We still have need for the visionaries

One of the criticisms of the way things are done nowadays is that we lack people of vision.

Monday, 20th May 2019, 4:43 pm
Berwick Pier.

This contrasts vividly with the situation 200 years ago when major infrastructure projects were carried out allowing for developments for which there was no obvious immediate need.

The accompanying illustration is of the pier at Berwick, which was built in 1820.

It consumed enormous amounts of energy and stone to enable the ever-increasing size of ships to call at Berwick on their way between Edinburgh and London.

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This must have seemed a really worthwhile investment for the area.

However, in 1850 the Royal Border Bridge, completing the East Coast Main Line railway, was built.

This was a similarly major project, and has stood the test of time better than the pier, whose most notable function now is to enable ships to use Tweedmouth dock.

There were two principal visionary engineers engaged in building major projects in the early 19th century.

George Stephenson, born at Wylam, being uneducated himself, made sure that his son Robert was educated so that he could develop projects for the railway. Robert inherited his father’s vision.

The other was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who also inherited his father’s vision, and who developed steamships, as well as railways.

George Stephenson’s vision was exemplified by his word to one of his pupils: “I have the credit of being the inventor of the locomotive, and it is true that I have done something to improve the action of steam for that purpose.

“But I tell you, young man, I shall not live to see it, but you may, that the day will come when electricity will be the great motive power of the world.”

Nearly 200 years after these visionaries lived, we have a politician cancelling the electrification of strategic main line railways and leaving them to the mercies of the diesel engine, almost at the same time as one of his colleagues cancels the sale of diesel engines after 2040 (too late).

It seems unlikely that there are many places in the world where a new railway would be opened without being electrified, as the Borders Railway was.

Fortunately, there are some better visionaries in the current transport industry who are taking steps to develop alternatives.

Bridges were crucial to the development of the railway, two of the most important being the High Level Bridge at Newcastle and the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick.

Both were built unnecessarily substantial for the needs of the day, but have enabled the increase in speed and weight of trains in the years since they were built.

As one young engineer put it: “Thank goodness for over-design. If these bridges had been built just sufficient for the immediate needs, we would not have any railways today.”

The coming of the railway to Berwick provided a focal point for two lines running inland to the central Borders, one via Kelso and the other via Duns and Earlston.

With the visionary pressure to restore the Waverley route, and thus reconnect towns in the central Borders with Carlisle and England, there are also political pressures growing to add to this initiative by restoring a link across from the central Borders to Berwick and the East Coast Main Line, which would provide a valuable diversionary route for both passengers and freight.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?. This book is priced £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation, at £11.95. Order through www.john-wylde.co.uk or from Grieves in Church Street, Berwick.