The temporary closure of the Forth Road Bridge last month is now a fading memory for the thousands of drivers who rely upon it each day. Commuters and transport officials must now hope that no further structural defects are discovered before the opening of the replacement Queensferry Crossing. The reopening of the bridge to cars on Christmas Eve – while lorries are still banned for the time being – mean it is no longer headline news. But questions remain; who was to blame for the closure and what lessons can be learned from it?
The cause of the bridge closure was relatively simple; too many cars, vans and lorries crossed the structure on a daily basis for decades. The structure was designed to handle 12 million vehicles a year but ended up carrying double that number. A structural fault of some kind was expected – the only question was when. The missed opportunities to carry out remedial work are now well-documented, but all would most likely have involved some form of traffic restrictions.
The roots of this debacle lie not in the bridge itself but with sweeping changes in employment and housing patterns that have taken place across Edinburgh and particularly Fife since the 1980s. In short, much of the kingdom has become a dormitory for the capital. This was partly by design. Even before local authorities were reorganised in 1996, places like Dunfermline and Rosyth were viewed as ripe for expansion by councillors and house-builders alike. Today, the two have effectively merged, with their tentacles creeping into Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay. Only the Ferry Hills prevents this growing suburban sprawl from swallowing North Queensferry.
The area around my old high school, Woodmill, is one of the best examples of the changing face of West Fife. Excitable local news reports used to boast that Dunfermline’s eastern expansion was the single biggest housing development in western Europe. Back in 1997, Linburn Road marked the edge of the town. When approaching from the south, on the left of the carriageway was Abbeyview - a long neglected housing estate that has since enjoyed significant regeneration. On the right there was nothing but fields stretching down to Aberdour and the coast. Today, there stands some 6,000 new homes.
If it was not for the inconvenience of the Forth – and those with a sentimental attachment to old county lines – there would be nothing to prevent Edinburgh’s boundaries from marching ever northwards and staring down Dundee from the south banks of the Tay. The explosion in city populations is a global phenomenon and one that is unlikely to end soon. While commuters’ woes in the capital may pale in comparison to the chaos workers face in Lagos or Mumbai, that does not excuse the failure to address several glaring holes in the local transport network exacerbated by a Fife housing boom.
The Forth bridges were never intended to ease the morning commute from Lochgelly to South Gyle. The great Victorian railway companies wanted a rail bridge that could sweep their expresses majestically northward from London, through Edinburgh, Dundee and on to Aberdeen. The road bridge that followed 74 years later was primarily to replace a ferry crossing that had become hopelessly inadequate in the age of the car.
Even as late as the early 1980s, trains departing from West Fife stations before 8am were frequently half-empty. This was the last days of an era when people generally lived near to their place of work. Offices could still be found on provincial High Streets before the advent of out-of-town business parks. Fife still hosted sizeable manufacturing and mining sectors; paper and rubber mills could be found in Dunfermline and Inverkeithing town centres as late as the mid-1990s. Longannet colliery limped on until 2002. When the navy sailed out of Rosyth in 1994 much of the dockyard work went with it.
These industries vanished just as Edinburgh’s financial sector was finding top gear. Vast office developments on the city’s western peripheries brought it closer to Fife than ever before. The capital’s over-heated property market altered the dynamic still further. Once young couples found that a small tenement flat in Newington cost the same as a semi-detached Victorian villa in Kirkcaldy, the old prejudices about moving across the water quickly evaporated.
By the turn of the century transport links were already at breaking point. The extra carriages provided on peak-time services on the Fife circle were soon filled. A park-and-ride facility built at Jamestown, by the north approach road to the road bridge, was soon doubled in size. But these were essentially cosmetic works. Everyone knew the road bridge was the linchpin that kept the whole thing together. Frequently high winds would force its closure for hours. The chaos a protracted structural issue could cause was too grim to think about. A second road bridge was being rumoured at least 15 years before it was signed off by the fledgling SNP government in 2007. It was revealing that many of the commentators who initially dismissed the new crossing as a vanity project did not live in West Fife. The misery of bridge closures was alien to them.
The opening of the Queensferry Crossing will not solve all of these issues. Commuters will still be forced into what is essentially a bottleneck. But what else, realistically, can be done? There are two options that should be considered. First, the opening of a ferry crossing downstream. It is madness there is no regular service linking either Kirkcaldy or Burntisland with Leith or Portobello. Why expect weekend shoppers or commuters to travel further along the Fife coast to cross at Queensferry, only to then travel back in the opposite direction to reach their destination? Ideally, this would resemble the Staten Island services that link New York's smallest borough – boats capable of taking hundreds of passengers as well as vehicles. Even a passenger-only crossing would make a difference, especially in the summer months when tourists head to the East Neuk and on to St Andrews. A trial crossing in 2007, operated by Stagecoach, proved there is a demand.
Rail links from Fife to the rest of Scotland are also in need of improvement. Passenger services from Glasgow to Alloa should continue to Dunfermline on the line currently used to transport coal to Longannet power station. Those wishing to travel to Scotland’s largest city from the kingdom would then have no need to travel across the Forth.
Any councillors or civil servants reading may scoff at this wish-list in an era of shrinking budgets and austerity. But the closure of the road bridge must surely focus minds. West Fife is now part of the fuel supply that fires Scotland’s capital. The two cannot afford to be cut off again.