The Bo'ness & Kinneil Railway is operated by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society, who also maintain the Scottish Railway Exhibition. The Society was founded in 1961 in Edinburgh, later moving to Falkirk before settling at Bo'ness in 1979.
The site at Bo'ness lies just to the east of the town's now unused docks and just to the north of the town centre. It comprises Bo'ness Station at one end of the line that extends to Birkhill Station and Manuel, a range of workshops, plus the display sheds housing the Scottish Railway Exhibition.
From here the SRPS operate the three main elements of their activities: trains (often steam trains) running from Bo'ness including special events such as "Days Out With Thomas"; the displays of the Scottish Railway Exhibition; and SRPS railtours to some of Scotland's (and England's) most attractive locations.
A first time visitor could be forgiven for thinking that the SRPS took over an existing station and railway workshops and have converted them to their current use. It is a surprise to find that much of what is on view was actually built from scratch, or relocated to this site from elsewhere. The original Bo'ness Station was redeveloped as part of a road scheme in 1956, so nothing now remains of it.
After their arrival in Bo'ness in 1979 the SRPS worked hard to establish Bo'ness Station and begin operations on a short stretch of track in 1981. The site chosen for the new station and associated buildings had previously been used for railway sidings and timber yards connected to the town docks. The railway station buildings now on view at Bo'ness came from Wormit in Fife, the engine shed started life at Haymarket in Edinburgh, the signal box was previously at Garnqueen South Junction, north of Glasgow, and the footbridge came from Murthly in Perthshire.
Only a small section of the current line used by SRPS trains to travel the five miles from Bo'ness to Manuel reuses the route of the old branch line that served Bo'ness. Large sections had to be built along a new line meaning, for example, that a notorious rail bridge over the road at the west end of Bo'ness that used to obstruct access by high vehicles could be replaced by a road bridge over the railway, a short distance away from the site of the original bridge.
The regular trains from Bo'ness pass the old town docks and travel along the foreshore of the River Forth before stopping at Kinneil Halt. The track then heads south west at higher level, offering glimpses of the oil refineries at Grangemouth, before turning inland to Birkhill Station, which opened in 1989. This is a much travelled station, starting life at Monifieth near Dundee before being re-erected at the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. From Birkhill Station, passengers can visit the nearby Birkhill Fireclay Mine. Tours last about an hour and are linked to the railway timetable.
The onward track from Birkhill passes under the M9 en route to the main line junction at Manuel, which it reaches after a run of almost exactly five miles from Bo'ness. Here the train terminates, and the engine runs around to be attached to the other end for the return trip. The main line link allows the SRPS to use Bo'ness as a base for their railtours; and it also means that historic engines and other rail vehicles can access Bo'ness from elsewhere.
Visitors to the Bo'ness & Kinneil Railway begin at the main station. Here you can find an excellent cafe and a shop selling a range of largely railway related books, toys and other goods. There is also a tourist information point here. Passing through the station brings you onto the platform, where you can purchase tickets for train rides from a historically accurate ticket office. Other attractions such as a model railway exhibition are also sometimes open in the station area.
Most visitors to the railway will want to make time to visit the Scottish Railway Exhibition, at the rear of the site and reached by a signposted route from the station. The exhibition opened in 1995 in a purpose built 15,000 square foot exhibition hall. This has 850ft of display tracks carrying a wide variety of rail vehicles. Display boards provide background information and period photographs show the railway as it was when the wagons were built. And you can try to imagine what it was like to ride at the end of the Carlisle freight in the Caledonian Railway brake van.
In 2002 a 19,000 square foot extension was opened to the public. This can accommodate many more carriages and includes a demonstration workshop, where visitors can see conservation work in progress.