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