‘We could probably have saved line’

Madge Elliot, Sir David Steel and the Earl of Dalkeith in Downing Street before they handed in the petition against the proposed closure of the Waverley line
Madge Elliot, Sir David Steel and the Earl of Dalkeith in Downing Street before they handed in the petition against the proposed closure of the Waverley line

FORMER Hawick MP Lord Steel has revealed that the closure of the Waverley Line in 1969 could have been avoided if politians had worked together to save the northern half of the line.

Recently-disclosed Cabinet papers indicated that then secretary of state for Scotland, Willie Ross, had argued for the retention of the line from Edinburgh Waverley to Hawick to assist with economic development. But he hadn’t sought the support of local MP David Steel and Conservative MP Lord Dalkeith, while a specially commissioned expert’s report supporting his case arrived too late.

And the former Liberal Party leader has admitted that when the railway was lost as part of the Beeching cuts, it was the biggest disappointment of his career as an MP.

Speaking at the 45th anniverary dinner to mark the closure of the Waverly Line in the Grapes Hotel in Newcastleton, on Sunday night, Lord Steel of Aikwood argued that the present “necessary but extravagant” expenditure to reopen the line could have been avoided if Ross had been more open with him. He pointed out Cabinet papers from the time showed Ross was arguing to save the top half of the line from Edinburgh to Hawick as closure ran contrary to rejuvenating the Borders economy.

Lord Steel – who was a parliamentarian in the Borders for 32 years between 1965 and 1997 – said: “I had persuaded the local authorities in the three counties to commission a report from railway expert Professor John Hibbs who had argued precisely that case in his report, including the closure of smaller stations, single line track, and demanning of larger stations. But the report came too late in the day and Willie Ross never let known his own views.

“The then Tory MP for Edinburgh North, Lord Dalkeith, who lived in the Borders, was a stalwart supporter, who along with me and Madge Elliot delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street, but neither of us had any dialogue with Willie Ross who was an entrenched Labour man.”

But Lord Steel had begun his address by paying tribute to three people, naming not only David Spaven for his book ‘Waverley route - the life, death and rebirth of the Borders railway,’ and the late parish minister Rev. Brydon Mabon, for being “the leader of that remarkable demonstration here on the night of January 5/6, 1969”, but also Hawick’s own Madge Elliot.

“More than any other, Madge has shown persistent dedication in fighting to save and then restore the line,” he stated.

Recalling that historic night when Lord Steel was among those who boarded the last ever train, the overnight sleeper from Edinburgh to St Pancras, London, Lord Steel stated: “At Galashiels there was a large crowd gathered on the platform and the train was flagged off by the Provost. At Hawick station there was an even larger crowd including a group who were loading a mock coffin on to the guard’s van addressed to minister of transport.”

But then describing his involvement in the well-documented demonstration at Newcastleton, which resulted in the arrest of Rev. Mabon, the former Scottish Parliament presiding officer explained how he had been roused from his bed after midnight by a railway official complaining of people standing on the line. Lord Steel said after dressing hurriedly and in below freezing temperatures, he thanked the crowd but asked them peacefully to go to their homes. And the parish minister followed in similar terms but “without the last juncture”. He went on: “By this time, reinforcements of 16 police arrived from Hawick to support the local constable. They tried to push the gates but the crowd pushed back to keep them across the line. They then arrested Rev. Mabon and took him away to the police station. At that point I made a second appeal to the crowd suggesting that if I got their minister released without charge would they disperse.

“And so the train proceeded, arriving in London some two hours late – the only time in the history of British railways that an inter-city train has been blocked by protesters on the track.” In reference to the “extravagant expenditure” of nearly £300 million to reinstate the line as far as Galashiels, Lord Steel lamented the failure of the relevant politicians in 1969 to sit down together: “If the three of us had been united we could probably have saved the line to Hawick.”

But after urging Teries to support the new Borders Railway as “better a part line than no line at all”, Lord Steel revealed one final political aspiration. He asserted: “I was on the last train out of Galashiels. And my remaining political ambition is to be on board the first train back in.”