flaps and pipes were fitted to prevent bats returning and encourage them
to roost in bat boxes provided in nearby trees. This work was undertaken by IKM Consulting, engaged by BAM Nuttall for environmental support.

New bridge and road at Heriot [online]To replace level crossings on the old line, two new bridges and associated road junction works are required at Heriot (14.7 miles) and Fountainhall (17.5 miles). These are being built using the rock from Falahill.

Shoehorned through Galashiels

Galashiels (28.4 miles) is constrained within a narrow river valley. Originally, the town had a railway station, train shed, goods yard and sidings. After closure, this land was used for an industrial estate, road improvements, housing and a supermarket. There is now just enough space to get a single line railway through the town with some deviation from the original route and new bridges over and under new roads. The new single platform station is 500 yards away from the original station site and there is no space for a car park but the bus station nearby will provide a public transport interchange.

The end of the line is at Tweedbank (30.5 miles). Here a 240-space car park and local road connections offers a good railhead. To meet the Scottish Government’s requirement for charter trains, the station design is for nine-coach platforms with sufficient siding length for 12-coach trains plus two locomotives.

Different challenges

Some might think that Hugh is lucky to have a project with virtually no impact on the existing railway. Instead his project has other significant challenges and the re-opening of 31 miles of old railway is the longest new UK domestic rail route for over a hundred years. This is a high profile project which Network Rail is expected to deliver to time and budget.

With the line having been closed for over 40 years, many are affected by its construction. For this reason, external communications are a high priority. Hugh has a regular slot on Radio Borders and the project has its own website (www. bordersrailway.co.uk).

Hugh considers environmental issues to be amongst his greatest challenges. In addition to the Bowshank bats, the project required the closure or temporary relocation of 100 badger sets and moving lamprey eels in the river which involved the use of special techniques to safely catch the fish.

A particular environmental challenge was the mining remediation work that was started in late 2012 around the old collieries at the northern end of the line. Over 4,000 tonnes of grout has been pumped into old mines, which also needed 300 km of drilling.

The Borders Railway webpage “How to build a railway” lists seven stages of which the third stage, earthworks, is almost complete. The project is now focusing on structures – there are 42 new bridges and 95 to be refurbished before BAM Nuttall’s Dutch team can start track laying next year.

With 13 years from the initial feasibility study to start of main works, the Borders Railway has had a slow start. However, the project is now on track so that, in 2015, the Scottish Borders will once more be part of the rail network with all the social and economic opportunities this will bring.

The Rail Engineer has covered the Borders Rail project from the start. More information can be found in issues 78 (April 2011), 83 (September 2011) and 94 (August 2012).

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. great project, very happy to read of BAMs environmental policies. my husband works with BAM on this and with Network rail who are due to start in September. At last the borders can flourish again.


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