Warning over trains on new Levenmouth line in Fife after Scottish Borders opening fiasco

Six-mile route due to re-open on June 2 after 55 years

ScotRail has been warned it would be “unforgiveable” if trains on the new Levenmouth line in Fife are insufficient to cope with passenger demand following overcrowding when the Borders Railway re-opened in 2015.

In a coming book on the line, shared with The Scotsman, rail campaigner David Spaven said there must be no repeat of the “Borders debacle” next month when the six-mile route between Thornton junction and Leven welcomes its first passengers on Sunday June 2.

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The first test train at Cameron Bridge station in January. (Photo by Network Rail Scotland)The first test train at Cameron Bridge station in January. (Photo by Network Rail Scotland)
The first test train at Cameron Bridge station in January. (Photo by Network Rail Scotland) | Network Rail Scotland

The line to the most populous area of Scotland without a railway is due to be officially opened by First Minister John Swinney on Wednesday next week, marking its reconnection to the network after 55 years.

It is seen as providing a major catalyst for economic development of the 30,000-population Leven, Methil and Buckhaven conurbation, but there will initially only be one train in each direction to and from Edinburgh.

New stations will open on the six-mile route at Cameron Bridge and Leven, with end-to-end journey times of between one hour, four minutes and one hour, 15 mins.

During the Borders Railway’s first week, anger was sparked after carriages became so full some passengers were unable to board, with the Campaign for Borders Rail claiming ScotRail had failed to honour a pledge to lengthen trains to cope with demand.

Writing in How Levenmouth Got its Trains Back, which is due to be published by the Levenmouth Rail Campaign this week, Mr Spaven wrote: “At the time of writing [April], it is not known whether ScotRail would manage to strengthen key trains in the early weeks of the new service and also put in place special management measures for this critical period when the ‘novelty factor’ of the new railway - both for locals and outsiders or rail enthusiasts seeking to sample the first new railway in Scotland since 2015 - would be at its peak.

“It would be unforgiveable if anything like the Borders debacle was allowed to be repeated at Levenmouth.”

Mr Spaven said ScotRail had last month told the Levenmouth Reconnected group, set up to maximise the economic and social benefits of the new line, that “not all trains would be two or three carriages”.

The operator said the first train of the day, leaving Leven at 5.39am, would have five carriages. But Mr Spaven said that would be one of the least used services.

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He said: “Trains will be stabled overnight at Leven and the ‘strengthened’ first train will be an operational convenience, designed to provide peak capacity (typically 8-9am) elsewhere on the east of Scotland network rather than meeting peak demand at Levenmouth.”

ScotRail announced last month it had decided, following public consultation, to operate one train an hour between Leven and Edinburgh via Kirkcaldy because it had proved twice as popular as the other option of two trains an hour on the longer route via Dunfermline. It plans to add a second hourly train via Dunfermline next year.

Strategic planning director Scott Prentice said: "ScotRail is absolutely committed to making improvements, and while we know there is some way to go, this phased approach will ensure that we operate a reliable train service across all of Fife when the Levenmouth line reopens.”

The train operator said the Borders and Levenmouth lines were not comparable. It said the former was a completely new rail line with little alternative public transport choices, while the latter’s two new stations were within a few miles of existing stations.

It predicted most of those using the new stations would be existing rail passengers switching from other stops.

A test train at Leven station in January. (Photo by Network Rail Scotland)A test train at Leven station in January. (Photo by Network Rail Scotland)
A test train at Leven station in January. (Photo by Network Rail Scotland) | Network Rail Scotland

The line re-opening was approved by ministers in 2019 after the latest of a series of campaigns was launched ten years ago, which became the Levenmouth Rail Campaign. Its cost increased from £70 million to £116m when the project was widened to incorporate more double track and the capacity for future electrification.

There will be a focus on encouraging passengers to walk, cycle or take the bus to and from Leven station, which is linked to 16 miles of new “active travel” routes, and is close to the town’s bus station.

Leven station also has the capacity to accommodate charter trains. It is hoped a future freight customer could be Diageo’s grain distillery at Cameron Bridge, which is believed to be the largest in Europe.

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The former Leven station in the early 1900s. (Photo by Levenmouth Rail Campaign)The former Leven station in the early 1900s. (Photo by Levenmouth Rail Campaign)
The former Leven station in the early 1900s. (Photo by Levenmouth Rail Campaign) | Levenmouth Rail Campaign

Campbell Braid, operations director Scotland for rail firm Siemens Mobility, which is working on the project, said: “Levenmouth is a fantastic example of a railway on time and budget. But it’s not about building the railway - it’s the legacy and the opportunity that that creates in a deprived area of Fife.

“The excitement of that opening when you go there is incredible. There’s people at the side of the track asking ‘when are we opening?’

A train at the original Leven station preparing to leave for Edinburgh two months before the line closed to passengers in 1969. (Photo by Norman Turnbull) A train at the original Leven station preparing to leave for Edinburgh two months before the line closed to passengers in 1969. (Photo by Norman Turnbull)
A train at the original Leven station preparing to leave for Edinburgh two months before the line closed to passengers in 1969. (Photo by Norman Turnbull) | Norman Turnbull

“You can tell it’s real, it’s tangible. The skills training we are doing there is getting people from very difficult backgrounds an opportunity to make really good money.”

The line opened in 1854 and helped make Leven a tourist resort. It closed to passengers in 1969, four years after the coastal route from Leven to the East Neuk of Fife shut.

A British Railways poster from c1950 showing Largo Bay by Frank Henry Mason. (Photo by Andrew Hajducki/Levenmouth Rail Campaign)A British Railways poster from c1950 showing Largo Bay by Frank Henry Mason. (Photo by Andrew Hajducki/Levenmouth Rail Campaign)
A British Railways poster from c1950 showing Largo Bay by Frank Henry Mason. (Photo by Andrew Hajducki/Levenmouth Rail Campaign) | Andrew Hajducki

However, the line remained open for freight, with coal trains operating on a section to Methil Power Station until 2001.

Mr Spaven, in a new edition of his 2022 book Scotland’s Lost Branch Lines, said it was unlikely the East Neuk line would re-open, but it could potentially become a tram-train route between Kirkcaldy and St Andrews. He said “it is difficult to see conventional trains returning”, noting the line had either been built over or returned to fields.

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