Cross-Forth hovercraft talks back on the table

The trial hovercraft used between Kirkcaldy and Portobello in 2007
The trial hovercraft used between Kirkcaldy and Portobello in 2007

A new company aiming to revive a hovercraft service between Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh claims the plan could be operational from 2016.

That’s according to Forthfast’s director John Lidderdale who maintains there are no “insurmountable obstacles” to finally establishing the cross-Forth service originally envisioned by Stagecoach in 2007.

However, as Sir Brian Souter knows only too well, any ferry plan across the Forth requires complete backing from authorities on either shore and, for reasons still subject to intense speculation, Edinburgh refused to grant permission for a terminus at Portobello.

The decision by councillors , which came in 2011 - two years after the Stagecoach plans had been lodged - rejected a recommendation of approval from planners and led Sir Brian Souter to throw in the towel.

In a statement last week Edinburgh City Council would only commit to having heard of Forthfast and would not be drawn on whether the authority would ‘in principle’ be supportive of a cross-Forth hovercraft service.

Councillor Lesley Hinds, Transport Convener for the City of Edinburgh Council, said: “We are aware that a new group has been formed to promote the possibility of a hovercraft service and there have been early, conceptual discussions about the idea.”

In a bid to bypass the Portobello problem, Forthfast propose instead to launch a hovercraft service between Kirkcaldy and Newhaven, with a journey time of 17 minutes and an onward bus transport link to Edinburgh city centre.

In theory the service could operate from the third quarter of 2016 “at the earliest”.

Mr Lidderdale, a highly experienced project engineer, told the Press he had already engaged in “positive and supportive talks” with both Sestran and Fife Council.

He and co-director Alistair Macleod - the same marine consultant who developed Stagecoach’s project - have bought up transport company’s original plans and engineering designs.

Earlier this month they lodged an application to extend planning permission to demolish the former Stagecoach bus depot on Kirkcaldy Esplanade with a view to creating a terminal and slipway at the site.

Mr Lidderdale also proposes to locate the company’s headquarters and maintenance operations in Kirkcaldy, creating 48 local jobs.

“We’ve had outstanding help from Fife Council on the whole. They are clearly very keen,” Mr Lidderdale commented.

Robin Presswood, head of enterprise at Fife Council, confirmed Forthfast’s renewal of the terminal application would keep the situation “ticking over”, but no service plans were in the immediate pipeline.

However, Mr Lidderdale told the Press he was determined to resurrect a project which he felt had only failed because of a “misunderstanding”.

“They (Edinburgh councillors) were assuming Stagecoach would come back with a better proposal,” he said.

”I thought this was silly. Everyone seemed to want it and there were no insurmountable obstacles.”

He added: “This would revitalise Kirkcaldy.

“It’s important to Fife, full-stop.”

How the original project ground to an abrupt halt

During a two-week trial hovercraft service in the summer of 2007, 32,000 passengers crossed the Forth between Kirkcaldy and Portobello in journey times of just 15 minutes.

Encouraged by the public’s response, Stagecoach, with financial backing from Sestran, pushed ahead and in 2008 pledged to invest more than £10 million in two craft, plus infrastructure.

However the project was dealt a massive blow in 2011 when Edinburgh City Council refused plans for a ramp for the craft in Portobello, citing visual impact, noise and transport concerns.

The decision, which came two years after the application was lodged, was met with disappointment by Fife councillors who had hoped a cross-Forth hovercraft would lead to the redevelopment of the west of Kirkcaldy.

They appealed to Edinburgh City Council to reconsider its decision with no success.

A Stagecoach spokesman said at the time that the rejection had “killed off” the company’s ambitions, while Sir Brian Souter himself said he was “scunnered”.

Speaking this week, Cllr Neil Crooks, chairman of the Kirkcaldy Area Committee said: “If Forthfast succeeds it would be brilliant for Kirkcaldy.

“My understanding is that there was no appetite for the project in Edinburgh and the infrastructure costs were prohibitive, but there was cash set aside in Fife and I think there is an appetite for it here.”

The project’s viability would depend on regular numbers of commuters, he commented, but Fife could benefit from a spin-off in tourist passengers.

“If we could tap into just five to ten percent of the people who visit Edinburgh it would be such a boon for Kirkcaldy,” he said.