Allen Armstrong: Future of rail depends on Levenmouth line

The return of train services to the area would transform Fife
The return of train services to the area would transform Fife
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Something strange is happening in the election battles being fought in Fife. Peace has broken out. Or at least all 18 candidates in wards 21 and 22 of the communities that make up Levenmouth are agreed on one thing: the restoration of the rail line between Leven and Thornton to allow direct train services to Edinburgh, disconnected in 1969, when even Dr Beeching advised their retention.

It’s not hard to see why they have all expressed support for the Levenmouth Rail Campaign. The benefits the line would bring to not only the Levenmouth area but to central and west Fife and indeed Edinburgh can hardly be overstated. Better access to health services (it can take local people three buses and two hours to get to hospital in Dunfermline). Greater participation in higher education (Levenmouth has one of the lowest HE participation rates in Scotland). An estimated increase of 500 per cent in job vacancies available to local people in a former mining area with high unemployment, by bringing the Edinburgh and south Fife jobs market within daily commuting range. An increase in leisure tourism visitors attracted by the Fife Coastal path and the new Pilgrim’s Way. A huge reduction in environmental pollution currently created by all traffic being forced on to the inadequate Standin Stane road. The opportunity for drinks giant Diageo to use rail rather than road to transport its bottles – one train alone can carry the equivalent of 50 lorries.

Above all, recognition that the local people – all 43,000 in the catchment area, the largest community in Scotland without a rail link – have been noticed by the powers that be. It has been galling to see Transport Scotland spend billions on road links but ignore this small five-mile project which would cost a fraction of the spending on roads.

Unlike the Borders line, the land is already owned by Network Rail and much of the line intact. No Act of Parliament, transport authorisations or even planning issues arise so the only modest technical challenge is to reinstate the track up to modern safety standards. In fact the first mile of track from Thornton was in use recently to transport coal from the Earlseat opencast project. Fife Circle services which stop at Thornton can be extended easily with some tweaking of the timetable.

There have been three major investigations and reports since 2006 most recently in November 2015. All have recommended reopening the line; nothing has happened.

Part of the problem has been the inability of the authorities to see that this is not simply a transport issue and doesn’t just impact on Levenmouth. This is the single transformational development that would help regenerate an area battered by economic and social storms for four decades. It matches completely the Scottish Government’s demands for “inclusive growth” and a Fairer Scotland. And in terms of geography it would help provide access for employment and cheaper housing costs for the overheated west side of Edinburgh, particularly when the City Deal takes effect.

Despite the fact that the reopening is supported by Fife Council, all the local MSPs and MPs, and a 12,000 signature petition due to be presented to Transport Minister Humza Yousaf shortly, there has been no indication yet that Transport Scotland is taking this on board. Some suspect this is because they have little experience of rail projects; others – more cynical – guess that huge road schemes appeal more to politicians than wee railway lines.

There is one stand-out feature that makes the Levenmouth Rail Campaign’s case irrefutable. It is that this project, with all the reports and compelling evidence submitted, is not only the strongest of a number of new proposed rail projects in the pipeline but by far the most advanced in the complex process of assessment demanded. If the Scottish Government cannot deliver the Levenmouth rail-link soon, then their claims of a rail revolution ring hollow and we must assume no new rail developments can be entertained anywhere in Scotland. That would be another body blow to the long-suffering people of Levenmouth. They deserve better.

Allen Armstrong is Secretary of the Levenmouth Rail Campaign