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"A potential role for hovercraft on the Forth Estuary in Scotland" Alistair Macleod - Perth meeting of 16 October 2007

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The "Solent Express" leaving Kirkcaldy bound for Portobello on the trial Forthfast hovercraft service in July 2007.

© John G. Fender 2011

The October meeting in Perth was addressed by Alistair Macleod, marine consultant to the Stagecoach group. Mr. Macleod began his presentation by showing a short corporate video of the Forthfast hovercraft trial, giving members the opportunity to see the hovercraft in action.

The hovercraft trial had taken place between the 16th and 28th of July 2007 and carried 32,099 passengers in 12 days On a 9½ mile route between Kirkcaldy in Fife and Portobello near Edinburgh. There were 22 services operated each day and integrated bus links were provided at each end of the route.

The project was part funded by SEStran, the South East of Scotland Transport Partnership and operated by stagecoach who had taken the initiative to provide the service on a trial basis as stagecoach feels that there is an opportunity to provide a fast, frequent alternative service between five and in some other avoiding the forth road bridge and the traffic congestion in the area.

The hovercraft used was the "Solent Express" a BTH130 hovercraft on loan from Hoverwork who provide hovercraft services to and from the Isle of Wight. This is the first of a new class of hovercraft designed and built by Hoverwork at their St. Helens works. The hull is of welded aluminium and was supplied by Aluminium Ship Builders on the Isle of Wight in 2005. The original plan was for the craft to enter service in mid 2006, but it was not until March this year that trials were carried out. After receiving Maritime & Coastguard Agency approval it entered service on 14 June 2007, exactly 40 years after the launch of the SR-N1 hovercraft at Cowes.

The hovercraft is 93 feet long with a beam of 45 feet. It can carry 22 tonnes payload or 130 passengers and has a maximum total weight of 70 tonnes. It is powered by four turbocharged diesel engines, two 700 hp engines being used to provide lift and two 1000 hp engines for propulsion. Propulsion is by two 11 feet 5 inch, five bladed adjustable pitch airscrews and this gives the hovercraft a cruising speed of 35 knots over water. The engines were provided by MTU and are not actually marine diesels but are standard water cooled engines that are classed as "off highway" engines. The advantage of using these engines is that there is a benefit in reduced emissions as these engines are much greener than comparable marine engines.

Mr. Macleod then posed the question of why choose the Kirkcaldy to Portobello route. Firstly, there was a suitable beach at both of these points and at Kirkcaldy beach was adjacent to the Stagecoach bus garage where there was ample space for car parking and similarly at Portobello the chosen beach was adjacent to the Lothian Buses garage again offering easy access for passengers. Additionally both locations allowed easy interchange with buses to convey passengers to and from the hovercraft terminals.

However there were a number of environmental challenges, for example, Scottish National Heritage required a bird impact study to be carried out and an ongoing survey by environmental consultants young associates is being carried out. During last winter a bird count was undertaken and during the trial on board bird surveillance was carried out. Additionally a noise impact report on similar hovercraft being used in the United States was submitted to Edinburgh and Fife councils. So far experience has shown that birds can happily co-exist with hovercraft.

The Portobello terminal of the trail Forthfast hovercraft service, with one of the connecting buses on the far left of the photograph.d

The Portobello terminal of the trail Forthfast hovercraft service, with one of the connecting buses on the far left of the photograph.

© John G. Fender 2011

Work also had to be undertaken to prepare the beaches for use by the hovercraft. At Kirkcaldy a landing pad made from Rolatrac composite surfacing was installed along with security fencing in only four days. At Portobello more work had to be carried out as the landing area had to be raised by 450 MM, before the landing pad could be installed. Once of this work had been carried out, the trial could begin and on Tuesday, 10 July hovercraft GH 2142 arrived at Kirkcaldy.

The positioning journey undertaken by the hovercraft was something of an epic in itself. The hovercraft left Ryde at 0555 hours and after refuelling at Clacton and Bridlington, arrived at Kirkcaldy at 2120 hours. This is a distance of 508 nautical miles and took 13 hours and 12 minutes at an average speed of 38.49 knots. The advantage of using a hovercraft compared with catamaran type vessels is that no major infrastructure was required and no pontoons are available on either side of the Forth. Both locations were also adjacent to bus networks giving immediate access to bus services to Edinburgh, Leith and throughout Fife.

The press and VIP launch was held on Friday, the 13th of July 2007, not a day for the superstitious. The launch was attended by Stuart Stevenson MSP, the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate change; Brian Souter the Chief Executive of the Stagecoach Group; councillors and senior officers from both Edinburgh and Fife councils. Also invited where members of the press and television from both the Scottish and national media. Public service commenced at 0710 hours on Monday 16 July 2007 with winds of up to force 7 and seas of up to 2.5 metres.

