Levenmouth – Scotland’s next railway?

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Leven station before its closure in 1969.
Leven station before its closure in 1969.
The Borders Railway connects around 20,000 people in Galashiels and another 20,000 in Midlothian to Edinburgh. It’s had a strong start, carrying over a million passengers in its first year. The line’s construction, which cost the equivalent of £11.7 million per mile, required 30 miles of new railway built on an old track bed with many blockages. This needed 42 new and 95 refurbished bridges, including some major structures, 1.5 million tonnes of earthworks and 3.6 km of new alignment. At an event in September to mark its first birthday, Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf was glad to see that ‘the line’s increased accessibility has breathed new life into the region, boosting tourism and employment opportunities’. Borders was an act of faith by the Scottish Parliament who, in 2006, approved it on the basis of a business case which, in strict economic terms, showed a Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of 0.96 (i.e. its costs were greater than benefits). However, as events have shown, the parliament was right to consider wider social and economic benefits. Few would now dispute that the Borders Railway is a success story. It also gives a clear demonstration of how communities benefit from their railways. WHAT NEXT AFTER BORDERS? The Border’s success begs the question of whether there are any other suitable contenders for re-opening. In Scotland, the largest settlement without access to a railway is Levenmouth in Fife. This comprises of the towns of Leven, Methil, Kennoway and Windygates which have a total population of 37,000. It is the largest urban area in Scotland without a train service. The area also boasts the largest distillery in Scotland run by Diageo, which has a nearby 150-acre bottling plant which generates 80 HGV movements a day. If the rail line was re-opened, these could be transferred on to two daily container trains. Although the passenger service to Leven was withdrawn in 1969, it is still rail connected, albeit with a five-mile mothballed railway. This line is in the Sectional Appendix and is still part of Network Rail’s infrastructure. It has an operational connection at Thornton North Junction which until recently was used for freight trains along the first mile of the branch carrying open-cast coal from the Earlseat loading point. CROSS-PARTY SUPPORT For some years, the LevenMouth Rail Campaign (LMRC) has been actively campaigning for the re-opening of the line. On 23 September it held a conference to consider the next steps. This was attended by the area’s four Members of Parliament (one MP, three MSPs) who all expressed strong cross- party support. The scheme is also backed by Fife Council, Fife Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses who were also present.
leven-station-before-its-closure-in-1969

Leven station before its closure in 1969.

Deputy Leader of Fife Council Lesley Laird emphasised that the Levenmouth re-opening had the full support of the council who had committed £2 million to its development, including funding two feasibility studies. However, she expressed her frustration that there is no roadmap for such rail re-openings and that, despite numerous discussions, the next step was not clear. New lines do not feature in Network Rail’s ‘Scotland Route Study’ which is understandably concerned with enhancing existing infrastructure to meet increasing demand. The study explains that new lines were not considered as it was felt wrong for the industry to propose how new transport requirements should be met. However, it does commit Network Rail to work with promoters to integrate any re- opening schemes into the existing rail network should any be progressed. A STRONG CASE The most recent council-funded study was published last year and was undertaken in accordance with the Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance (STAG). This concluded that, without taking account of wider economic benefits, re- opening of the line had a BCR of 1.3. It is estimated the cost of re-opening the line to be £78.4 million, or £15.9 million pounds per mile which is 35 per cent more than for the Borders Railway. The reason for this high cost is that STAG report’s estimate has to include a high level of contingency in accordance with Transport Scotland requirements. However, it is surely unrealistic to suggest that re-opening of a mothballed railway will cost more per mile than the Borders which required major civil engineering work and land acquisition. Hence, the STAG report significantly overstates the cost of re-opening and thus understates the Benefit Cost Ratio. Although there is a strong economic case, the conference also highlighted the benefits to the community in personal terms. LMRC secretary Allen Armstrong explained how recent Scottish Government statistics had shown that half of the Levenmouth area was ranked within the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland and that 36 per cent of its local residents do not have access to a car. He had no doubt that a rail service would transform the area. Between each presentation LMRC chair, Eugene Clarke, introduced personal stories to highlight the problems people faced without a rail service. These included someone who had to give up her job in Edinburgh because her public transport commute took four hours each day and a family of five who had hoped to visit Edinburgh Zoo but found that public transport was too inconvenient and costly. The conference presentations, and feasibility work done to date, have shown that the Levenmouth rail re-opening proposal will bring benefits comparable to the Borders Railway at a fraction of its cost. With such a strong case it is not surprising that the LMRC campaign had attracted strong local support. The next step is to seek the Scottish Government’s commitment to this project. Written by David Shirres