Remembering the golden age of steam railways in Fife

Flying Scotsman is coming to Fife this May. Pic: Emma McIntyre.
Flying Scotsman is coming to Fife this May. Pic: Emma McIntyre.

The world’s most famous steam locomotive Flying Scotsman will be puffing its way through the Kingdom this summer.

The iconic engine is heading north of the border for a special day trip on May 14 following the success of its circular Fife tour last year.

The Dockyard train passing Den Road, this train was referred to by local railwaymen as "The Base". Pic: Peter Westwater Collection.

The Dockyard train passing Den Road, this train was referred to by local railwaymen as "The Base". Pic: Peter Westwater Collection.

In anticipation of the event, we take a look back at the days when steam trains ran on Fife’s railways.

Peter Westwater, secretary at Fife Heritage Railway, is a local railway enthusiast and explains why they were very popular.

He said: “It’s very important to remember the importance of steam engines on Fife’s railways – they are a part of our history. The steam engine is amazing – it’s like it’s alive. There is nothing like the smell of the hot oil and steam. I have always been interested in the history of steam engines, especially the North British Railway locomotives which were the main ones that travelled through Fife.”

Peter explained that it was the railways which first brought excursions and seaside holidays to Scotland in the 1860s.

A works excursion leaving from Sinclairtown Station about 1869. Pic: Peter Westwater Collection.

A works excursion leaving from Sinclairtown Station about 1869. Pic: Peter Westwater Collection.

He said: “They allowed people to travel outwith their own area – in particular it allowed people in Glasgow to go to the seaside. Before this people stayed in the area where they lived. In Fife people would travel to the East Neuk. The buses at that time were really slow – up until the 1950s buses were limited to travelling at 20mph. If you were travelling from Kirkcaldy to Perth on a single journey it could take you two hours.

“Some of the earliest excursions were work outings before the days of the Trades Holidays or the Glasgow Fair. These were day trips of perhaps 30 to 40 miles to some convenient location. Later it developed into a week’s holiday and ultimately a fortnight. The Fife coastal towns of Burntisland, Aberdour and Leven to St Andrews were popular destinations for the ‘Glesga Folk’.”

Sunday School trips and Football Specials were also favourite journeys by rail.

Peter continued: “Before the opening of the Forth and Tay Road Bridges in the mid 1960’s Sunday School Trips were popular and several churches in an area would get together and hire a train to take them to a country spot for a picnic and games and races for the kids were organised.

From left: Peter Westwater and Jim Rankin from Fife Heritage Railway.

From left: Peter Westwater and Jim Rankin from Fife Heritage Railway.

“Football Specials were also very common. I recall an occasion when at Kirkcaldy High School back in the mid Fifties when a train was hired to take several class choirs to a music festival in Edinburgh.”

Peter said there were two main lines which ran through the Kingdom: “One from the Forth Bridge to the Tay Bridge and the other from The Forth Bridge to Perth via Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath.

“While the branch lines with passenger services were routes from: Dunfermline to Alloa and on to Stirling, The Devon Valley line from Alloa to Kinross; The Alva Branch; Dunfermline to Thornton. Kinross to Ladybank; Ladybank to Perth, Markinch to Leslie, Newburgh to St Fort. Thornton to St Andrews via Leven; St Andrew to Leuchars; Leuchars to Wormit via Tayport and Thornton to Methil.”

Peter said closures started with the Leslie Branch in 1930 and more went in the mid Fifties. The rest except for Thornton to Dunfermline (which is still open) brought about the end of steam in 1967.

The Ladybank to Perth route was re-opened to passenger services in the Seventies, but none of the intermediate stations have since re-opened. Peter continued: “In the days of steam there were two main locomotive depots at Thornton and Dunfermline. Before the large shed at Thornton was opened in 1933 there were smaller sheds at Thornton, Burntisland, Ladybank and Anstruther. For many years Thornton had an allocation of over 100 steam locomotives to work local passenger and numerous coal trains and other goods trains. They also supplied small shunting locos to work at at various yards and the docks at Methil, Kirkcaldy, Burntisland and Alloa.”

As well as excursions, steam trains would also be used for people travelling to and from work. Fifers who were employed at Rosyth Dockyard would use the working specials. Workers would travel from across Fife and Edinburgh to Rosyth. It was mainly the Dockyard where people would travel to as people who worked in the factories in Fife usually stayed close to where they worked.

Fife Heritage Railway

When Fife Heritage Railway first arrived on site at Burmill Industrial Estate in Leven in 2003, there was nothing but waste ground. Now if you head down to ‘Kirkland Yard’ – which used to store coal from the pits before it was exported – on any Tuesday or Saturday, you’ll find around 15 volunteers hard at work. Whether that’s building platforms, painting engines or completely restoring them. The collection has grown and there are now several engines and coaches on site. The jewel in the crown is the Norwegian coach which is due to be unveiled in May. Pictured are Peter Westwater and Jim Rankin from Fife Heritage Railway. Visit www.fifeheritagerailway.com