There’s a stark contrast on show at Alloa station. The line heading west towards Stirling features shiny rails. That heading east is heavy with rust.
Yet the line only reopened in 2008 and after many years of arguments about the merits of returning Alloa to the railway map and providing a route for coal trains to Longannet power station that avoided the Forth Bridge and was more direct for trains from Hunterston. Longannet closed in 2016 and took with it the coal trains that traversed the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway.
Eagle-eyed passengers will spot more contrasts. Alongside the shiny tracks are pile foundations onto which Network Rail will be placing electrification masts and then overhead wires next year. Alloa will see electric trains, planned from December 2018 if all runs to plan, as part of Transport Scotland’s project to electrify much of the Central Belt’s rail network.
Those rusty tracks go beyond Longannet. They emerge at Charleston Junction to join the Edinburgh-Cardenden-Dundee line, over which ScotRail runs a frequent passenger service. From the junction, it’s just a few chains to Dunfermline Town station.
Type Alloa to Dunfermline into a rail journey planner, and the options presented advise changing at Stirling and Edinburgh Waverley with journey times over two hours. Yet the two towns are only 14 miles apart. Driving could take around 30 minutes and a bus about an hour.
There’s clear potential to extend trains beyond Alloa but no plans. Despite Scotland’s reputation for reopening rail lines – Borders in 2015 being the best example but also Airdrie-Bathgate in 2010 and smaller projects such as Larkhall back in 2005 – there are no reopening plans. Indeed, the Scottish Government has not committed to any rail reopenings since it created Transport Scotland back in 2006. That was the year it authorised relaying the Borders line to Tweedbank. It then took nearly a decade to bring trains back.
These projects all exceeded expectations in terms of passenger numbers, as did Alloa, generating more benefits than first thought from those lower estimates. That’s an argument being played strongly by campaigners a few miles further east from Longannet’s tracks. They want to see trains returned to Levenmouth, which is a town on the Fife coast. Just as with Alloa-Dunfermline, it has a disused freight railway. Its six-mile line runs from Thornton North Junction to Methil, where it once served a power station and a port. It’s been mothballed since the early 2000s when the power station closed although a short section as far as Earlseat saw coal trains serving an opencast colliery between 2012 and 2015. Freight once ran to serve a distillers at Cameron Bridge and this industry remains strong in the area.
Campaigners claim that Levenmouth is the largest settlement in Scotland without a rail service. They also argue that the area is deprived. Levenmouth has a population of 33,000 which compares with Hawick’s 14,000 – the latter being targeted for a future extension of Borders Rail. Adding Cameron Bridge brings a combined catchment for the Levenmouth branch to 46,000.
Systra conducted a detailed examination in 2016 of the options for improving public transport to Levenmouth using Scotland’s STAG (Scottish transport appraisal guidance) process that looks at five criteria; environment, safety, economy, integration, and accessibility/inclusion. Systra also considered how different options performed against transport planning objectives. They include improving access to jobs and services, encouraging sustainable transport, attracting jobs and people to Levenmouth and enhancing the area as a gateway to the tourist areas of East Fife.
Options included better bus services, reopening the railway on its original or a new alignment. A final option examined creating a triangular network of hovercraft services between Methil Docks, Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh. They were also judged against feasibility, affordability and public acceptability criteria.
Two options – bus improvements and reopening the branch line – merited more examination. In the course of looking at the rail options, Systra discovered that passengers between Markinch and Edinburgh are paying £5 more than other passengers making equivalent journeys between Central Belt stations and Edinburgh or Glasgow. Removing this inflated fare had an effect on the cost of the option that improved bus services between Levenmouth and Markinch as part of making longer journeys more accessible.
The rail option was altered to remove a proposal to extend the line into Methil Docks because there was no demand. This left stations at Leven and Cameron Bridge and freight facilities at the latter. Journey times to Edinburgh could be as low as 51 minutes if a direct express service ran, calling at Kirkcaldy, Inverkeithing, Edinburgh Gateway, Haymarket and Waverley. The branch could also be served by diverting trains away from Glenrothes with Thornton or extending trains that serve Cowdenbeath. These services would take over an hour.
Freight demand could extend to trains twice a day carrying 20 containers inwards and 20 outwards. Around 6.7 million lorry-kilometres could be removed from roads as a result, Systra found. Freight use remains unlikely. The line has remained available for many years with little interest from hauliers. Even today, it only needs NR to return it to operational use to allow freight to run.
Putting the rail and bus options through a second appraisal left Systra concluding that rail was the stronger of the two on economic grounds. However, the rail option was considerably more expensive to introduce and then run. Capital costs of reopening the railway for passengers and freight could reach £91 million compared with £3.4m for the bus option. Operating costs could be £257,000 a year for bus and £404,000 for rail, according to Systra. Rail would bring revenue of £22m while bus would bring £4.6m and need a £100,000 annual subsidy.
In the end, Systra recommended the rail option in its detailed report published by Fife Council in January 2017.
Campaigners from the Levenmouth Rail Campaign collected over 12,000 signatures from people supporting the line’s reopening, presenting them to Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf last summer. The Scottish Parliament debated Levenmouth on September 27. In it the MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes, Jenny Gilruth, said: “Let us compare Leven with Dunbar. In Levenmouth, 3% of the population work in Edinburgh, compared with 22% in Dunbar. The towns are a similar distance from Edinburgh, and there are no prizes for guessing which has the rail link.”
North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie said: “We have heard all the arguments. Leven is the largest town without a railway, and Levenmouth is a significant area of deprivation and post-industrial decline. There are big businesses with a lot of heavy goods vehicle traffic on narrow access roads. The environmental, social and economic benefits of the rail link are pretty obvious. The studies have been carried out, local support has been secured—as we have heard from Jenny Gilruth—and local people proactively raise the issue as an important priority. We do not have to encourage them to support the campaign; they are already there. Fife Council regards it as a priority, and it has put its money behind the project.
“The railway still exists. It is a short line and none of it has been built on. The cost is not insignificant, but in comparison with other major projects it is still quite small. The environmental, economic and social returns will be significant, but there is frustration with the process—with the fact that it takes too long and that the answer to any question is to commission a further report, study or investigation. It is almost as if the decision is being put off for convenience. What we need is a bit of speed in the process to deliver a project that everybody is behind.”
Labour MSP Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) said of the transport minister: “He could start by committing to real support for the GRIP4 study, which is the crucial next stage in making the project a reality.
When he spoke, Transport Minister Humza Yousaf did not commit to supporting GRIP4 (NR’s single option development stage) but said he was minded to ask Transport Scotland to take on responsibility for future studies. He said: “I am not going to prejudge the outcome of Transport Scotland’s deliberations. I have told it to look above and beyond the basic cost benefit analysis to the wider socioeconomic and regeneration impacts.”
In December 2017, Transport Scotland told RAIL: “Transport Scotland will progress the transport appraisal work undertaken to date for the Levenmouth Sustainable Transport Study in line with Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance and in close collaboration with [Fife] Council. The transport appraisal work will determine if there is a rationale for progressing the Levenmouth rail link, which will be one of the options considered in the Levenmouth Sustainable Transport Study.”
That sounds rather like Transport Scotland is simply repeating Systra’s work. It does not sound like a GRIP4 report to produce outline engineering plans to return trains to the branch. Levenmouth’s campaigners should keep fighting. And Scotland’s reputation for reopening rail lines takes another step back.

This article first appeared in RAIL 843, published on January 3 2018.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.