Com­mut­ing by hov­er­craft is 60% quicker than by car, would cut stress and help save the planet, says ex­pert Alis­tair Macleod

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

How hov­er­craft could be the fu­ture of com­mut­ing

The le­gions of com­muters trav­el­ling at a snail’s pace across the Forth Road Bridge to Ed­in­burgh and the Kingston Bridge to Glas­gow are not only suf­fer­ing huge stress, they are also trash­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. It’s a lose-lose.

So what’s to be done? In Ed­in­burgh, the sight of an­other – com­pletely un­used – bridge across the Forth in­duces apoplexy in the un­for­tu­nate Fifers who drive into Ed­in­burgh each day. Yet, de­spite jour­ney times re­main­ing un­changed since the open­ing of the Queens­ferry Cross­ing, the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment is show­ing no signs of think­ing lat­er­ally about the is­sue.

In­deed, it seems there’s more chance of re­open­ing the Vic­to­rian min­ing tun­nel which once trans­ported coal un­der the Forth than hav­ing two bridges open si­mul­ta­ne­ously or hav­ing three lanes for pre­vail­ing traf­fic on the one op­er­a­tional bridge. And things are likely to get worse given that Ed­in­burgh City Coun­cil’s re­cently un­veiled master­plan ef­fec­tively en­vis­ages a ban on city cen­tre driv­ing. In­no­va­tive so­lu­tions are just as elu­sive on Cly­de­side, where 150,000 com­muters each day make Kingston Bridge the busiest road bridge in Europe.

But there are things that could be done to change the nar­ra­tive. One of the most ob­vi­ous is a hov­er­craft from Fife to Ed­in­burgh, an in­no­va­tion tri­alled for two weeks in 2007, which proved both pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful. The tech­nol­ogy, which has been around since Sir Christo­pher Cock­erell fash­ioned a pro­to­type from an empty cat food tin and vac­uum cleaner tubes seventy years ago, is es­tab­lished and re­li­able. Ca­pa­ble of trav­el­ling at up to 60 knots (70mph), with­stand­ing six foot waves and tack­ling high winds, hov­er­craft have the po­ten­tial to pro­vide cleaner, greener trans­port, even in win­ter con­di­tions.

Twelve years ago Sir Brian Souter of trans­port op­er­a­tor Stage­coach, claimed reg­u­lar hov­er­craft ser­vices from Fife to Ed­in­burgh would be 60% quicker than by com­mut­ing by car. The ev­i­dence of the sub­se­quent trial cer­tainly gave cre­dence to the idea that such a ser­vice could be part of the so­lu­tion.

Back in 2007, I ran Stage­coach’s trial ser­vice from Kirk­caldy to Por­to­bello, which was an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess. We con­structed tem­po­rary land­ing pads on the beach, the jour­ney took 17 min­utes, and shut­tle buses pro­vided 20-minute con­nec­tions into Ed­in­burgh. Not only did the 22 daily ser­vices, each car­ry­ing up to 130 peo­ple, prove im­mensely pop­u­lar – with 32,099 pas­sen­gers us­ing it – prices were com­pet­i­tive, start­ing at £4.50 for a re­turn ticket. At the time the SES­tran chair coun­cil­lor Russell Im­rie pointed out that the jour­ney time ‘com­pares well with the time and ef­fort of driv­ing into the city – and doesn’t in­clude the added has­sle of search­ing for park­ing’.

It was es­ti­mated that 470,000 pas­sen­gers would have used the hov­er­craft ser­vice in year one, with num­bers in­creas­ing to 870,000 after four years. Given Ed­in­burgh was branded the most con­gested Bri­tish city in sat-nav man­u­fac­turer TomTom’s 2019 sur­vey, it seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive that this pro­posed ser­vice – with the po­ten­tial to re­duce car­bon foot­print and com­mut­ing times – was re­jected by Ed­in­burgh City Coun­cil on the grounds of vis­ual im­pact

of the pro­posed ramp, trans­port and noise con­cerns. De­spite Stage­coach’s as­ser­tions to the con­trary, the coun­cil main­tain that no com­mer­cially vi­able ser­vice has been iden­ti­fied, but say they would be happy to en­gage with any prospec­tive op­er­a­tor.

