Alloa to Fife and Edinburgh Rail Link
5:02 pm

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Trish Godman (Labour)

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S3M-2419, in the name of Jim Tolson, on the Alloa to Fife and Edinburgh rail link. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that the South East of Scotland Transport Partnership has proposed that a feasibility study into a rail passenger service between Alloa or Stirling and Edinburgh via Fife should be sought; believes that the upgrading of the Charlestown Junction would allow a direct rail service between Alloa and Edinburgh and improve direct freight operations from the west coast via Stirling-Alloa and into Rosyth; notes that the usage of the newly reopened Stirling-Alloa rail service has greatly exceeded the forecast passenger numbers, and believes that there is a strong case for early work to explore the opportunities to increase the sustainable transport options available to people in the Stirling, Fife and Edinburgh areas.

5:11 pm
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Jim Tolson (Liberal Democrat)

It gives me great pleasure to open the debate this evening on the important issue of providing improved passenger and freight rail services for my constituency and surrounding areas.

There is no doubt that rail is proving to be the travel mode of choice for an increasingly significant number of people in Scotland. Over the past 10 years, rail passenger numbers have grown year on year, and double the number of people now use rail than was the case 10 years ago.

Passenger projections for all the new lines that have been opened in the past few years have proved to be underestimates. The success of new lines from Bathgate to Edinburgh, Milngavie to Glasgow, and Alloa to Stirling is unprecedented. For example, the newly re-opened Stirling to Alloa railway service carried a total of 64,000 passengers in the first two four-week periods after it began operating in May 2008. If that level of patronage continues, the total for the first year will be around 416,000 passengers, which is almost a three-fold increase on the forecast of 155,000. As we move into an era of high oil prices, we all recognise that public transport, particularly rail transport, will become even more successful and important.

Dunfermline West has enjoyed economic buoyancy over the past few years. Dunfermline is fast becoming a successful small city, with commuters moving into superior housing and travelling to employment destinations in east and central Scotland. Connecting Edinburgh directly with Kincardine, Alloa and Stirling would further enhance Dunfermline West's reputation as the place in which to live, work and invest. The line would bring benefits not only for people in my constituency but for those in the whole of east and central Scotland, particularly those who live in areas with poor public transport services.

The upgrading of the Charlestown rail junction to the west of Dunfermline is a crucial part of the improvements that are required to make the line suitable for passenger use. In effect, the existing twin track of the Fife circle line and the single track branch to Kincardine—and now Alloa and Stirling—form two sides of a triangle. Upgrading the junction would complete the third side of the triangle, which is essential for future passenger and freight movements. For example, it would make sense to start a passenger service to connect Stirling with Alloa, west Fife and Edinburgh. That would increase travel opportunities and enhance the frequency of Stirling to Alloa services.

Completing the Charlestown junction is important for future freight use, including the building of the new Forth bridge and major expansions on the Rosyth waterfront that are planned by Babcock, Forth Ports and the Scarborough Muir Group. In addition, the rail freight operator English Welsh and Scottish Railway recently announced that, by the end of the year, all its freight services will use the new Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line, thus reducing journey times and carbon dioxide emissions. EWS supports the upgrading of the Charlestown junction, believing that it would bring significant benefits for freight movements.

The minister will recall that supporting an international container port at Rosyth is one of the Scottish Government's nine original planning priorities in the national planning framework. I suggest that enhancing rail facilities, as recommended in my motion, would assure Rosyth's position as a major east coast freight port and allow it to compete on a level playing field with east coast ports in England.

The other crucial aspect of upgrading the line is the provision of additional stops along the route to maximise passenger uptake from the west Fife villages and beyond—Dollar and the surrounding areas. Improved signalling and passing places are also important, so that we can reap the benefits of the welcome freight line and accommodate an upgraded passenger service, which would reduce stress on the busy Fife circle line. Peak train services between Fife and Edinburgh currently operate at full capacity, particularly during the morning peak, with many rail users coming from west Fife and beyond. Users of Rosyth, Inverkeithing, North Queensferry, Dalmeny and South Gyle stations would all benefit from increased services to Edinburgh, including the ones that would arise from the proposal. Most of those places are important park-and-ride locations, and South Gyle is also an important destination for Edinburgh Park. Services would also connect with the future tram link to Edinburgh airport.

