Trams more popular, but anger at shambles lingers

Grant McKeeman says he has never set foot on board a tram and continues to be a harsh critic. Picture: Scott Taylor
Grant McKeeman says he has never set foot on board a tram and continues to be a harsh critic. Picture: Scott Taylor
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Just over a year ago, the Capital’s brand new tram service was rolling out of its Gogar depot following five years of development hell.

It was one of the most controversial projects in the recent history of Edinburgh City Council – taking in ballooning costs, botched roadworks and a fair amount of political scandal.

The trams have had more than a few bumps. Picture: Greg Macvean

The trams have had more than a few bumps. Picture: Greg Macvean

And as the “trambles” lurched from council dispute to contractual scuffle, the city watched in horror as the original route was hacked down to the single line in place today.

Last year it was revealed interest payments would take the final cost of the crippled service to more than £1 billion.

As tram boss Tom Norris readily admits, it wasn’t the greatest of foundations from which to launch a 
major new piece of transport 

But fast forward 12 months and the picture is very different. Recent surveys have shown soaring customer satisfaction levels, with 95 per cent of tram users giving the service a thumbs-up.

Ticket revenue is three per cent higher than the 
£7.949 million target, and with five million passengers during the service’s first year nobody can claim it is being underused. Mr Norris, general manager of the trams, said the apparent reverse in public perceptions was anything but an accident. Rather, it was a long battle fought by the tram’s frontline staff.

“There’s no way we weren’t going to try to turn it around,” he said. “We were well aware of it. It was definitely a plan to get to this stage, but I think we thought it would probably be a fair bit longer to get to where we are at the moment. One of the big things we had to do was not only have an offering that was significantly different to our competitors, but one which could be loved.”

Mr Norris’s enthusiasm is shared elsewhere. Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, said the introduction of the trams had “completely changed” the Capital’s transport network – handing more choice to passengers.

And Edinburgh’s Green transport spokesman Councillor Nigel Bagshaw said the attitude survey showed residents’ fears regarding the operation of the trams had been partially dispelled – but warned against forgetting the many problems thrown up by the project.

“It’s been useful to have the experience of them actually running,” he said. “Some people said nobody would use them, but that’s obviously not the case at all. I think people want to see them work.

“But I don’t want to say anything that would gloss over any of the problems that came before. We are all aware of the mismanagement of the original project.”

With the success of the trams comes renewed talk of expanding their route down to Leith.

This month residents will find out if that can be done in a cost-effective way, but for Mr Norris the very fact it’s back on the table is a sign of changing attitudes.

“The fact that the ‘expansion’ word is even being uttered shows that we have come a long way,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, there are still going to be people who are unhappy, we can’t get away from that.

“If there is an expansion then there’s the opportunity for people in other areas of the city to come and see what service we offer.”

But after suffering years of roadworks chaos for a tram system that was never fully delivered, businesses in Leith are understandably tentative in their support for such a scheme.

Keith Hales, chair of Leith Business Association, said any extension of the tram line down Leith Walk would need to be done in combination with wider redevelopment of the area.

He said: “We’re not the group that is making the decision – if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. What we have to do is make the best use of it, and use the trams to our advantage in getting more investment to Leith Walk.

“In the original plans there was no mention of further investment. Leith was just a place the trams were going through. They are still not talking about maximising the benefit to Leith – making Leith work as a destination.”

Businesses searching for examples of the benefits trams can bring might think of looking to the West End, where regular services run through Shandwick Place and down into Haymarket. But it is here, most of all, that the battle for the hearts and minds of the 
Edinburgh public has been lost.

Grant McKeeman, who runs Copymade printing shop in West Maitland Street, has been a harsh critic of the trams from the start. Last year he described the protracted project as an “unmitigated nightmare” – and today he insisted his views haven’t budged.

“My attitude hasn’t changed at all,” he said. “I haven’t been on a tram and never will be. I think people have quickly forgotten about the upheaval and the amount of money wasted.

“There’s still an aftermath to the works. We are still having problems. The trams cost me a lot of money, with zero compensation.”

Michael Apter, director of Paper Tiger and chair of the West End Business Improvement District (BID), conceded the trams are now an accepted part of city life, but insisted any benefit was outweighed by the “stress and personal hardship” foisted upon shops in the West End as a result of building works.

“[The trams have] become part of the fabric of the city very quickly,” he said. “People are used to seeing them and it makes Edinburgh seem like a 21st century city when you see them crossing the West End.

“But from a personal point of view, I’m not sure the costs were worth the tram line in its current format. Given we are where we are with it, we have to turn it into a network and that single line has to be expanded.

“We had a deeply unsatisfactory time during the tram works in the West End. Lots of our friends and business owners went out of business. The completion of the work was a relief, but normality has not returned.

“I don’t think anybody has really won. We have a £1bn debt on the shoulders of our taxpayers and we have a tram route that only serves ten per cent of the city. That’s not a win for anybody.”

Tory councillor Joanna Mowat, who represents the city centre, said the damage done by the trams would live long in the memories of local businesses.

“I think for areas 
where they were very badly affected by the disruption, it’s taking them longer to come round to the positive benefits,” she said. “But on the wider issue, I think there’s an acceptance. There’s a more positive feeling about them. And in some ways, those more positive voices are being heard more widely.”

Trams ‘reliable 99 per cent of the time’

Trams can be relied on to deliver passengers to their destination almost every time they make a journey, according to new figures.

The Edinburgh Trams reliability statistics show that 99 per cent of journeys were successfully completed over the past year.

But tram boss Tom Norris admitted the figure failed to take into account punctuality, and insisted time-keeping statistics were still too unreliable to release.

He said: “If a tram doesn’t make it to its destination, then that basically counts against the reliability figure. What it doesn’t include is punctuality. It’s a different metric.

“It’s only included in the reliability figure if [a tram] doesn’t reach its destination – so it’s had to turn around before it gets there.

“We’ve not released punctuality figures at the moment because we’ve not got much data on it. It’s not something we can say is definitely right. As it happens, it’s very high as well, but we need to do some more work on how the systems are getting to that conclusion before we release that.”

Other figures revealed by tram chiefs show the vehicles were involved in nine collisions from their launch in May until September last year – the last date for which statistics are available.

Of these, three involved trams hitting pedestrians, while three involved buses. The remaining incidents were collisions with cars.

Flashmob marks birthday celebration

Bruntsfield Primary School Choir marked the first anniversary of the Edinburgh Trams with a flashmob performance.

More than 50 participants performed a selection of uplifting pieces in celebration of the occasion. Members of Stockbridge Colonies Choir also joined in to support the youngsters.

Choral conductor Jennifer Sterling, who recently led the Bruntsfield Primary School Choir to the William Baird Trophy in the Edinburgh Competition Festival, oversaw the performance.

She said: “This was a fantastic opportunity for us to celebrate the first anniversary of the trams in Edinburgh and for the children to engage with this local event. They were all very excited to be performing in a flashmob, not least on a moving tram.”