There’s still hope for hovercraft services in Scotland – Alastair Dalton

Will Scotland ever embrace the hovercraft as a form of transport, wonders Alastair Dalton after its latest rejection by the authorities as an option for the Levenmouth area of Fife.

The first trial passenger service arriving in Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy in 2007. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The first trial passenger service arriving in Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy in 2007. Picture: Ian Rutherford

It was a wow moment in transport, akin to riding an electric bike for the first time or experiencing the acceleration of a Tesla.

As I wrote 12 years ago, the hovercraft “swept on to the beach in Edinburgh just 12 minutes after leaving Kirkcaldy, its dramatic arrival heralding a possible new era of cross-Forth travel”.

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I was lucky enough to have been aboard for the start of a two-week trial by Stagecoach to test its potential.

The hovercraft carried 32,000 people during the two-week trial. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The hovercraft was a hit with its 32,000 passengers, and many others were left disappointed at not being able to get tickets for the runs to Portobello.

I particularly recall the nimbleness of the craft, which rose up in seconds as its air cushions inflated, then flicked round and eased itself down the beach without any feeling of movement from my seat.

It was a beautifully simple proposition to help cut traffic congestion – no need for expensive mooring and embarkation facilities when hovercraft could just drive up the beach.

Completing the trip that day so rapidly – albeit in calm July weather – was extraordinary. Regular services, with space for 150 people, were expected to take only 20 minutes.

It was also not as if hovercraft weren’t firmly established transport elsewhere. The Stagecoach pilot involved one borrowed from Hovertravel, which has operated them between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight for 54 years.

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The story of Scotland's hovercrafts and why they failed

I also remember previous hovercraft on the route from a primary school trip, and a larger, vehicle-carrying version between Ramsgate and Calais on a secondary school trip. I’ve always regarded them as just another form of maritime transport, and regarded it as odd not to have found them elsewhere.

However, despite the success of the Stagecoach pilot, perhaps the date of its launch – Friday the 13th – was an omen of the fate of the project.

Despite years of discussions with local authorities and funding bodies, the firm abandoned plans for a regular service in 2012, having been refused permission by Edinburgh City Council. Stagecoach chief executive Brian Souter said the company had been left “completely scunnered”.

If all that just sounds like a history lesson, I was surprised to see hovercraft listed among options for improving transport in the Levenmouth area of Fife, in a report for Transport Scotland two weeks ago.

In the largest urban area of Scotland without trains, the re-opening of the mothballed rail line to Leven would seem the obvious choice. But the inclusion of hovercraft in the report is still significant.

On the up side, the consultants said a Methil-Kirkcaldy-Edinburgh service could cut journey times to Edinburgh, especially for commuters, and improve job opportunities. It would also encourage more visitors to Fife.

However, they concluded not enough people would use the service for it to break even, and bad weather could hit its reliability.

Hovercraft would also not take freight off the roads, unlike rail, which is an important factor in the area, There would be significant short-term noise near the terminals too as hovercraft arrived and left.

Proponents of hovercraft would say the fact it was even considered demonstrates its continuing potential. But, on the other hand, could this latest rejection signal hovercraft being written off as a Scottish transport option for good?