I urge the minister to consider the details that I have put before him and to give an undertaking to Parliament to support the south east of Scotland transport partnership's call for a feasibility study. He should also consider the significant benefits that this sustainable transport proposal would bring, not only to my constituency but to a significant element of the passenger and freight rail services in eastern Scotland, at a crucial time of unprecedented passenger and freight rail growth.

5:17 pm
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Christopher Harvie (Scottish National Party)

I thank Jim Tolson for securing the debate and for raising the possibility of a rail passenger loop from Stirling and Alloa to Edinburgh via Fife. As someone who is old enough to have travelled on the original line through Oakley before it closed, I am glad to support the motion.

I will not cite the statistics, because members already have them, but I will mention that the young man who served me breakfast this morning, realising that the motion was being debated today, said that the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine rail link has been great for him, because his in-laws live in Alloa. The line knocks 20 minutes off the journey time and it is cheaper when he is taking the kids. There are already many satisfied customers.

The Alloa line will become the main heavy freight route into Fife—the link between the kingdom and Grangemouth and Mossend for container traffic—but it is a freight line between Alloa and Dunfermline, so care has to be taken with the capacity, timetabling, signalling and passing loops and the chord line outside Dunfermline.

The upper Forth is developing as a major city region, and the line could be part of a circular railway linking the communities of Falkirk, Stirling, Alloa, Dunfermline, Queensferry and Linlithgow, which have a population of a quarter of a million in all. In the longer term, the region could provide a habitat that balances Glasgow to the west and Edinburgh to the east, with an almost unparalleled offering of castles and palaces; historic towns, from Culross to Linlithgow; universities and colleges; and industrial monuments, ranging from the Forth bridges to the Falkirk wheel.

There are some problems with 20mph restrictions between Alloa, Longannet and Dunfermline, which will mean a fairly lengthy programme of upgrading, but perhaps that could be contained within the improvement of the Edinburgh to Glasgow line as, with its electrification, Turbostar trains will be released to trickle down to Fife when they are replaced by electric units. An initial goal could be an hourly to half-hourly train from Glasgow via Alloa to Dunfermline, which could build up to a ring railway.

The growth in rail transport that Jim Tolson mentioned might make us reconsider the multimodal nature of the second Forth crossing. A cable-stayed bridge could have a high-speed rail link, rather than a tramway, with the same profile as a motorway, of the sort that is being incorporated into the Fehmarn bridge between Germany and Denmark. That would work out, kilometre for kilometre, cheaper than the planned Forth crossing.

As for possible new stations, Kincardine could be a tourist goal, and Culross is an undervisited but beautiful miniature. There could also be a station at Cairneyhill, near Dunfermline.

I turn now to a factor that will govern the next few months. As a means of generating interest, I suggest going back to the past and running a series of steam passenger trains around the circuit during the coming summer of homecoming. The Scottish Railway Preservation Society, of which I am a founding life member, is helpfully situated at Bo'ness, and two or three trains could be run on Sundays, when there are fewer freight trains around, to accustom people to the new utility around the upper Forth. Given the precedent of recent excursions in Wales, that would be a substantial and rousing success.

5:21 pm
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Dr Richard Simpson (Labour)

I congratulate Jim Tolson on securing his members' business debate on an important issue, which now requires political impetus behind it. That is the point—nobody is asking for hard cash at the moment; rather, a feasibility study is being asked for, which is appropriate. None of us is an expert on rail, but we know what our constituents want—connectivity and good public transport. Part of that will be brought about by the delivery of the new connection.

I understand that steam trains are already running on the line—trains have been coming up from York—but that it is not suitable for passenger traffic at the moment, because of the slow nature of the line and problems with signalling. Nevertheless, such issues can be addressed.

