A year ago this Sunday, Tom Norris was feeling anxious. After two years of planning, testing and preparation, the first tram to hit Edinburgh’s streets in almost 60 years would roll out of the depot at Gogar.
Schedules were drawn up, staff had been trained, drilled and briefed, and the press were waiting. That, in fact, was the problem: there was nothing left for the director and general manager of Edinburgh Trams to do.
Nothing, that is, except get on board for the ride.
“We’d worked for a year-and-a-half and coming, and we got to that day in May. On the Friday evening ahead of the launch on Saturday, from my perspective, there was nothing more I could do. It was over to the team. It was either going to be a success or it wasn’t.”
Mr Norris, 28, likens the situation to a football manager on cup final day – “except without any substitutions”.
“It was easily the highlight of my career, by a long, long way,” the city tram supremo says, speaking to the Evening News in his office at Gogar.
“I don’t think I’d realised quite what a big deal it was going to be. It was sunny, it was the first day, and the service was just rammed. It was only really in September that things started to calm down for us.”
Fast forward a year, and the trams are part of everyday life in the Capital – grumbled about by many, just part of the furniture to most, and used by millions. Passenger numbers for the full year won’t be released until tomorrow, but the noises coming out of Gogar are confident.
“I’m really, really pleased at the first year,” Mr Norris says, in relation to the figures. “The reason we’ve got to where we are is because of the staff. I strongly believe that the way they have managed the service has been a real credit to the business. That’s why people are coming back.”
If the service hits its 4.5 million passenger target, it will represent a huge turnaround from the doom and gloom that surrounded the tram project throughout its ill-fated construction.
Mr Norris accepts that, given the controversy the scheme generated, the eyes of the media and the public were always going to be locked on the trams, waiting for any slip-up.
“There will be people whose minds I or others will never be able to change, but it felt quite quickly that we’d managed to make some very significant progress in convincing people that this is a valuable thing, and it’s working,” he says.
“There is a huge magnifying glass on us. We knew that if anything went wrong, straight away it would be highlighted.
“Having the glare of the media and the public on you is a good thing, because you have to up your game. There is no room for mediocrity, there is no room for being a little bit rubbish, you have to be great.”
The tram boss can rightly point to slick operations during major events that put serious demands on the service early in its first year, such as the August festivals, the Six Nations and a One Direction concert at Murrayfield, but it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
Lightning struck a tram, bringing power down across much of the line. A series of collisions with cars and buses in the West End led to repeated interruptions to service. Trams were brought to a halt after helium balloons became tangled in overhead wires.
A locked Twitter account acts as an internal messaging service, letting staff know of any disruptions. “Getting an unexpected call in the middle of the night is something I’ve got used to,” Mr Norris says.
He reveals that following discussions with the council, lane markings between Haymarket and Shandwick Place are set to be changed to ensure the spate of crashes isn’t repeated.
“When we looked at an incident, we would review the driver’s shift pattern, their sleep pattern, their eating, and ask: was there anything that changed that meant that it was different that day that we can learn from?”
Despite the thorough debrief for tram drivers, the conclusion most often reached was that “drivers weren’t looking”, Mr Norris says. “We were going through the city, as we had been doing for the previous four months, and people started driving into us.”
Then there were the really serious incidents. A schoolgirl was hit on Princes Street, thankfully walking away uninjured. Operators and police have also had to send out a tough message to deter potential tram “surfers” after pictures came to light of teenagers hitching a ride on the outside of moving trams.
Mr Norris says that soon after the service launch, there was a near-miss with a foolish freeloader. “There was one individual who fell off, I believe broke his arm, and was arrested, either in hospital or just before he got there,” he says. “It’s just foolhardy.”
Edinburgh Trams is working with schools to drive home that message to youngsters.
“I’ve seen the worst in my previous life working in rail, and it’s horrific. People need to understand that it’s a big heavy tram, and it may seem fun to do at the time, but it won’t seem fun when you’re lying in a hospital bed,” he says.
Looking ahead, next month councillors decide whether to approve an extension of the line to Newhaven. While construction would be a matter for the council and its contractors, Mr Norris’ job would be to ensure renewed upheaval on Leith Walk wouldn’t drag down the image of the trams and undo all of the work of the past year.
“If there’s a way that an extension could happen then clearly we’ll be supportive of that, because it would be a good thing,” he says.
