Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Levenmouth Rail Campaign – David Shirres

Just after the Borders line opened my editor asked me to produce an article that investigated what might be the next re-opened railway. The research for this article included one campaigning website promoting no less than 215 re-opening schemes. To determine which of these were serious possibilities I researched their respective costs and benefits.

Re-opening railway infrastructure is a costly business. The £12.4 million per mile to re-open the Borders railway provides a rough indication of re-opening costs to which needs to be added the operational cost. Such high costs can only be justified if there is sufficient traffic, although the benefit from the stimulation of economic growth from the improved connectivity must also be considered, yet these benefits are not easy to assess.

Fortunately, many proposed rail re-opening schemes been the subject of a detailed study to assess costs and benefits to determine their Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR). Although this is a crude measure, it does give an indicative of the respective merits of various schemes and can rule out those that will never be viable.

Having looked at 40 rail re-opening schemes as well as the 13 re-opened lines since 2000, it soon became obvious that the most promising schemes were those that connected large towns to cities by a short length of re-opened line. My article “After Borders, what next” was published in April 2016.  It concluded that there were only five re-opening schemes under development within the UK, of which Levenmouth was the only one in Scotland.

Six months later the Levenmouth Rail Campaign (LMRC) asked me to give a presentation about this article to their mini reopening conference. With a good number of MPs and MSPs present I was impressed by the strong cross-party support for the LMRC campaign.

The conference also gave examples of how otherwise disadvantaged individuals would benefit greatly from the re-opened line. Up to then, I confess I had regarded rail re-opening schemes as a rather academic exercise. A walk around the run-down communities of Methil and Leven further added to my understanding of how a new rail link could transform the life of these communities.

Last June LMRC presented a petition signed by over 12,500 people to the Scottish Transport Minister at Holyrood. Shortly afterwards I attended a meeting of the campaign group. They had just learnt that the response to their petition was that more work was needed the Levenmouth line’s business case. The disappointment in the room was palpable as the group saw their rail link as the only way to regenerate their community.

At this point, I suggested a booklet to promote the re-opening was needed. I had just seen the booklet produced by the Campaign for Borders Rail and felt it would help the campaign if a similar booklet were produced to clearly show the strong case for Levenmouth’s re-opening.

Of course, by making this suggestion it fell to me to produce the booklet! Whilst this clearly needed input from LMRC, I felt it also needed contributions from others with rail expertise, so I contacted retired colleagues who were glad to help. This included specialist advice on timetables, rail freight, land value capture and the engineering issues associated with the mothballed line’s reopening as well as advice from Border’s railway project team members in respect of re-opening costs.

Managing all this input to the booklet was challenging. The limited wordcount of a 32-page booklet meant some contributions had to be left out and differing views had to be reconciled to the satisfaction of all concerned. Difficult though this was, it greatly added to the credibility of the booklet. One veteran rail campaigner advised me he was not aware of any other rail campaign that had benefited from the input of rail professionals in this way.

The finalised booklet showed how:

  • a new railway can be a catalyst for development as shown by a £200 million regeneration scheme around Armadale station on the Airdrie Bathgate line which opened in 2011
  • previous studies excluded wider economic benefit and under estimated traffic demand
  • the cost estimate of the most recent study was not credible as it concluded that reopening the mothballed Levenmouth branch would cost 25% more per mile than the Borders railway that had major civil engineering work. The booklet demonstrated that a more realistic estimate of the line’s cost is 50 to 75% that of Borders.
  • the line had potential for freight traffic
  • land value capture could part fund the Levenmouth re-opening
  • a rail head at Leven could increase tourism in Fife’s East Neuk as Tweedbank did for the Borders

By a happy co-incidence, as the booklet was being finalised, LMRC learnt that local MSP, Jenny Gilruth had been granted an application for a debate on Levenmouth in the Scottish Parliament on 27th September. We managed to bring forward the publication date to enable the booklet to be available to MSPs a few days before the debate.

It turned out that there was no debate as everyone who spoke supported the Levenmouth re-opening. It was quite satisfying the hear the LMRC booklet referred to on several occasions. At the end of the debate Transport Minister, Humza Yousef, commended the booklet and advised that he would ask Transport Scotland to progress the study of the Levenmouth re-opening and ensure it addressed issues raised in the booklet.

Nearly six month’s later this study has yet to be published and LMRC yet to receive confirmation that it is addressing the issues raised in the re-opening booklet as Humza Yousef said it would. LMRC’s resultant frustration is understandable. Yet the relatively low cost of re-opening a mothballed railway to enable 37,000 (the largest community in Scotland without a rail link) to get to Edinburgh within an hour gives Levenmouth such a strong case that their campaign must eventually succeed, the only question is when.

David Shirres is the Editor of Rail Engineer


“A railway to regenerate Levenmouth” is available from the LMRC website