When I was first elected in 1999, I had three objectives for my constituency of Ochil, which is now represented by Keith Brown. The first was to end the road to nowhere, which seemed to be the epitome of bureaucratic nonsense—two roads, partly European Union funded, to join Alloa and Stirling that failed to meet across a 600yd gap. The second was the creation of an upper Forth crossing. I am delighted to be the first person in the chamber to say that it is now called the Clackmannanshire bridge, for which I thank the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change. When I was MSP for Ochil, I campaigned for it, and I know that Keith Brown has campaigned for it, too. The bridge name helps to open up Clackmannanshire. The third objective was the Alloa railway. That project was a long struggle, and costs rose in a way that none of us predicted.

Notwithstanding those important measures for Clackmannanshire, further connectivity into Fife is important. Although other members have mentioned the connection to Edinburgh, which is important, as Jim Tolson indicated, the east-west connection, joining up with Glasgow, is also important. At the moment, people in Fife have to go to Edinburgh before going across to Glasgow, and people travelling from Alloa have to go via Stirling and Edinburgh and then over the Forth bridge to get to Fife by rail. The connectivity that the proposed scheme would provide is important.

A freight line exists, but I do not know how heavily it is used. Having an up-to-date freight line that goes through to Rosyth will be important for strategic development, as will passenger transport to Rosyth if our ferry system is to work effectively.

I understand that there are problems with connectivity to Edinburgh, relating to the Forth bridge. I do not know how much of the capacity problem is related to signalling, or indeed to absolute capacity, but I am sure that the feasibility study will investigate that. I am delighted to support the projected addition to rail connectivity, to connect parts of my constituency of Mid Scotland and Fife in a modern way.

5:24 pm
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Murdo Fraser (Conservative)

I congratulate Jim Tolson on securing the debate, which is on a matter of great interest to his and my constituents. It is worth remarking as an aside that in recent weeks we seem to have had something of a flurry of members' business debates that relate to issues in Fife. I cannot imagine for the life of me why that should be; perhaps we can speculate on it later in the debate.

Today, we are talking about extending an important rail service from Alloa and Stirling to Edinburgh, via Fife. Like all other members who have spoken, I welcome the prospect of extending the passenger service from Alloa and Stirling to Dunfermline and Edinburgh.

Jim Tolson spoke about the success of Alloa station. I understand that, since the new station was opened in May this year, the popularity of the service has surpassed expectations, as 35,000 passengers use it each week. That is excellent news and it underlines the importance of the line. It is right that there should be a review of the train service to see what can be done to improve it. It seems possible to extend the line towards Dunfermline.

I offer one note of caution. Fife rail services to Edinburgh have been a major part of my mailbag for many years; I am sure that Mr Tolson, as the constituency member for Dunfermline West, has had the same experience. The Fife lines and the Forth rail bridge are already under severe pressure from the volume of train services that use them. Over the years, I have raised the issue in meetings with First ScotRail, and I am pleased to say that progress has been made. First ScotRail has made it clear that one of its priorities is to improve the service to Fife, as trains are often overcrowded and do not meet passenger need. If we are to encourage people out of their cars and on to the train, we must have a service that is reliable and has enough capacity for all the commuters who want to use it.

I understand that in the past the problem was a lack of capacity at Waverley—First ScotRail could not put on more trains because there was insufficient platform space at Waverley to accommodate them. I know that work is being done to alleviate that problem, but capacity at Waverley remains an issue.

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Margaret Smith (Liberal Democrat)

I welcome the chance to agree with Murdo Fraser about capacity at stations in Edinburgh. Work has been under way at Waverley and Haymarket, and there are plans for other phases of work at Haymarket. The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change may want to address station capacity in his closing remarks.

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Murdo Fraser (Conservative)

I thank Margaret Smith for that lengthy intervention, which was addressed to the minister rather than to me, but I will forgive her on this occasion.

The other issue that Mr Tolson raised is the possibility of using the line for additional freight services, especially to connect with the port of Rosyth. He spoke about the developments at Rosyth waterfront, with which members will be familiar. If new businesses are to develop there, it makes sense for them to have the opportunity to use the rail service to transport freight. If businesses have access only to the road network, as is the case at present, they will put pressure on the existing Forth crossing and the new crossing that is to be built. I have pursued getting more freight off the roads and on to rail vigorously in another part of Mid Scotland and Fife—the A9 corridor. Although that is outwith the scope of this debate, it is clear that the two issues are interrelated.