Con­cerns have been raised that hov­er­craft may dis­turb birdlife, but Stage­coach spent thou­sands on en­vi­ron­men­tal re­ports to prove to SNH there would be no in­ter­fer­ence with win­ter­ing birds. High-pow­ered RIB boats from the Seabird Cen­tre in North Ber­wick whizz around Bass Rock, get­ting close to birdlife with­out any detri­men­tal ef­fects, so hov­er­craft pass­ing half a mile away should not be too prob­lem­atic. Be­sides, the Hov­er­craft Club of Great Bri­tain main­tain that noise lev­els gen­er­ated by hov­er­craft at cruis­ing speed are sim­i­lar to that of a pass­ing car or small van (at 71-76dBA at a 25-me­tre dis­tance).

The out­lay for the in­fra­struc­ture needed for a Fife-Ed­in­burgh ser­vice is es­ti­mated at £6 mil­lion. But with Ed­in­burgh’s tram lines to be ex­tended to­wards Ocean Ter­mi­nal by 2022, why not take ad­van­tage of that frame­work by putting a hov­er­pad in Leith, ei­ther in ad­di­tion to a land­ing site in Por­to­bello, or in­stead of one? Just in­side the outer har­bour at Leith a float­ing hov­er­pad could be in­stalled and the dis­used light­house could be used as the ter­mi­nal, which would con­nect to the bus ser­vice into the city. The jour­ney time from Kirk­caldy to Leith would be around 20 min­utes (be­fore the Hov­er­craft ser­vice across the Chan­nel was put out of busi­ness by Euro­tun­nel, they crossed the 21 miles to Calais in 30 min­utes).

Fife Coun­cil also said they would sup­port such a pro­posal, pledg­ing £1 mil­lion in its cap­i­tal plan when Stage­coach’s trial was first mooted. Given that Ed­in­burgh’s sin­gle tram line has al­ready cost £776 mil­lion, that rep­re­sents in­cred­i­ble value for money.

If we truly hope to see a car-free Ed­in­burgh, what mea­sures – that would still al­low com­muters to reach the city cen­tre – are be­ing put in place to sup­port that as­pi­ra­tion? The ac­cel­er­a­tion of Ed­in­burgh house prices is forc­ing young peo­ple out of the city, so cheap trans­porta­tion to Ed­in­burgh from more af­ford­able Fife (Kirk­caldy’s av­er­age house price is £150,000, half that of Ed­in­burgh), is a so­lu­tion that may also ease un­em­ploy­ment that af­flicts east Fife.

Such a ser­vice is not a unique con­cept. Hover­travel’s ser­vice from Portsmouth to Ryde has car­ried over 35 mil­lion peo­ple across the So­lent since 1965. And if not hov­er­craft, why not tra­di­tional fer­ries? New York’s Staten Ferry is a roar­ing suc­cess, car­ry­ing 70,000 pas­sen­gers a day on the 25-minute jour­ney from Man­hat­tan to the sub­urbs. Aus­tralia’s Manly Ferry is equally ef­fec­tive, with 15.3 mil­lion pas­sen­ger jour­neys a year from Syd­ney Har­bour to Manly.

A hov­er­craft or ferry ser­vice from Fife to Ed­in­burgh, or along the back­bone of Glas­gow, the Clyde, is not a sil­ver bul­let. But we need to plan in­no­va­tively for a near fu­ture in which cli­mate change de­mands a sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in car us­age. The Forth and Clyde are ne­glected nat­u­ral high­ways, and Sir Christo­pher Cock­erell’s in­ven­tion may just help to square this trou­ble­some cir­cle.

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing: Rosie Mor­ton

“Stage­coach’s trial from Fife to Por­to­bello was an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess

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