Danny Cusick, sector portfolio director for food and drink, tourism and textiles at Scottish Enterprise and chair of the Borders Railway Blueprint Leadership Group, explains why the Borders Railway is much more than a transport project – it’s an economic development opportunity for revitalising the entire region.
Before he took up his current role, Danny Cusick openly admits that he didn’t know the Borders very well. Now, Scottish Enterprise’s sector portfolio director for food and drink, tourism and textiles has fallen in love with the region.
“I’m from the southside of Glasgow and I knew the Highlands and other parts of Scotland very well, but I’d never really spent any time in the Borders,” Cusick explains. “I’d spent six years working in North America, based in Boston.
“In America, people won’t bat an eyelid at driving for three or four hours or 200 miles to visit a national park – but in Scotland we’re really pretty parochial,” he laughs. “We’re not so good when it comes to travelling around our own country.”
The Borders Railway has changed all that for Cusick. “After I was fortunate enough to travel on the maiden train service through the Borders, I started to realise that this is a beautiful part of the country that people just don’t know about,” he says. “Since then, I’ve spent several weekends travelling right through the corridor. Going down there as a destination has really opened my eyes to this wonderful part of Scotland.”
Cusick isn’t the only one to have discovered the Borders since the railway line opened in September 2015. Figures compiled by Peter Brett Associates for Transport Scotland found that 23% of tourists said they wouldn’t have visited the area if it hadn’t been for the track. The same survey, which was published back in June, revealed that 50% of train users who had moved house and more than 80% of those who had changed jobs stated that the railway had been a factor in their decision.
Cusick is heartened by the findings. “It’s very positive that people have been making decisions based on the fact that the railway is here, whether that’s people choosing to buy a house or move job,” he says. “They’ve looked at the railway as a key factor in making those decisions – it’s being seen as a key asset.
“This opens up a whole new corridor of opportunities – in both directions. At one end, you have Edinburgh, which is one of the most successful financial services locations in Europe and is arguably Europe’s centre for data and analytics, and now has the significant Edinburgh & South-East Scotland City Regional Deal.
“So, Edinburgh already has a thriving economy, but the railway has opened up a lot of opportunities for other parts of the corridor in Midlothian and the Borders also.
“This highlights the core purpose of the railway – it’s not just about commuters travelling to and from one destination to another but also about generating real economic opportunities for the entire region. We’re seeing it coming through in tourist numbers but also in the number of companies that are opening and growing along the corridor.”
Cusick points to the high-calibre workforce available in the region. While around 29% of Scottish working adults have a degree-level qualification, the figure rises to more than 40% along the railway corridor.
“There’s a rich seam of people and talent that represents a huge opportunity for businesses that either want to grow their presence along the corridor or move their operations there” he enthuses. “The creation of the Borders Railway Blueprint Leadership Group – involving all of the key stakeholders – recognised the absolute importance of developing a genuine partnership approach in delivering the economic development opportunities that lie ahead for the region.
“The leadership group was established a year before the line opened in recognition that, at the end of the day, the significant capital expenditure on the railway wasn’t just going to a be a transport project – this was an investment that was going to create significant economic development opportunities for the whole area and indeed for the whole of Scotland.
“The leadership group involves senior figures from all the key stakeholders – including the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland, Midlothian Council, City of Edinburgh Council, ScotRail, VisitScotland and Scottish Enterprise – all committed to working together to realise the potential the project presented. The partnership model that has been put in place with key stakeholders has been vitally important in driving forward the Blueprint objectives with everyone working to a shared plan and an agreed mandate.”
Data released last September revealed that the Borders Railway had already carried its one millionth passenger within its first year of operator. The report estimated that the opening of the railway has saved 40,000 car journeys a year. A further 22,000 bus journeys are also thought to have shifted from the roads to the rails.
The survey found that “commuting” was the most-common reason for taking the train. Leisure usage and education trips were also high on passengers’ agendas, with Borders College reporting a 74% rise in applications from students from outside the area when it issued figures in December 2016.
The Borders Railway hasn’t just been turning heads in the south of Scotland either. Local authorities further afield are studying the partnership model to see if it can benefit other parts of our nation too. “Effective regional partnerships are becoming increasingly important in delivering economic growth for Scotland,” says Cusick. “There are some very strong lessons to be learned from the way that the Borders Railway partnership has been able to work. It’s a great example of what can be achieved when everyone works together in delivering a shared vision.”
Back in the Borders, Transport Scotland is consulting on whether to extend the line to Carlisle, as part of a wider look at travelling options that also takes in the A1, A7 and A68 roads. The consultation began in April and is expected to end in November.