Meet the 27-year-old in charge of £776m trams

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Behind his beard, Tom Norris, the rosy-cheeked boss of Edinburgh’s equally fresh-faced tram system, can easily afford to allow himself a small smile.

He’s leaning against a grab rail on board a new tram. And, tramspotters of the world will be delighted to know, it is indeed moving.

Trams staff ‘can’t wait for launch’

He lets go as it almost silently glides away from the Gogar tram depot where a car lies smashed, surrounded by grim-faced firefighters. It sweeps by open fields and Gogar Old Church, now converted into a carpenter’s workshop, and past the picturesque old stone humpback bridge that crosses the Gogar Burn.

Quietly it pulls up at the tram stop that will serve Ingliston Park and Ride to be greeted by absolutely no-one. Just as quietly, it slips away towards its destination – Edinburgh Airport.

It’s a short and uneventful little jaunt. No bits fell off, no scattered £50 notes clogged up the wheels. No ear-shattering squeals to suggest an unsuspecting cyclist is clamped to the tram’s front.

Smooth, silent and, finally on its way, much to the satisfaction of Edinburgh Trams’ 27-year-old, £80,000-a-year director and general manager Norris, a bassoon-playing music graduate who has arrived at the embattled project via running London train stations and conducting community orchestras.

This kind of incident-free whizz from depot to destination, a minor marvel given the tram project’s history of stop-start disasters, is reason for Norris to smile.

Back at the depot, the smashed car and the firefighters are simply training – in case some road horror should ever happen. Trams testing, he is pleased to confirm, has been incredibly blip-free.

“Right now it’s test, test, test as much as we can,” he points out. “The infrastructure is holding up really well. It’s about making sure that the kit works. The next tests are to make sure the drivers are trained to a high enough level so if things go wrong they can deal with it very well.

“We are constantly learning that people can be unpredictable,” he adds, glancing over at the rather smashed-up car. “Drivers (will) have to go very carefully through the city centre.”

So, no drama so far and he’d like it to stay that way beyond May when, at a yet-to-be-specified date, the trams will finally welcome their first paying passengers.

If the pressure is on to ensure that launch date hits its deadline, Norris doesn’t exude the air of a man under the cosh. Indeed, there’s a youthful confidence, perhaps because pretty much everything he’s touched so far, whether running London’s Waterloo Station or the rail hub created to deliver crowds to the London 2012 Olympics, has ticked along very nicely indeed.

“I’ve been lucky,” he says, reflecting on his relentless upwards trajectory through a relatively short string of equally short-stay Network Rail positions embarked upon after, of all things, a music degree in which trams, tracks and commuters did not feature.

“The way my career has worked . . . it’s been being in the right place at the right time, having the good fortune that things worked out. I think Edinburgh is another one of those situations,” he explains.

Alarm bells, perhaps a bit like those which might accompany a runaway tram careering down a busy Princes Street, may ring for some. After all, Edinburgh’s trams project has already seen off accomplished individuals in the past, including the highly-experienced former boss of Edinburgh Airport, Richard Jeffrey.

At one point dubbed “hell on wheels”, tram firm TIE, as it was, gained a grim reputation for chewing up and spitting out senior staff, often several at a time.

But that was then. And as Norris, a 14-year-old schoolboy in 2001 when trams were first suggested, wants to stress, he’s untarnished by what’s gone before, a pair of new hands ready to steer the long-awaited trams into a bright new era.

“We’re working very hard to bring this to life,” he points out, sitting in his office overlooking a dozen gleaming trams lined up at the Gogar depot. “We’ve worked hard to recruit a great group of people – there’s 100 working at the depot now, when I started there were just ten.

“The rest of it isn’t really interesting, because we are focussing on the future.”

Still, it’s worth casting an eye back to find out just how a young man who on the surface might sound better suited to conducting a bassoon quartet and who lets his hair down of a July weekend dancing to Calvin Harris at T in the Park, has ended up in charge of a £776 million tram project in a city he barely knew on his arrival.

Norris hails from the small village of Glenfarg near Kinross, about five miles from the Balado festival site. He went to Perth Academy, where music inspired him most and he learned to play piano, guitar and bassoon.

“Transport was not something I was really into apart from using it to go places,” he says with a smile.

“If we were going anywhere, it tended to be north to Perth and not Edinburgh.”