Rail travel works and is attractive only if trains are running. At First Minister's question time, there was an exchange about strikes on the railways. I would be interested to learn what action the minister is taking to avoid strikes. There is no point in our trying to get passengers on to the railways if they lose confidence when trains do not run and they go back to using their cars.

I welcome the debate and will listen with interest to the minister's response.

5:28 pm
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Keith Brown (Scottish National Party)

I, too, congratulate Jim Tolson on securing this debate—well done to him for getting in so quickly. It is good to have the chance to debate this issue on the back of the success of what we prefer to call the Alloa to Stirling line, rather than the Stirling to Alloa line.

As Richard Simpson mentioned, he and I are veterans of a successful rail campaign. It is interesting to note the pattern that such campaigns have followed. As the person who proposed the public transport fund bid for Clackmannanshire Council and, subsequently, the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine Railway and Linked Improvements Bill, which was promoted by Clackmannanshire Council, I see an emerging pattern, but there is one difference between the campaigns. A huge number of agencies were involved in the Stirling to Alloa project, which was in a state of considerable flux. Although the current campaign is still relatively fragmented, there is more stability, so it should be easier to get the initiative off the ground.

It is fair to say that consideration of the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine link, if we may call it that, is essential to the discussion. That line is mostly used by passengers, but some freight travels on it. If we did not have it, we would not be discussing what we are discussing. For many people in Clackmannan, Kincardine and Culross, the discussion is not about a new connection, but a chance for their villages to get on the national passenger network.

Several members have mentioned the popularity of the new line. It has been projected that more than 400,000 people will use it this year, which is far more than the estimates on which the project was predicated. That is testament to the fact that there is increasing interest in and demand for rail services—I think that Jim Tolson spoke about that.

I have had a number of meetings with Ian Chisholm of the south east of Scotland transport partnership, and am pleased that that partnership is proposing a study. I have also met the minister to discuss the matter. Obviously, there are many demands on his budget, especially with the new Forth crossing, but the door has not been closed on considering the project. Today, there was a useful meeting with Network Rail, which some members were able to attend. We found out about the practical problems that exist and the different options that are available, depending on what is intended. We may go for a stage-by-stage approach. Obviously, there are straightening works to be done, and there are additional signalling requirements. Those of us who were involved in the work on the Alloa line will know how central signalling was to the problems that were endured in that project. There is a lack of signalling capacity and expertise, especially in design, in this country. I think that we had to rely on signal designers from India and eastern Europe.

Different options are available, but the most essential thing is that we get things off the books with a study. The Scottish transport appraisal guidance 1 study that SEStran, I think, proposed will go only so far; the active involvement of Transport Scotland in a study is crucial. As Richard Simpson said, commitment is not needed; it can simply consider the options and the costs. Such a study would not be definitive by any means, but it would certainly give us a better idea of the passenger demand that exists and the benefits that would result. The wider benefits to central Scotland, not only the benefits that would result to the local area, were crucial to winning the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line.

It is also important that we do not forget the options at Rosyth. As a result of the efforts of the minister and others on the ferry link with Europe, a real possibility exists of having a genuinely integrated transport network. Freight and passengers can come directly from Europe and go straight on to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Freight can then go on to Ireland. There is real potential for integrated rail improvements to the transport network in my part of Scotland. In the meantime, we can consider, for example, direct links from Alloa to Edinburgh, which could also go the other way. That would certainly improve that service even further.

I am delighted that the motion has been lodged. We are at the start of a process. Through Clackmannanshire Council, I have called for Fife Council to become engaged in the project for two and a half years. I hope that, following the first study, we will move forward to further success.

5:33 pm
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Stewart Stevenson (Scottish National Party)

I will start by briefly referring to the proposed industrial action, which is within the terms of the motion, as it is on sustainable transport options for the Stirling, Fife and Edinburgh areas. I understand that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—the RMT—and railway representatives will be at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning. Like the First Minister today, we encourage all the parties to take a mature and sensible approach and to use the opportunity to bring to the table an independent third party that is skilled in mediation and negotiation. We hope that doing so will deliver the outcome that we all seek.

