For the first time in over half a century, Midlothian is to be reconnected to the rail network, and the county is set to play a vital role in a bigger success story. I would argue that the UKâ€™s biggest rail reopening in over a century depends in no small measure on the support of communities at its northern end â€” just as it did a century and a half ago.
Endless moors and wistful hills. Sheep and cattle, and a heather purple tint to the green. Ah, but to get there, first thereâ€™s the branching off at Portobello Junction, through the sidings at Millerhill, to weave through modern villas at Eskbank, miners rows at Newtongrange and Gorebridge. Itâ€™s not very evocative of the landscapes that inspired Sir Walter Scott, but this is the business end of the Waverley Route, or rather it will be, in its incarnation as the Borders Railway Project.
Call it anything else invites a tongue-twister as wiggly as the line itself. Leave out the southern nomenclature and that invites a termination, a lack of resolve for that push on to Stow, and Galashiels and Tweedbank. With construction work due for completion next year, the 200th anniversary of the publishing of Waverley, there can surely be no turning back. In fact, campaigners are keen to see works continue to Melrose, St Boswells, and the ultimate goals of Hawick and Carlisle.
Until those ambitions come to fruition, it will be the Lothian end that underwrites this reinstatement of the northern third of the line. What was an artery through the Borders, connecting Scotland and England, will be reborn, at least for now, as a commuter service with a rural branch added for good measure. While the potential for Borders traffic is great, it will be to the populous Lothian section that the operators will look primarily for income.
It was always thus. Once the Borders sprawling network of lines had all gone, it was the great Midlothian coalfield that generated the traffic. Its needs spawned a dozen branch lines, into collieries from Loanhead to Dalkeith, Newtongrange and Gorebridege. Such was the incentive to maximise returned from both freight and coal – or rather coal and coal workers, that Bonnyrigg, a modest town even then, had not only two stations but two lines serving its few thousand population. One, on the â€œPeebles Loopâ€™ and another, on a branch line specifically built to serve a long forgotten mine working at Polton. The latter even survived into the sixties, and, though the tracks have long gone, the magnificent viaduct that carried the line over the Esk at Lasswade, still stands, well known locally and a rewarding find for any intrepid explorer today. Sadly it has to be admired from afar, as the bridge is sealed off.
So too now is the even more impressive Lothianbridge Viaduct, parallel to the A7 road at Hardengreen. Here though, the happier reason is the burgeoning work underway to restore the rails on its impressive deck. Ironically, were there to be any utopian future in which rails were restored to Bonnyrigg, it would most likely be the insignificant Polton colliery line that would be the prime candidate. The former main line has since been blocked and breached in numerous places. Its legacy is still very evident. The platforms from which I took my first train journey still remain, isolated in a public park, opposite the ironically named Waverley Court housing development that occupies the former railway line.
In a little over a year, Bonnyrigg, and much of Midlothian, will again be within earshot of a rail service. It will be unlike anything that plied the route before – a regular, reliable modern multiple unit, replacing infrequent old steam trains. Thereâ€™s not much nostalgia about the new line for the Lothians, but thereâ€™s every bit as much enthusiasm for its return. The Scottish Mining Museum, adjacent to what will be Newtongrange station may be the only reminder of the original inspiration for the lineâ€™s building, but the prim new stations, bringing a new generation of workers to decidedly more sunlight than subsurface employment will be the impetus for its regeneration. In that rebirth, Walter Scott would surely find new inspiration from the new Waverley Route.
You can keep up with developments on the Borders Railway and support the campaign for the whole line via Midlothian to the Borders and Carlisle by visiting www.campaignforbordersrail.org