The economist Tony Mackay dissects and despatches the Borders Railway project with considerable elegance in his Monthly Report. The article is reproduced here in the excellent new Internet bulletin for Scottish business, Scot-buzz.
It shouldn’t really be news to anyone that rural railways are an economic nonsense. But good sense often needs to be restated. The Borders project has steamed on relentlessly despite having ‘white elephant’ written all over it and in the teeth of energetic opposition from the Borders Party. I’d suggest two reasons for its persistence.
Both are classic ingredients of pork-barrel politics. The first is that nobody is clearly responsible for the railway. When the costs escalate and the delays mount up, no-one carries the blame. Should it be David Parker, leader of the local council who resigns as another £50million goes down the tubes? Or the transport minister Keith Brown?
The second is even more depressing. I meet quite a few Borderers who are in favour of the railway on the grounds that someone else is paying for it. In other words, to them it’s a freebie. You don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth. Even if they use it just once a year, it’s worth it from their point of view.
This is not just morally wrong (if something’s a waste of money you shouldn’t wish it on others). It’s also bad from a practical point of view. The half billion or so could be spent so much more effectively in the Borders. And subconsciously, the Borders has now had its ‘turn’ at a big centrally funded project. Another opportunity won’t come along for many years now. As we walk to the back of the queue and look at the rather modest, overpriced present we so graspingly clamoured for, disappointment will soon set in.