“Our priority will be that any disruption is as low as it possibly can be, if there is any at all.”
Whatever the decision on taking trams to Leith, the service isn’t standing still, Mr Norris insists. Improvements have been made, particularly around the way disruptions are communicated to the public via social media, with staff in the control centre at Gogar responsible for dishing out information to ensure it is accurate and up to date.
Further changes are set for the coming months. A trial allowing cyclists to bring bikes on to off-peak services is being extended into June, and improvements to timetables could see journey times cut perceptibly. The service had already experimented with making stops only as long as they need to be, shaving vital seconds off the schedule. Trams could soon be getting faster, too.
“We’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to drop four minutes off the journey time,” he says. “There are further improvements we’re thinking of making to journey times later in the year, but that will require engineering work.”
A new early-morning service for air passengers could also be on the horizon, provided it doesn’t disrupt the vital night-time hours reserved for maintenance to the line.
“It’s been a roller coaster, but it’s been one that I and the team have immensely enjoyed,” Mr Norris says. “These types of roles inevitably throw up things that you just can’t have predicted. Things happen at the worst possible moment, and that’s the challenge for us – how you respond to it.”
May 31, 2014: Trams welcome passengers on board, with a party atmosphere for the first departure from Gogar at 5.30am.
June 1: Passenger figures for the first weekend are confirmed at 40,000 as Capital residents are drawn by the line’s novelty appeal.
June 3: Trams carry 24,000 people in a single day, including 10,000 screaming One Direction fans as the boyband play at Murrayfield.
July 15: Trams are brought to a halt in the city centre for two hours after a bunch of helium balloons become tangled in overhead electrical cables.
July 19: Tram bosses are criticised for ruling out late-night services during the Fringe. Late trams are later tested, but passenger figures are disappointing.
August 29: A crash between a bus and a tram in the West End brings the service to a standstill and snarls traffic during morning rush hour.
September 8: Tram bosses reveal 1.5 million people have used the service in the first 100 days, putting it on track to meet targets with 90,000 travelling per week.
September 10: Another crash during Friday rush hour between a tram and a bus.
October 22: A third crash in the West End, this time causing only minor damage.
March 27, 2015: The first Passenger Focus survey gives trams a glowing report, with a 95 per cent satisfaction rating.
April 15: Kids pictured ‘surfing’ on outside of moving trams are labelled “idiots”.
Many happy day returns for #tramiversary contest
In the mood to celebrate the tram’s first birthday? Then you could be in with the chance of winning a year’s free travel on Edinburgh public transport.
To mark one year of trams welcoming passengers, Transport for Edinburgh is offering a free Ridacard for the best ‘selfie’ taken on a tram and posted on Twitter using the #tramiversary hashtag.
Staff will be handing out party hats from today to help passengers get in the mood and take party pictures. Announcing the competition on Twitter, tram boss Tom Norris suggested “outrageous sunglasses” to help make selfies stand out.
The competition ends on Sunday, May 31 – a year to the day since the tram service officially launched.
Comment: Harsh lessons for cyclists but progress is being made
By Ian Maxwell
Although trams are celebrating a year of public operation, cyclists in Edinburgh have been “interacting” with tram rails far longer.
Some cyclists have suffered serious injuries from falls on tram rails, and many more have fallen off as they crossed the rails or had a wheel stuck in the groove.
Spokes, the Lothian cycle campaign, has been in close touch with fellow campaign groups in Nottingham, Sheffield and elsewhere to share their tram experiences.
One of the key lessons from elsewhere – making sure that cyclists cross tram lines at right angles – was ignored in far too many places on the Edinburgh layout.
Better warning signs and clear road markings to indicate the best crossing lines are still lacking in Edinburgh.
Spokes has also suggested new traffic schemes which could make conditions better for cyclists and pedestrians in areas such as Haymarket and the West End, and we also feel that traffic light sequences are still far from ideal.
But despite the accidents, there is a cause for celebration. Edinburgh trams now allow bicycles on board during off-peak times on a trial basis.
The experiment seems successful so far, and we are very optimistic that off-peak carriage of bicycles will continue.
Even if the need for this on Edinburgh’s one tram line isn’t massive at present, it sets a welcome precedent as the only UK tram system to allow bicycles.
Tram operators throughout Europe allow bicycles on board, and we hope that other Britain trams will soon
follow Edinburgh’s good example.
• Ian Maxwell is a member of Spokes Lothian.