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Railwatch 081 - October 1999

A quiet revolution in Fife

By David Hansen

RDS is often unfairly criticised for stressing negative aspects of the railways. Now we have a chance to celebrate the positive. Without many fanfares, services between Edinburgh and south Fife have been improved steadily over the past 15 years and are about to be improved again.

In 1985 the first of four new local stations opened, South Gyle. Reasonably well situated for land that is still being developed the station has built up a good business since opening. 1989 saw the most dramatic change to services, with the introduction of Fife Circle services, hourly from Edinburgh via the coast route and circling back via the inland route to Edinburgh. Trains also run the opposite way around the loop.

This service was produced by extending the stopping trains to Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy into circular services. Lochgelly and Cardenden now had regular services and the inland loop had Sunday services. Also around this time conversion of services to the faster Sprinters was under way. The semi-fast train, which had consisted of a locomotive and five coaches, and many stopping trains were replaced by class 150s. Around 1991 the longer distance services were recast. An hourly class 158 service from Edinburgh to Aberdeen was provided, essentially by turning the semi-fast service to Dundee into a service to Aberdeen. In addition a roughly two- hourly service was introduced to Perth and Inverness, a welcome development.

In 1992 the second new station opened, Glenrothes with Thornton. Thornton station is several miles south of Glenrothes, Markinch is a mile or so to the east. Both have bus links to Glenrothes and these are as unsuccessful as other similar bus links.

Following this steady activity privatisation inertia and local government reorganisation set in, causing stagnation. Rail plans remained on hold, although road plans and land use plans did not.

Early in 1998 the third new station opened, Dalgety Bay, the first since privatisation. This followed a struggle in which Fife Council and the Rail users Consultative Council had to push the railways (including the Franchise Director) into making this improvement for passengers, who did not seem to be that important. Later in 1998 a stopping train from Edinburgh to Markinch was introduced. This gave a half- hourly local service along the coast line. In early 1999 a similar train started running to Cowdenbeath, giving the inland line a half-hourly service to Cowdenbeath and an hourly service beyond there with the Fife Circle services. Unfortunately this does not give a quarter hourly local service between Inverkeithing and Edinburgh, as the trains are grouped together to ease pathing problems.

The inland line was recently closed to allow the smoother and quieter continuously welded track to be installed, with an increase in line speed.

A few years ago Railtrack upgraded the signals around Haymarket to allow trains to close up and so run more smoothly. The fourth station, Dunfermline Queen Margaret should have opened in September, but has been delayed. This is in many ways fortunate, because the new class 170 trains for Aberdeen services are also late.

These trains will make an interesting comparison with the InterCity 125s on the East Coast main line. The shuffle of rolling stock when these trains do eventually arrive will allow the last ancient class 117 trains on peak local services to rest in peace.

Unlike Sprinters the class 117s cannot stop at Dunfermline Queen Margaret and keep to time. The route, trains and services have been improved markedly over 15 years, through joint funding and timetabling ingenuity.

In the near future things will get even better with a new station and trains. Longer trains for peak hours are on order and a fifth station in east Kirkcaldy (called Dysart on the map) should be built in a few years time. There are plans to make some stations better transport hubs. Longer term there are branches to Leven, Stirling and Rosyth Dockyard that have passenger potential.

The Forth Bridge signalling bottleneck could be removed. With the introduction of long term thinking into the railways via the Strategic Railway Authority we may see eventual completion of the East Coast main line electrification, which would transform local services and open up the potential to penetrate new markets with trains.

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