A tram will run along Princes Street tonight for the first time in more than half a century.
One of the new fleet will leave Haymarket at about 11pm to be driven along the length of the famous shopping street as testing reaches the final section of the £776 million line.
The nighttime trial has been greeted as an historic landmark for the city, coming more than 57 years after the final convoy of trams last trundled along Princes Street on November 16, 1956.
Crowds are expected to gather along parts of the 1.7-mile long stretch of track where testing will be carried out for up to five hours tonight and into the early hours of tomorrow.
The tram’s journey will be completed at very low speed, taking it up West Maitland Street and along Shandwick Place – the West End street that was among the worst hit by the seemingly endless months of road closures.
The vehicle will travel at least as far as the junction of Princes Street and South St Andrew Street before returning to the depot. It will only continue around St Andrew Square to the terminus at York Place in the early hours of tomorrow morning if contractors judge decide is enough time left in their five-hour testing window.
City transport leader Lesley Hinds said: “We recognise it’s been a long road getting here and there’s been a lot of frustration, but there has been progress more recently and, at long last, it’s good to know there’s a tram approaching Princes Street. This is a vital phase of our push to get trams up and running and it’s important that the contractors have the time and the space to carry out these tests and checks.
“Everyone needs to get used to the trams as they become part of daily life in Edinburgh. Testing will step up a gear early in the New Year and we’ll extend our ongoing safety campaign to ensure all road users are aware of how to share the city safely with trams.”
Motorists driving through the West End or crossing Princes Street around midnight have been told to expect possible delays while the empty tram creeps along for the first test accompanied by contractors on foot.
The “ghost runs” at night will be limited in the lead-up to Christmas. Peak-hour testing and trams running at higher speed along Princes Street and Shandwick Place is not expected to happen until the New Year.
City chiefs have promised passengers will be allowed onto a fully functioning tram line by May next year at the latest.
Lawrence Marshall, chairman of the Capital Rail Action Group (CRAG), described tonight’s maiden city-centre test as an “important landmark” in the Capital’s history.
He said: “We didn’t envisage it would take so long and we thought it would go down to Leith and more places in the city, but as the Chinese say, a journey of 1000 miles starts with a first step and this is certainly a significant first step.”
A transport blueprint that included the reintroduction of trams in Edinburgh was first launched by the city council in September 2001.
However, the first bill for a tram line extending from the airport to Princes Street was only passed by Scottish Parliament on March 1, 2006.
The scheduled opening of February 2011 has since been pushed back more than three years and the project’s budget blown out from £375m to £776m.
Engineers guiding the tram during tonight’s test will be taking a long list of measurements, while checking that signals and signs are working.
Edinburgh planning and transport expert Robert Drysdale said many of the measurements would need to be exact to make sure the tram “fitted” the route. The nonexistent gap needed between the tram and stop platforms to allow a wheelchair safely on and off the vehicle was cited as one example.
“The other key tests will be point work,” Mr Drysdale said. “Obviously points are somewhere a vehicle can derail potentially. The points have to be tested to make sure they’re working properly. There’s one at York Place at the terminus and there’s a crossover at Shandwick Place.”
George Street Association chairman Josh Miller said it was “likely” people would turn out in numbers around midnight to witness a tram on Princes Street.
He said: “What’s very clear is that people are really enjoying having our city back. The trams are now part of that and I think people are going to be really excited and keen to see it.”
Ruth McKay, Edinburgh chairwoman of the Federation of Small Businesses, agreed, saying: “People will see this as a sign of things changing, a much more positive and buoyant economy.”
Edinburgh Central MSP and noted tram critic Marco Biagi welcomed the imminent “closure” on the trams saga, adding that once the line was opearting attention would rightly turn to the public inquiry into its construction. “We’ve got to learn from the mistakes that led us here.”
Residents welcomed their end
When the last tram rolled along Princes Street in 1956 – at the end of a special convoy of nine – a crowd of hundreds turned out to bid it farewell.
With the city’s trams being replaced by buses, seen as the transport of the future, there was not a lot of love lost, with Bailie John Cormack describing it as “the cheeriest funeral I’ve ever been at”.
On board the trams themselves were a cross-section of the Capital’s population, many armed with screwdrivers to remove “souvenirs” from the vehicles before they were taken out of service. The tram convoy, which ran from the Braid Hill terminus and was joined by a decorated tram at Morningside Station, arrived on Princes Street around 8.08pm. Fittingly, the entire event had been running behind schedule from the start, an irony not lost on the many detractors of the trams.
Indeed, while many turned out to see them off, most residents were not upset at the end of the tram era. Police even had to break up some “young troublemakers” who had been trying to leave their mark on the trams, while posters bearing the slogan “A Streetcar of No Desire” were found in Lauriston Place.
The biggest crowds were at the Mound, although the tram was cheered all the way to the end of the line at the Shrubhill Depot.
Conductors did a roaring trade in sets of “last tram” tickets.
The very last ticket on the very last tram was bought by Councillor Pat Murray, who also remained in his top deck seat as the tram arrived at the depot and said: “I’m going to be the last man off too!”
System will undergo exhaustive testing
Making sure the tram interacts properly with the rails, overhead power lines and signals along Princes Street and Shandwick Place will be the priority for project engineers as the vehicle makes its maiden voyage tonight.
As many as two dozen contractors are expected to walk alongside one of the trams during the midnight trial.
Among the list of boxes to be ticked will be the “immunisation test” – checking the tram and its live overhead lines do not disrupt nearby Network Rail services, including train signals. The system must be able to handle having six trams on the line at the same time.
The tram check list over coming weeks will also include:
• Dynamic gauging and contact test, which means checking the tram is interacting with the rails and overhead lines properly and can stop quickly at different speeds;
• Tram positioning and detection system (TPDS) and the traffic light controller. These devices control signals at junctions and detect when a tram is arriving, allowing the vehicle to pass through traffic safely and under priority;
• T1 test. This is proving the tram can meet the planned timetable. Each stop is to be served every seven-and-a-half minutes during peak hours, with journeys from York Place to the airport expected to take 33 minutes.
• Checks on the power supply from Haymarket to York Place and the inspection of poles, tension wheels, feeder wires, and safety equipment and signs have already been completed.
Rocky road to final completion
September 2001: Reintroduction of trams first mooted by council.
May 2002: Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) formed.
March 2003: Scottish Government commits £375 million to develop tram network.
December 2003: Estimates put cost of two lines at £473m.
February 2005: Plans for third line to city’s south scrapped.
March 2007: First tramworks start in Leith. Completion date set as February 2011.
May 2007: Tram line to waterfront axed.
February 2009: TIE and construction consortium locked in dispute.
September 2011: Vote backs tram line to St Andrew Square with £776m price tag.
March 2012: Roads in West End shut for tramworks.
September 2013: The start date for trams is brought forward to May 2014.
October 2013: Shandwick Place and Haymarket reopened.
Tonight: First tram tested on Princes Street.