Edinburgh tram control centre ready for action

The tram control room.
The tram control room.
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THE unassuming solid wooden door could be the entrance to any of a dozen city offices, but for a few key differences.

On the door is pinned a ­confidentiality clause informing those entering that “all ­information obtained in the ­operational environment should be treated as confidential” and “what you observe does not leave the CCTV control room for anything other than officially approved reasons.”

The tram operations control centre at Gogarburn. Picture: Greg Macvean

The tram operations control centre at Gogarburn. Picture: Greg Macvean

Welcome to the operation ­control centre for Edinburgh’s tram system.

The room is a restricted ­access area entered via a swipecard entry system, it is manned 24/7, and behind lies the secret to controlling the £776 million tram line which begins taking passengers on May 31.

In the back of the room, in the space known as the “quarterback” position, is a desk crowded with five computer screens, four phones and two keyboards.This is where control room duty manager Sarah Thompson, 30, from Leith, oversees operations on the route and ensures everything is running smoothly – a task which until now has meant overseeing empty trams running test routes, but will very soon involve a vast, crowded public transport network snaking into the heart of the Capital.

The thought doesn’t faze the former security duty manager at Edinburgh Airport, however.

The big red emergency stop buttons. Picture: Greg Macvean

The big red emergency stop buttons. Picture: Greg Macvean

“We’ve run through a lot of practice scenarios now so we’re all really looking forward to going live,” she said. “It’s pretty hi-tech even compared to my old job at the airport, ­although the actual role is much the same to what I did before.”

Beyond her are seated two operations controllers, an engineering manager and a depot supervisor and – blocking what would otherwise be a very fine view of Edinburgh from the west – a bank of CCTV monitors, 18 in all, and a gigantic live super feed known as the mimic board showing the entire network. Each tram is tracked through coloured boxes shuttling between stops.

The result is increased accuracy when zeroing in on any problem to do with the system – tram No 251 in quadrant four between Haymarket and Coates Crescent, for example.

A green box indicates the tram is running early whilst a red box signifies the opposite, and a white box shows the tram is on time.

Computer screens flicker with information from two separate systems – SCADA – ­supervisory control and data acquisition system and VICOS – vehicle and ­infrastructure control and operating system.

Despite its space-age connotations, SCADA is actually a lot more everyday than you would believe – it’s an industrial control system which allows organisations to monitor, gather, and process data as well as send commands.

It is at the core of many modern industries and is found almost everywhere in today’s world, in your local supermarket, waste-water treatment plant, or even your own home.

VICOS is used by many rail operators and oversees the tram network through automatic train tracking and automatic route setting.

At the side of all this cutting-edge technology is a simple magnetic whiteboard on which the entire layout of the tram depot and line is also shown.

Magnetic green and red markers are used to denote those within the yard and those out on service. In total there are 27 £2m trams in the fleet, with 12 in operation at any one time – each of these allocated a number between 251 and 263.

The exact reason for these numbers has been lost with the now disbanded Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) company but it is thought to be a nod to and a continuation of the 1956 fleet – it is understood that the last tram to run in the city was number 250.

Each tram is also allocated a run number ranging from 951 to 963 and these denote which route each tram is undertaking.

They begin at 951 so as to avoid any confusion with the city’s 950 Lothian Bus run numbers. Then there is the emergency kill switch which immediately draws the eye. In the event of an incident on the line requiring the power to be switched off, two large red buttons are positioned between the on-call duty manager’s desk and the operations controllers.

One is marked HYM-AIR (Haymarket to airport) and the other YKP-HYM (York Place to Haymarket). A third button which stops the entire line is also located under lock and key downstairs in the depot.

Above Sarah in seniority is service delivery manager, Stuart Parsons, 34, originally from Essex, a trained civil engineer he came north and joined Edinburgh Trams 18 months ago.

Stuart, whose background is in heavy rail, is number two to director and general manager Tom Norris, and he oversees the day-to-day service delivery.

He said: “It’s an exciting job, it’s a big challenge but very enjoyable taking a service into operation for the first time. Everyone is feeling a little bit anxious too, but that’s a good thing.

“We have been very thorough in our approach and everything has been tested and retested. It will be a historic moment.”

Beneath the control room lies the tram wash and workshop – not all of the 27-strong fleet will be in service at any one time, so when they are not in use the fleet will be scheduled in for weekly maintenance exams and washes or can be stabled in special outdoor sidings at the depot. The workshop also houses specialised equipment for lifting trams to change out large floor mounted items. This time around for the trams there is a state-of-the-art depot and nerve centre and staff primed to keep the entire system on track.

And hopefully they’ll never need those big red buttons.