Murdo Fraser asked why we are having so many debates on Fife. The answer to that question is straightforward. The transport minister lived in Fife from 1947 to 1969, which is why we are having so many debates on transport in Fife. Members across the chamber know about the commitment to and interest in Fife that I retain. Some members of my family remain there.

Murdo Fraser also talked about the pressure on train transport from Fife. We recently announced 1,200 additional seats throughout Scotland's network, which will be welcome. Some 500 of those are geared towards creating additional capacity from Fife to Edinburgh. That opportunity was created in particular by getting English Welsh & Scottish Railway freight traffic off the bridge. That has meant better use being made of the bridge's paths, which were one of the constraints. There are constraints at Waverley, but the constraints on the bridge were rather more important.

We are examining capacity at other stations. For additional capacity at Haymarket, we have retained platform 0, which is not being used. The Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme shows the priority that we give to rail and we will consider stations as part of that.

I congratulate the motion's proposer, Jim Tolson, on obtaining this important debate. He raised several matters, including the Rosyth container depot. Quoting Babcock's response to the consultation on the draft version of the second national planning framework might be useful. It says that opening the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway loop

"will effectively divert all coal freight trains off ... the Forth Rail Bridge and reroute them through Stirling ... It is our view that services into Rosyth via Elbowend and Charlestown Junctions could easily be provided".

Babcock is on the case. That was some of the input that we have received.

It is worth making the point that in rail freight, which I support strongly, a key aspect is having alternative paths. Very little—if any—rail freight is likely to use the line from the east to Longannet, but it remains important as an alternative path for operational reasons, so there is no prospect of downgrading.

Members have referred to speed limits, which are quite low on the route that we are discussing. Average speeds in some parts are as low as 20mph, and 30mph is the general average. To bring the route into use for passenger travel, considerable investment would be required.

Chris Harvie suggested that we are looking at cheaper roads—that relates to sustainable transport options for Stirling, Fife and Edinburgh, Presiding Officer—than the Forth replacement crossing. However, it should be remembered that we are using outcome pricing, which includes a lot of inflation, and half the cost is for roads. I was pleased to hear Richard Simpson say that no one is asking for hard cash.

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Stewart Stevenson (Scottish National Party)

I noted the words "at present".

I am pleased that our putting Clackmannanshire on the transport map through the name for the new bridge has given so much pleasure. Support for that name was decisively clear.

Keith Brown talked about the STAG appraisal that SEStran is pursuing. It is important to remember that STAG appraisals are mode independent. Although a decision that we require to provide additional rail connections in a corridor might be the result of a STAG appraisal, the appraisal could say something different. However, I accept that, given the existing railway and the wider benefits to which Keith Brown referred, it would be perverse not to consider railways seriously.

Jim Tolson is likely to be in serious trouble with his party leader, as he has asked for additional money when his leader wants to carve £800 million out of the public spending budget, but perhaps we will discuss that at greater length on another occasion.

The Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway has been an outstanding success. It is first class and there is no more enthusiastic supporter of the railway than me—as a user and as the minister responsible for targeting investment. It is part of a £1.5 billion programme of investment by the Government in new infrastructure.

It is important that we consider more broadly what we are trying to do for Edinburgh and sustainable transport, by getting up to six trains an hour between Edinburgh and Glasgow—two with journey times of 35 minutes—by improving services for Fife and by improving bus services. It is a delight to travel behind a bus from Fife that announces that Wi-Fi is available on board and to know that there are leather seats on the bus. The quality of offering across a range of transport modes is improving. I think that all members will welcome that.

I congratulate Jim Tolson on bringing the matter to our attention and allowing us to explore the issues for Fife and for wider Scotland—we must put the debate in that context—on a fairly non-partisan basis. I hope that the SEStran STAG appraisal proceeds at a reasonable speed and I look forward to the outcome.

Meeting closed at 17:40.