Leith tram case ‘stronger’ after first year

Lesley Hinds leads the celebrations at Gogar. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Lesley Hinds leads the celebrations at Gogar. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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Edinburgh Trams carried nearly five million people in its first year, beating expectations and boosting the case for taking the line to Leith and beyond, transport bosses have said.

Figures revealed today show that there were 4.92m passenger journeys on the tram in the year since its launch on May 31, 2014 – 370,000 more than the 4.555m target it was set.

And the service performed slightly better than expected financially – but will still make an operating loss for another two years.

City transport leader Councillor Lesley Hinds said she hoped the positive statistics would help boost the case for extending the tram as far as Newhaven, as originally planned before the project was crippled by cost overruns and contract disputes.

Councillors will vote next month on whether to endorse a new business case for finally laying tram tracks down Leith Walk, with SNP councillors revealing this week they were willing to support the extension if the sums added up.

At a “birthday party” event at the Gogar tram depot, Cllr Hinds joined director and general manager Tom Norris to cut a giant tram-shaped cake.

Staff also took part as the service celebrated its milestone ahead of Sunday’s anniversary, with party hats, balloons and decorations dotted around the depot.

Welcoming the figures, Mr Norris said the tram was now “part of the continued success of Edinburgh”.

He said: “The first birthday is a very exciting day for all of us because it rounds up a hugely significant year for everyone involved. We’ve beaten our targets and we’re on the right path. The success we’ve worked so hard to achieve is down to the commitment and hard work of everyone involved in delivering the service day in, day out.

“We were absolutely delighted with the initial surge of interest when we launched, but even more grateful that the local and visiting public have continued to give us their support.

“We have developed the service over the first year and we’ll continue to improve and adapt to keep our passengers happy, whilst being ready to take advantage of opportunities that come our way.”

Passenger and revenue targets will rise year on year, with Mr Norris confident that the line can continue to deliver.

Growing passenger numbers at Edinburgh Airport, construction of the Edinburgh Gateway rail interchange at Gogar, and significant housebuilding anticipated in the west of the Capital would boost passenger figures in years to come, he said.

“The airport is growing, TfE (Transport for Edinburgh) is developing well, a new tram stop will link us to the Fife line and our city is going from strength to strength. We’re ready to be at the centre of that development and part of the continued success of Edinburgh.”

Ticket revenue was three per cent higher than the £7.949m target set for the tram, but the service was still expected to make a loss of almost £1.3m this year.

It will only begin to pay for its own day-to-day operation in 2017-18, but ongoing maintenance costs to vehicles and tracks will mean the council is only projected to see an overall return after 2029.

10.9 per cent of passengers were revealed to have travelled using concessionary fares, with the city paying for free travel on the tram for over-65s.

However, the breakdown of customers paying for lucrative journeys to Edinburgh Airport and those paying a standard fare within the city remains a closely guarded secret. With the tram beating passenger targets by a wider margin than revenue targets, more travellers will have bought tickets in lower fare categories, including child discounts.

The figures were welcomed by Cllr Hinds, who said they would reinforce the case for delivering the line originally promised to residents by taking the tram to Leith, and potentially even to Granton as once planned.

She said: “When we sit down to consider the extension, we’ll look at the business case first and foremost.

“People have now had the experience of the tram running in the city for a year, and the numbers are bearing up. Of course that will influence the decision.

“I was on the tram myself the other day, and saw the number of people using it who were commuters, getting off at Edinburgh Park and at Royal Bank of Scotland at Gogar, as well as visitors from the airport, so that’s working.

“It was always said that the business case was for a line from Newhaven to the airport, so that’s what we want to strive to do, as well as line 1b [to Granton].

“I think it’s proven in the last year that it works, so hopefully that will help convince people that we need to finish off the line.”

She added: “To have had nearly five million passengers on board the trams since their launch is a massive achievement, and it’s thanks to the support of the public that we’ve had such a successful year.

“Credit must also go to the team, whose efforts and professionalism ensure Edinburgh Trams provides an excellent service to passengers every day. As it continues to develop as a key element of the city’s transport offering, we now look forward to its future as part of the city’s modern, integrated transport system.”

Trams began taking passengers on May 31 last year. Since then, the line has experienced highs and lows, with technical gremlins and a spate of collisions causing repeated interruptions to service, while trams rose to big occasions like the Six Nations and last year’s One Direction concert at Murrayfield.

Driver Craig Scotland, who piloted the inaugural service and is on the rota to drive the official birthday tram on Sunday morning, said the past year had been a learning experience for everyone involved.

He said: “There was a party atmosphere on the first tram, but it was actually pretty nerve-wracking because it was very, very busy.

“We’ve had challenges, particularly during the Festival, with a lot of traffic at the airport and dealing with large amounts of luggage. But overall, it’s gone really well and it’s great for the city.

“People have embraced it, and I’m really enjoying my job. Nothing beats seeing the sun rise over Edinburgh Castle on the early morning shift.”

ANALYSIS: ‘CITY MUST DEVELOP A NETWORK’

By Robert Drysdale

The sight of a tram gliding down Princes Street no longer attracts much attention – quite a contrast from a year ago when it seemed hardly possible that the launch day had finally arrived.

Despite the gloomy predictions from some observers, ridership appears to be matching or exceeding expectations, and a recent survey by Transport Focus found that Edinburgh Trams scored higher for passenger satisfaction and value for money than any other tram services in the UK.

However, the focus now needs to shift to future phases.

Talk of extending down Leith Walk seems to have come to nothing, and the redundant concrete retaining walls in Newhaven stand as a sad relic of what should have been 19 miles of tram line serving the north and west of the

city.

Manchester has shown that tram line extensions can be built swiftly and at a fraction of the cost of Edinburgh’s initial route.

The Manchester Metrolink network has reached nearly 60 route miles, with a ridership of 2.6 million a month, illustrating how important the tram services have become for that city.

Edinburgh needs to follow the Manchester example and develop a city-wide network.

Hopefully the forthcoming tram inquiry will reveal how to avoid past mistakes, but the city also needs to learn from other tram-served cities as to how best to deliver on-budget extensions.

Congratulations are due to Edinburgh Trams for achieving a largely trouble-free first year. Now we need to plan for future expansion across the city.

• Robert Drysdale is a transport consultant

DOES THIS GO TO EDINBURGH BARK?

It isn’t just human passengers jumping on board.

Edinburgh Trams bosses have revealed the oddest thing found by staff on one of its services – and it isn’t something that simply dropped out of someone’s pocket.

Staff on an airport-bound service earlier this year were shocked to find that a husky and a chihuahua had hitched a ride on the tram – without their owner.

It eventually transpired that the pair had escaped and boarded the tram at Gogar, near where they lived.

A spokesman said the dogs were immediately reunited with their family.

That isn’t the only recent incident of animals behaving like passengers on the city’s transport network.

A live lizard was found on a city bus on the day of the general election earlier this month.