AS far as Edinburgh’s tram project goes, it is perhaps one the most unlikely developments . . . the work is now ahead of schedule.
The Mound is now set to open to buses, taxis and bicycles on March 3 – four months earlier than planned – while the Princes Street works are due to be finished in June, one month ahead.
Work in St Andrew Square is also said to be going to plan and due for completion by Christmas, while council leader Jenny Dawe said she was “now confident” that the full line to York Place will be completed “by 2014 as planned”.
The new timetable has been widely welcomed by businesses in the city centre as hopes grow of a turnaround of the fortunes of the beleaguered project. Opposition politicians, however, warned against “jumping up and down”.
Gordon Drummond, general manager of Harvey Nichols in St Andrew Square, said: “It is very encouraging to hear that they are opening ahead of schedule on Princes Street. Even being on schedule is a lot better than it has been in the past.
“It is very important because the quicker they finish and we stop having to think of trams as an effect on trading, the better. Once it’s finished we will be able to think of normal trading again.”
The decision to reopen The Mound to only buses, taxis and bicycles in early March – rather than general traffic – has been taken in order to avoid congestion at key junctions such as Hanover Street/George Street while buses are still directed away from Princes Street. General traffic will return to The Mound when Princes Street reopens in June.
It is now expected that buses and taxis will return to Princes Street when the current works are completed in June, although officials may still consider pedestrianisation of the street on a pilot basis later in the year, including in August to coincide with the festivals.
Graham Birse, director of policy at Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said: “Anything that can accelerate the programme has to be welcomed.
“Given where we’ve been, it’s essential it is completed by 2014. I think there is the potential for the reputation of the city and the tram project to be restored.”
He called for savings to be reinvested in supporting businesses impacted by the works and welcomed news revealed by the Evening News yesterday that £100,000 more would be put towards supporting West End businesses.
Gordon Henderson, regional organiser for the Federation of Small Businesses in the East of Scotland, said: “Full marks to the council and the contractors for getting important streets open early, but as an organisation we hope to see this level of efficiency throughout the project.
“Now that these streets are going to be open, there needs to be a focus on the West End and the businesses there.”
The latest news is a marked turnaround from last year, when the project was on the brink because of disputes between the council’s tram firm TIE and the construction consortium headed by Bilfinger Berger.
But the relationship has improved since mediation talks concluded and the council and Transport Scotland took control of the project, with TIE being formally wound down.
Councillor Gordon Mackenzie, the city’s transport leader, said: “We have been saying for several months now that the working relationship [with the contractor] is better than it was and that we’ve done a lot more work on risks there like utilities and that is borne out by these announcements.”
He added that the administration were “not getting ahead of ourselves”.
However, Councillor Lesley Hinds, transport spokeswoman for the Labour group, said: “I was always a bit cynical about 2014 and believed it was so far ahead that they would come back and say they’d done it quicker.
“But the tram should have been up and running by now and we are years behind and millions over budget so I do not think that we should be jumping up and down.”
Councillor Dawe said the project had gained “fresh momentum”. She said: “I am now confident that the project will be completed by 2014 as planned.”