Riddell Graham, VisitScotland
Galashiels lad Riddell Graham, one of the directors at VisitScotland, is looking forward to the further benefits that the Borders Railway will bring not only for tourism but for the wider economy.
As director of partnerships at VisitScotland, Riddell Graham takes great pride in the tourism agency’s collaborations. Yet there’s one project that’s been especially close to his heart.
Graham’s first job in the industry came in 1978 as an assistant tourist officer with Borders Council, after which he rose through the ranks to become chief executive of the Scottish Borders Tourist Board between 1996 and 2005. It’s therefore unsurprising that he feels a distinct sense of satisfaction when the Borders Railway opened in September 2015.
“I grew up in Galashiels and I used to take the trains on the old Waverley line up to Edinburgh to watch the rugby internationals at Murrayfield,” Graham remembers. “I used to pack my sandwiches and then walk down the road to the train station.
“The line used to link Edinburgh to Carlisle, so my family would use it for journeys in each direction, both going up to Edinburgh and going down to Carlisle and beyond. So, it was a big blow when the line was closed.
“I think it had a wider effect on the psychology of the Borders too. It made a lot of us feel like we were cut off from the rest of Scotland.
“When the new line opened, I was lucky enough to have a seat on one of the trains that was running a preview trip for 90 journalists. It was an emotional moment – thinking that the line had closed and reopened in my lifetime and that I’d helped to campaign for it gave me a real sense of pride.
“VisitScotland was involved from the very beginning, even before any tracks had been laid. Our organisation was consulted and highlighted the benefits, not just the obvious ones for tourism in the region but for the wider Borders.”
Those benefits for tourism businesses are already beginning to be felt. The Scottish Tourism Economic Assessment Monitor (STEAM) showed that, during the six months after the railway opened, the number of visitor days in hotels and bed and breakfasts (B&Bs) in the Borders rose by 27% year-on-year, with a 20% increase in the amount visitors spent on food and drink and a 17% rise in spending on accommodation combining to push overall visitor spending up by 16%.
Midlothian has reaped the benefits too, with a 12% rise in the number of visitor days in hotels and B&Bs over the same period and an overall increase in visitors’ spending of 7%. The number of people employed by the tourism industry also rose by 4% in Midlothian and 8% in the Borders.
“Obviously, we’re still waiting on figures for the 2017 tourism season, but anecdotal evidence looks very promising,” says Graham. “Historic Environment Scotland has told me that visitor numbers to Melrose Abbey are up by nearly 30% and Abbotsford House has seen an increase too – that won’t all be about the railway but I think the railway will have had a significant impact.
“Research carried out among passengers on the trains during the off-reason has found that nearly 40% were travelling for a day-trip or an overnight stay, while about 65% of tourists said that the rail line was a factor in their decision making. That’s very encouraging.
“It’s a small start, but there are a number of small businesses that have sprung up already and there are lots of opportunities.
There’s a tourist bus in place to take people to some of the local attractions and Rabbie’s – which is now a major operator throughout the UK – has set up tours linked to the railway.
“Switched-on entrepreneurial businesses have also made the most of the steam train experiences that were run last summer and this summer, by organising coaches to take visitors to their properties. Anecdotally, those businesses that are within striking distance have done well.”
Graham also highlights the wider benefits that have been brought to the area. He points to plans to create a home for the Tapestry of Scotland in Galashiels, a £6.7m project funded by Scottish Borders Council and the Scottish Government. The tapestry consists of 160 panels and measures 143 metres in length, making it the longest example of its kind in the world.
“That would never have come to the Borders if it hadn’t been for the railway,” Graham adds. “There’s a psychological benefit as well as an economic benefit. There’s enhanced confidence.
“That feeling of being cut off from the rest of Scotland has been removed and people feel more connected than they did before – in both ways, bringing people from Edinburgh into the Borders and Midlothian and allowing people to access Edinburgh too.
“There will always be naysayers – I hear them because I now live near Kelso. They say: ‘The railway’s done nothing for me’. But I ask them: ‘When was the last time that anybody invested £300m in the Borders and Midlothian?’
“What we need to do is rejoice in that and do something about benefiting from it. That investment could have been made anywhere in Scotland but they decided it was worth bringing it to the central Borders.
“There are now exciting discussions about extending the railway down to Hawick and that would bring even more benefits. I’ve been hugely encouraged by the people who have actually got off their backsides and recognised it’s an opportunity and done something about it, whether that’s laying on coaches or putting together a package to attract visitors or simply working in partnership.”
Graham is also delighted with the way in which the partnership behind the Borders Railway has worked. The Borders Railway Leadership Group has brought together chief executives and other senior managers from City of Edinburgh, Midlothian and Scottish Borders councils, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland, VisitScotland and Scotrail-operator Abellio.
“The phrase ‘Working in partnership’ has become a bit hackneyed, but I’m really impressed with what’s actually happened here,” Graham asserts. “Bringing together people who have decision-making power – like chief executives and economic development directors – has worked really well.
“They’ve been able to take decisions instead of having to go back to the ranch to consult with people higher up the food chain. I’m encouraging VisitScotland’s partners in other arenas to consider using this model too.
“For example, the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum that’s being built in Dundee is a major regeneration project with large amounts of public money being spent on the city and in particular the waterfront area. All the public-sector agencies – and our partners in the private sector – need to work together in partnership to make sure that all of Dundee and the surrounding areas can benefit from the V&A coming to Scotland.”
As for the Borders Railway, Graham is already making good use of its services. “Although I don’t use it to commute every day, I do use it when I have meetings in Aberdeen or Glasgow or Inverness,” he explains.
“It’s really easy for me to get connecting trains from Edinburgh Waverley. I might not be a regular user, but I’ve certainly changed my travel plans for longer journeys now that the service is up-and-running.”