Does Souter have the answer to Scotland's biggest traffic jam?
A FAST ferry commuter link between Fife and Edinburgh could be revived under ambitious plans being drawn up by the transport giant Stagecoach, The Scotsman has learned.
The development could head off the need to build a second Forth Road Bridge by providing a quicker, cheaper solution to the growing demand for travel between Fife and Edinburgh.
Stagecoach has offered to buy and operate a ferry, which would take just ten minutes to cross between Burntisland and Leith.
Brian Souter, the Stagecoach chief executive, said Kirkcaldy could be an alternative base, while a network of routes could be developed, taking in Dalgety Bay and Methil.
Mr Souter said the firm had the advantage of expertise gained from operating commuter ferries in Auckland, New Zealand and New York. He is encouraged by the enthusiastic reaction of ministers and officials at the Scottish Executive.
Stagecoach is the main bus operator in Fife and runs peak hour services across the Forth Road Bridge every five minutes from the Ferrytoll park-and-ride interchange, which is being doubled in size. A twin-hulled passenger ferry would be used on the Forth route, which could link with the existing high-frequency buses serving Leith, and eventually trams, due to start operating from 2009.
The vessel would be at least 100ft long, accommodating 190-350 passengers. Mr Souter said it would be unable to operate on only two to three days a year because of bad weather.
He said the failure of a short-lived attempt to run commuter ferries across the Forth in the early 1990s had discouraged other operators since. The service foundered, he believes, because of unreliable, unsuitable craft and went to Granton, where bus links were poor.
Mr Souter said: "The fear of failure as a result of that has probably been a big disincentive to anyone thinking of taking the plunge." He declined to speculate whether a new ferry service would remove the need for another bridge over the Forth, but Stagecoach has said a ferry service would be far cheaper and quicker to launch than building a new bridge - and avoid an increase in cross-Forth vehicle traffic.
Mr Souter said he was confident there would be sufficient demand for a service to Leith, although only 28 per cent of morning rush-hour journeys across the Forth bridges are to central and north Edinburgh.
Stagecoach has not released details of the cost of its plans, but a new bridge with approach roads has been priced at 500 million-1 billion, depending on whether it carries trams and trains. A new crossing is likely to take nine years to complete.
Stagecoach said it would carry the commercial risk of running the ferry, which it expected to be profitable within four years. However, additional funding would be required for the ferry terminals.
Mr Souter said Burntisland would be the shortest crossing, but suffered from poor road access. Kirkcaldy has better road connections, but the crossing would be longer and it is further away from the area around the bridges, where demand for a ferry is thought to be greatest.
Graham Bell, a spokesman for Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said: "This is an excellent proposal. It would alleviate pressure on the Forth Road Bridge and remove vehicles from some of the most congested parts of the Scottish roads network."
Mr Bell said Leith would provide a good terminus for the ferry because bus services in the area had markedly improved since Ocean Terminal opened.
The Stagecoach plans follow a study by Napier University. It showed a big demand for a ferry service along the Fife coast. The results of a new study, commissioned by Fife Council, the Forth Estuary Transport Authority, which runs the Forth Road Bridge, and Forth Ports, are to be published later this month.
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