John McLellan: Build on the trams potential

Tram at St Andrews Square and Princes Street. Picture: Julie Bull
Tram at St Andrews Square and Princes Street. Picture: Julie Bull
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With a quiet whine and a gentle rumble we were off. After the best part of ten years or so talking about it, writing about it, and moaning about it, I have finally had a ride on an Edinburgh tram.

A week or so after the success of Exercise Salvador, the test of the ability of the tram stop at Murrayfield Stadium to cope with big crowds (but without the pre-match Salvadors) it was my turn to experience all of what the Edinburgh tram has to offer.

Yes, it’s very, very late; it’s certainly been very, very costly, but as far as it goes it’s very, very good.

Bright and airy, smooth and fast, it whisks people from Gogar to the middle of town in about 15 minutes, so if you work at the Gyle, Hermiston Gait or Edinburgh Park the tram offers a comfortable alternative to the bus or relatively infrequent train service.

If you commute by car from further west than the airport then the Ingliston park and ride will be a godsend.

And for concert or rugby punters gagging for a pint up town, Murrayfield will be an extremely short hop from the West End and Rose Street.

The trams themselves are everything that was promised and most people will rightly say that for £776 million it’s just as well. The carriages are top quality, with embroidered seats, plenty of standing room and ample luggage space, which you might expect for a service to the airport.

Apart from the massive overspend and delay, the downside of the whole thing has been well documented, but now it’s about to go live it is becoming glaringly obvious: the line is simply too short and doesn’t serve nearly enough people.

I’ve said before that to be truly viable the trams needed to run through densely-populated districts, but it’s not until you’re on the route itself that the lack of potential customers along the way becomes truly apparent.

All the way from the airport to Haymarket the route is marked by open space; the fields alongside the A8, the empty plots at Edinburgh Park, the golf courses, the railway line down one side, and the back pitches at 
Murrayfield.

Only through Balgreen, Saughton and Broomhouse are there houses anywhere nearby.

This means that, tourists apart, the only people to use the line in any great number are commuters. And in turn that means full capacity only at rush hour, but to really get a return on the investment it needs to be busy round the clock.

So what’s to be done? The operational team, led by as impressive a 27-year-old as you could hope to meet in Tom Norris, has had nothing to do with the crisis which engulfed the project and can only play the game in front of them.

With the backing of Britain’s best bus company I have little doubt they will deliver, but that is not to say that there are not significant limitations.

The first challenge is to prove the line as it stands will run efficiently and smoothly, and demonstrate just how good the tram is at handling large volumes of people at critical times.

With the population of Edinburgh set to grow to well over 600,000 by 2030 the city needs ways to move more people without adding to congestion and pollution.

Even without population growth, commuting will increase; just next year, if the Borders Rail link does what it’s supposed to, there will be the equivalent of at least a tram-load of Borders commuters who previously drove hitting Waverley station at peak times.

With extensive testing now fully under way, I expect that challenge to be met.

Secondly, development along the route needs to be maximised to increase passenger potential. That means using the tram as a marketing tool to get the plots at Edinburgh Park, the Gyle and Gogar filled as soon as possible.

The tram brings the business parks closer to the city centre than ever before and no longer can that part of the city really be regarded as out on a limb. At least that’s what those who market the sites should be 
explaining.

I know of at least one firm reluctant to set up there because of the distance from town but a ride on the tram has the potential to alter that mindset. Arguing the opposite is in London terms like saying Canary Wharf is too far away from the Square Mile of the City.

Thirdly, the case for trams needs to be hammered home with Transport Scotland now the national body is back on board. Part of the crisis which swamped the project was caused by its withdrawal and the inability of the council to maintain a decent working relationship with the contractors.

Only once sense was seen in the administration and Transport Scotland agreed to come back on board was the costly impasse broken. The money wasted in the legal disputes would have paid for the completion of work to Ocean Terminal and the revival of that section should be a priority.

The tram really comes into its own cutting through the traffic from Haymarket, along Shandwick Place and down Princes Street. Before then it’s really just a railway. But just when you are seeing how much more a tram can deliver than a bus, it stops. York Place is the end of the line and I couldn’t help but wish it was going all the way to Leith.

So much of the work has been done, and this week the city council was brave enough to reveal that the £9m it is about to spend on improvements to Leith Walk are being done with the tram in mind.

South of Elm Row is the most densely populated district of Scotland and it is ideal tram country. Those passengers will vastly improve the tram’s viability and with so many businesses having suffered they should have something to show for the pain. Now we are seeing the line in action, I would not be surprised if more voices in the old Port were raised in support of the return of the diggers. Bilfinger Berger and Siemens have proved they can deliver a line quickly when the terms are agreed, and a clean and efficient transport for a growing capital should be a national as well as local priority.

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WITH Edinburgh Airport’s terminal extending out to meet the tram terminus, visitors to the city by air will be able to go from their plane to the middle of town under cover, which for much of the year will be a considerable blessing.

Now there will be a direct light rail link to town, maybe now is the time to reopen the debate about the heavy rail link to the rest of Scotland which was shelved back in 2007 after the change of government.

It was estimated that for every £1 invested in EARL, it would deliver more than double that in economic benefit, £2.16 to be precise. The plans were not scrapped but mothballed and with that level of potential return it must be worth another look.

At 2007 prices, the scheme to build a station at the airport and link it to both the Forth and Glasgow lines would have cost up to £650 million and taken three years to complete, so it would not be unreasonable to assume the cost now could be more than £800m.

If anything, a good link to Edinburgh Airport is even more of a national priority than in 2007, with the end of the scheduled service to London City from Dundee Airport. Loganair has stepped in to offer a service to Stansted but it remains to be seen whether that has a long-term future.

Should Scotland’s fourth city lose its air link to international services it would be a significant problem for, among others, its burgeoning life sciences sector.

Maybe EARL could be looked at in conjunction with improvements to the Perth service, with which EARL was also designed to link? And while Transport Scotland is at it, why not go the whole hog and look at an upgrade for the entire route to Inverness.

With average speed cameras about to come in on the A9 the drive to the North is only going to get longer, but much of the rail route runs along single track and a delay to one service can bring the whole thing to a standstill.

After the opening of the Airdrie-Bathgate line and with the Borders Rail link on schedule to open next year, Scotland is building, shall we say, a head of steam for rail.

And if economic recovery is to be sustained and spread, then the need for investment in transport will not go away and Edinburgh should be at the heart of it.