Cameron Rose: Hold off on trams going south

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How about a connecting tram running southwards through South Bridge and Minto Street to the Royal Infirmary? That is not my idea – but the suggestion of an SNP councillor.

Now remember, opposition to trams has hitherto been a cause celebre for SNP councillors and, indeed, for the SNP government. Now, it seems, the extension southwards is said to be a “no brainer”.

Right now, I haven’t the slightest inclination to support the suggestion. The current shortened system, 13 kilometres instead of the 22 kilometres originally planned, is coming in four years late. It is costing £776 million (which, with interest on loans, will approach £1 billion). The original £534m included a now discarded spur from Roseburn to Granton which was the great hope for kick-starting regeneration in that area.

Saturday is the long-awaited day for the tram to begin carrying fare-paying passengers. I 100 per cent hope it is a success. But even favourable predictions tell us it will not break even in revenue terms for years.

Whether that happens will depend on a wide range of things including the speed of the journey, continued growth at Edinburgh Airport, whether users find the bus service faster, cheaper and more convenient, control of costs and maintenance, to name only a few.

Yet the operation still holds much uncertainty. The over-lengthy period of trial running, apparently necessary in order to get an operating licence from the regulator, has not inspired confidence. Certainly, trams look and sound modern and efficient but the effect on pedestrian, vehicle and bus flows has been very disruptive, with traffic lights being set to super-super safe slow change mode.

In short order, trams need to become an efficient contribution to the transport network.

The whole point of trams is that they are capable of moving large numbers of people efficiently with minimal congestion. Princes Street is inefficient, with lines of up to ten buses frequently queued up and waiting at bus stops. There has to be a better way and we need to see the trams delivering that improvement.

Leith Walk has a depth of tenements on either side and Ocean Terminal is a destination of note with potential to provide demand for tram use. The services under the roads have largely been moved and it should be relatively simple to lay tracks and infrastructure down from York Place to the Docks giving the tram the chance to become a viable operation and kick-starting much-needed development and housing in that area.

But, with the trams on the threshold of operating a public service, now is the time for the promised inquiry into the tram debacle which has cost trader, taxpayer and citizen so dear.

Only with the lessons learned, with the truncated system in successful operation, and with a new look at better ways of delivering a tram system on narrow streets such as the Nicolson Street corridor, should a southward system even be contemplated.

Trams just conceivably are the best solution to congestion in parts of the south of the city. Possibly. Sometime in the middle or long-distance future. But not now.

Oh, and it would help if the SNP government could now respond to the council and get the official inquiry under way.

• Cameron Rose is Conservative Group leader on Edinburgh City Council and councillor for Southside & Newington