He went to Leeds University to study music with a focus on conducting orchestras. When he left in 2007, Edinburgh’s tram project had just been given a proper go-ahead and, in a taste of what was ahead, was just months away from its first raft of major problems.

Norris left university certain his passion for music was unlikely to lead to a full career and started to look to some kind of business role. “I fancied a change,” he explains.

Network Rail’s graduate scheme provided a year learning how various departments worked before a job on the frontline as duty manager at Waterloo Station in London, one of the top 100 busiest railway stations in the world, with 400,000 travellers a day and more platforms than any other UK station.

He enjoyed it, but didn’t stay too long. By 2010 he was in a more technical operations role with Network Rail, moving through the ranks at high speed to eventually run the Brighton main line, a busy route of endless rail traffic and snarl-ups, from breakdowns to tragedies on the lines.

Perhaps his next role was the one that caught the eye of his new bosses most of all: in charge of the services through the station custom-built to serve the London 2012 Olympic Park.

“It was huge,” explains Norris, “It was integrated, underground and over land services but still separate – a similar principle to here where the trams are integrated with Lothian Buses, run as one but slightly different.

“It was a moment in my career where I thought ‘if this goes well it’s not going to be on the front page, if it goes badly, it will be career limiting’.”

Some negative souls might suggest he’s traded one potentially “career-limiting” role for another. Certainly, there was little to prepare him for the front page attention his new employer and a shiny tram set regularly generate.

“I had been aware that things hadn’t been going as smoothly as possible,” he concedes in perhaps the understatement of the decade. “It would be a challenge but I bought into the vision that Lothian Buses and Edinburgh City Council had for what trams could be like.

“It made sense. Coming home, being back in Scotland, settling down.”

He’s married to Corrina, who works in career services at Edinburgh University. Today they live with pet terriers Mallaig and Frank close to where he grew up.

“I had enough of city life when I lived in London,” he says, recalling the joy of jumping on an Edinburgh- bound train at Inverkeithing and actually being able to sit down.

Time off to spend that £80,000 salary is spent hillwalking, a bit of cycling, tickets for T in the Park and exploring Edinburgh, leaving his wife to browse the shops while he strolls off to check the tram stops in Princes Street.

“I was looking at one the other day,” he says wistfully. “It was a beautiful, sunny day, the trams were running past. It was lovely.”

In spite of the trams’ rocky birth, many seem to agree. As soon as ghost trams started going through their final tests, the #tramspotting twitter trend took off.

“People seem genuinely interested,” adds Norris, who tweets snippets of tram news from his twitter account @tomnorrisDGM, and welcomes interaction “as long as it’s not rude”.

“We’ve been surprised at the level of attention we’ve been getting. It’s exciting for the staff, they’re champing at the bit to get going.”

Back at the airport, the tram slides to a halt. There’s work to be done at the tram stop before it’s ready, but already the shell of an extended airport entrance hall is visible. Eventually it will connect with the tram platform, so travellers can walk from tram, straight inside, swipe their boarding card and head for the security area.

“They’re building out to meet us,” he explains.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. From March 17 the depot control room will switch on to a 24-hours, seven-days-a-week operation. More ghost trams will make their way through the city centre, testing the timetable as they go.

All that’s left is to organise the all-important launch day – a no-frills, softly, softly affair probably involving a group of folk, “not too many in chains and suits”, which Norris hopes will strike the right balance between marking the historic occasion without appearing triumphalist.

“I totally recognise what has happened before,” he concludes. “But by the time I came into this role, it was well in the past. Yes, I’m 27, but my experience is across the board.

“And what has gone before with the trams is history. I’m here to look forward.”

From T in the Park to tandoori chicken and Borgen

HE’S in charge of making sure the trams not just run on time, but actually run. So what makes new boss Tom Norris tick?

Favourite food: Curry, especially Tandoori chicken.

Favourite car: Land Rover Defender.

Favourite band: That’s hard because there’s so much music that I like, but at the moment, Clean Bandit.

Favourite festival: Definitely T in the Park. Calvin Harris last year was amazing.

Favourite TV programme: Borgen, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad.

Favourite film: Most recently, Gravity. I didn’t think I’d like it but I did. My all-time favourite, though, is Usual Suspects.

Favourite holiday destination: Club La Santa, Lanzarote or South Africa, where my wife and I spent our honeymoon.

Favourite Edinburgh restaurant: Mother India Cafe in Infirmary Street. I like a curry.

Favourite pub: Half Way House in Fleshmarket Close.