Such was the popularity of the service that long queues soon built up with some people waiting for up to 3 hours to travel on the hovercraft. To help cope with the demand an additional service was provided. The crossing time from Kirkcaldy was 18 minutes and once the time taken to travel into Edinburgh by bus was added on, the total journey time was 36 minutes. This compares with a time of between 35 and 52 minutes for the train and a journey time of between 65 and 90 minutes by bus. During the trial the fee is charged were the bus fare for an equivalent journey from Kirkcaldy to Edinburgh. This was £9.00 return during the peak periods with an off peak fare of£4.50 return. The equivalent train fare is £10.30 with an off peak fare of £7.10.

At Portobello, there were one or two problems with spectators as the promenade had to be closed off. A temporary road closure order had been granted and despite this one or two people objected as they could no longer walk right along the promenade. A solution to this was to create a separate waiting area at one side of the promenade leaving the other side open for pedestrians.

During the trial a couple of problems appeared with the landing pads. At Kirkcaldy, sand was sucked through the gaps between the interlocking panels making up the landing pad and small manufacturing holes. The solution to this problem was to lift the entire pad and install and non permeable membrane and relay the pad. This was achieved in one night, although the hovercraft had to be temporarily repositioned farther along the beach with overnight security to guard it. At Portobello the edge of the pad nearest the water began to float at high tide despite being anchored and it required the end of the tiles to be buried in sand and anchored with stone filled gambon baskets.

The hovercraft is also wheelchair accessible and the first passenger in a wheelchair travelled on the 21st of July. By the end of the trial eight wheelchair passengers had been carried. The 25,000th passenger was carried on 26 July and over the 12 days a total of 32,099 passengers were carried on 288 trips. This is equivalent of an 85.7 per cent load factor. Only two trips were cancelled during the trial and the fault was corrected within 45 minutes. On the 20 commuter services that operated between 0710 and 0830 hours there were 2,213 passengers. Once passengers arrived at Portobello they could transfer to the bus links operated by Lothian buses and 47 per cent of passengers made use of these services. A total of 15,215 passengers were carried during the 12 days of the trial, with 9349 going to the city centre and 5866 going to Ocean Terminal.

A major concern was the effect of the hovercraft on the environment and during the trial the fuel consumption was 150.5 litres per round trip. This meant that based on an 85% load factor the fuel consumed the passenger was 1.36 litres. A car making the equivalent journey with the average occupancy of 1.3 people and achieving 40 miles to the gallon would have meant the fuel consumption figure of 2.78 litres per passenger. In other words the hovercraft uses 49 per cent of fuel to carry a passenger from Kirkcaldy to Portobello than a car.

The next step is to decide whether or not a long-term service should be provided. Currently there are five routes under consideration each with advantages and disadvantages. Two of the routes under consideration would be operated by a catamaran or mono hulled vessel and the other three would be operated by a hovercraft. The routes were a catamaran or mono hulled vessel would be used are between Rosyth and Granton and Burntisland to Granton. A hovercraft would be used on the routes between Rosyth and Cramond, Kirkcaldy and Leith and Kirkcaldy to Portobello. Each of these options will be evaluated before the final decision is made.

As part of the trial a survey was carried out by the Transport Research Institute of Napier University and Gordon Wilmsmeier outlined the nature of the survey and looked at the results. The on-line survey consisted of an open survey where respondents answered questions and there was also an open blog enabling people to tell of their experiences using the service. The on-line survey resulted in 291 completed questionnaires and 195 people expressed an interest in the findings of the survey. Around 65 per cent of participants made suggestions and other useful comments.

At the same time the parallel survey was undertaken by Stagecoach at the Ferry Toll Park and Ride and this resulted in 450 completed questionnaires. There analysis of the results showed that the majority of respondents to the on-line survey were in the 35 to 44 age group were as the majority of respondents to the park and ride survey were over 65. This was explained by the fact that the majority of the park and ride users who responded to the survey were retired.

The on-line survey revealed that 22 per cent of respondents crossed the fourth on a daily basis and 18% made the crossing once or twice a month. The survey showed that price differentiation was important with 21% stating the would like to have a frequent traveller facility and 14 per cent would like a simple price structure. Six per cent said that time matters and they would be willing to pay a premium for the convenience of a fast journey. In combination with other wards of travel, 21% of those surveyed said that they would prefer to pay for a ferry crossing only whereas 39% stated they would like the ferry charge combined with bus fares and parking fees.

Respondents were also asked about the type of crossing they would like to see as the second Forth crossing. The majority of those who took the on-line survey were in favour of a hovercraft service whereas the majority of those surveyed at the park and ride facility were in favour of the building of a further bridge. The majority of those who participated in the on-line survey would like to see a news service between Kirkcaldy and Leith. Next came a service between Portobello and Kirkcaldy.

A lengthy question and answer session followed the two presentations and both speakers answered many questions on many different aspects of the hovercraft trial. At the conclusion of the evening the chairman presented each speaker with one of the Scottish Region's quaich's as a memento of the successful evening.

Report by John Fender.


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