IT’S the battle between road and rails for the honour of fastest transport system in the east.
In lane one, the Capital’s beloved bus network represented by the blue-trimmed Airlink. In lane two, the city’s troublesome tram line – a precocious and untested contender that is riding high as the bookies’ favourite.
The gloves came off last August when the tram was branded an “overpriced downgrade” amid claims the airport bus service would reach the terminal a full eight minutes faster. Travel times along the full route of the new £776 million tram line were estimated at around 33 minutes – while the city’s Airlink bus shuttle is considerably quicker, with an advertised journey time of just 25 minutes.
With starting blocks at Edinburgh Airport, the News today crowns a winner in the race to the city centre. And by some distance, the tram crossed the finishing line streets ahead of the flagging Airlink – by seven minutes.
Unexpectedly, results had to be recalculated after the Airlink broke down just before Edinburgh Zoo due to a dodgy roll bar. The disruption heaped an extra five minutes on the bus’s overall time – with Airlink passenger and reporter Paris Gourtsoyannis left twiddling thumbs waiting for a replacement service.
With this in mind, the tram won by a nose, or two minutes to be precise.
But with a premium £4.50 fare – £1 more than its four-wheeled rival and with just 80 seats, critics remain unconvinced.
Long-time tram opponent Grant McKeeman, of Copymade printers in West Maitland Street, was unimpressed with the two-minute winning cushion. “This just about sums it up really,” he said. “It’s long been recognised that we have one of the best bus services in Scotland. Then we go and waste all this money – and go to all this trouble – for trams.”
Ticket prices for the trams effectively match Lothian Buses’ £1.50 single-journey fare but with a premium added to airport trips – £5 for a single adult fare or £8 return compared with £4 for a single and £7 return on the Airlink.
Tram bosses claim the higher cost of the premium airport fare will not deter most airport passengers who will flock to tram routes ahead of express buses the majority of the time.
Transport for Edinburgh (TfE) suggested each service provided its “own particular advantages”.
Chief executive Ian Craig said the News’ “Top Gear-style race” was “appreciated” but argued the pair couldn’t be “directly compared”.
“The truth is that our trams and buses offer different ways of moving around Edinburgh,” he said. “The complementary choice we can now offer is really important in a large, busy city such as ours, allowing us to cater for passengers according to their needs.”
Transport expert Robert Drysdale said: “The bus is cheaper, more frequent and has on-board power points and a soothing deep male voice on the Tannoy, and doesn’t stop very often. While the tram is definitely much smoother, feels quicker after getting past Murrayfield, and you don’t have to climb upstairs, and has an also-soothing – but a little bit too quiet – female voice on the Tannoy, and doesn’t usually get held up in traffic.”
On the tram
By David O’Leary
TRUTH be told, I thought the Airlink’s advertised 25-minute journey time would see Paris sailing into town while I was transported smoothly but rather slowly along on the 33-minute tram.
The fact that we arranged our head-to-head for a traffic-free 2.30pm also did nothing for my hopes of success.
However, when I spotted Paris dodging raindrops as he attempted to foist a fistful of coins through the window of the Airlink ticketing booth while I strode under a canopied roof to the tram and its bright, new shiny ticketing machines, I must admit I felt a little more hopeful.
The bus is old-school, open to the whims and vagaries of the modern road environment – or a dodgy roll bar as it turned out.
The tram, meanwhile, is new, efficient, and relatively untroubled by traffic and weather.
With this in mind, we synchronised stopwatches and set off. The tram took an early lead and I felt quite smug as we approached Gogarburn, but as we pulled into the stop, I spied the distinctive blue airport bus livery in the distance. It drew level and passed me.
The race was now very much on – my only hope was gridlock on St John’s Road allowing me to catch up.
A quick squint at traffic news on my phone using the free wifi soon put paid to this hope.
A rather large downside of staging the Top Gear-style race is that the £776 million tram rarely brushes up against traffic, save for a brief period between Haymarket and the West End.
For most of its 8.7-mile route it sails along with the right of way over all traffic and, once in the city centre, the waves again part for it.
With more than 30 minutes gone, the tram reaches Haymarket and offers the first clear sight of other traffic. No blue air coach neither up ahead or behind, but then again, the Airlink is now sent down George Street and Hanover Street to reach Waverley Bridge.
I decide it’s all still to play for and choose to focus my attention on willing the driver to let rip along Princes Street. No such luck.
We pull into St Andrew Square and I stop the clock at 37 minutes and 40 seconds, which isn’t bad for a £5 fare. But what of Paris? I arrive at our prearranged meeting spot of Waverley Steps and I’m shocked to find no sign.
The debate will long rage over whether the tram is worth £776m, but for me on that one day it was worth every penny.
On the bus
By Paris Gourtsoyannis
I REALLY did think I had it in the bag. The Airlink bus is tried and tested, while the tram has only been running with passengers for a week-and-a-half. While I would shoot into town like a blue, double-decker arrow, the tram would weave its scenic way via Edinburgh Park, Saughton and all points in between.
And while I’m not proud of it, I admit to hoping that because it was bucketing down, perhaps lightning would strike a tram and leave David stranded out beyond the Gyle. Karma was making a mark against my name.
It all started so well – other than the weather – with light mid-afternoon traffic allowing us to shoot into town as far as Corstorphine. My fellow passengers found the service comfortable and efficient. There was a seat for everyone despite the bus being busy, and no shortage of space for suitcases either.
Then disaster struck. The first sign of trouble was the engine being switched off. The roll bar had been damaged, and we would have to wait for the next Airlink to come along and rescue us. I half expected tram boss Tom Norris to emerge from underneath the bus, clutching the vital part in his teeth.
The driver deserves praise for being helpful throughout, offering to flag down other bus services for passengers.
Inevitably, we were drenched while transferring between buses, and equally inevitably, packing two loads of passengers on to one bus meant there wasn’t room to stretch out, although everyone still had a seat.
What really made the Airlink uncomfortable, though, was the turbulence. As we passed the zoo, you would have thought we were on safari as we rolled over every pothole on Corstorphine Road. Damp and a little bit seasick, I began to envy David on his smooth, silent tram.
As we reached the centre of town, the goal seemed so tantalisingly near, and yet so devastatingly far. Instead of heading straight for Waverley Bridge, the Airlink makes a detour for the George Hotel, then climbs The Mound, a circuitous route for anyone trying to get a cab or a train.
Even if my bus hadn’t broken down, I suspect I would have lost this race with the finish line in sight.
As I leapt off the bus I stopped the clock on 44:20, but I can’t blame the breakdown for the fact that I found David waiting for me at the top of Waverley Steps, like Jeremy Clarkson at the end of a Top Gear challenge.
The delay had only been roughly five minutes, and if I had encountered any rush-hour traffic, the tram would have wiped the floor with the Airlink.