A BATTLE to win over the hearts and minds of Edinburgh’s tram-weary public is being waged – with fans and critics of the beleaguered project offered test runs on the track.
So far dozens of community groups, rail enthusiasts, schoolchildren and business owners hit hard by disruptive infrastructure works have enjoyed whistle-stop tours of the tram depot and even travelled the 1.5-mile stretch between Gogar and the airport.
And although cynicism surrounding the £776 million project remains, the public relations drive to improve battered reputations seems to be working.
Today, a News straw poll of passengers indicates the city’s try-it-for-yourself tactic may have paid off, with several sceptics returning to the depot with a more positive impression of the line. Transport bosses hope these ‘converts’ and word of mouth will help change perceptions of the project.
One doubter was Kenneth Swinney, 81, the father of Finance Secretary John Swinney, whose family had worked on Edinburgh’s original tram line which closed in 1956.
His father, William, was a tram driver, two uncles worked on the trams and his grandfather was a tram inspector, but despite a blood connection to the old system, Mr Swinney believed Lothian Buses’ “excellent service” negated the demand for a modern tram line.
“The original trams were excellent and came to an end because the tram was running in the middle of the road and when people went to get on it all the traffic had to stop, which ultimately meant it had to go.
“So it went and we developed a good bus service and I didn’t really think we needed them back.”
Asked if his views had mellowed since riding the tram, he said: “It didn’t change my mind about how businesses – particularly on Leith Walk – have been upset by all the disruption, but the actual tram itself was quiet and comfortable, it was well presented, well made and the equipment we saw in the depot was excellent, so we should be getting a good result. It has to be accepted as a step in the right direction.”
On a similar point of departure, Ian Mowat, chair of New Town and Broughton Community Council, opposed the project and lamented the years of disruption faced by many city centre businesses.
“I am a critic of the trams but I want them to be finished and up and running,” he said. “Having travelled the tram, I thought it was very spacious with extremely good disabled access and child-buggy access. There was hardly any gap between the tram doors and the platform – it’s beautifully flush.
“I can see myself using it and I think it will be an asset for people who live in the east of the city and New Town/Broughton area to get to the airport.”
Mr Mowat, the husband of City Centre councillor Joanna, doesn’t believe the tram would be quicker than the current bus service due to several sharp bends along the route preventing it from hitting top speed. But as a former detractor of the project, he now admits to being “moderately positive”.
He said: “I’m not won round, although I can see it will provide some benefits. Whether they will outweigh the immense costs and disruption, frankly I wouldn’t say that. But the trams look good and it is quite an impressive operation.”
Ewan Thomson, vice-chairman of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s transport policy committee, travelled on the tram line last month and was bowled over by his experience. He described Edinburgh’s carriages as “better than other systems I’ve seen in Britain” and said the test run was “highly impressive”.
He said: “I’d heard a lot about the Edinburgh trams, obviously because they were custom built and they were shipped in from Spain and prefabricated in Germany.
“It’s bright, it’s spacious, there’s lots of room. The seats are extremely well tailored, very comfortable, and there’s lots of baggage space.
“I can sum it up in two words –highly impressive. I don’t imagine that anybody who uses the trams in Edinburgh will fail to be impressed by them when they get on them.”
These views were echoed by rail enthusiast Andrew Boyd, of public transport campaigners Capital Light Rail Action group, who was given a tour of the depot and tram carriage.
He confessed that soaring costs and disruption blighting the project had caused him to “lose heart”, but visiting Gogar had revived his enthusiasm.
He said: “It’s been a difficult course to get to this stage, largely because of the works that relocated services across the city centre. I think once people see the trams in the flesh and, more importantly, when they have the chance to ride in them, they will see the great benefit of installing the tram system and will want to see it extended.”
Transport convener Councillor Lesley Hinds said the tours had “gone down very well” and the feedback had been “overwhelmingly positive”.
She said: “There are obviously mixed views about the tram in Edinburgh, but when you see them in action it’s hard not to be impressed. Once the tram is in operation I’m convinced that our passengers will be of the same view.”
‘THEY’LL BE A GOOD ADDITION TO THE CITY’
Tory activist Iain McGill, 36, from Leith, gives his account of a trip on the trams.
“It all started so normally – another day, another e-mail about the trams. Tram fatigue had long since set in and my desire was just to see the blasted things finished.
“But this e-mail was different – did I want a tour of the tram depot and a spin on a tram from Gogar out to the airport and back? You’d better believe I did – and enthusiastically as well.
“My grandad was a tram driver in Edinburgh and had photos of the trams on his walls. Maybe something had rubbed off on me, or maybe it’s relief that we’re getting to the finish line – finally there’s something tangible to show for our troubles.
“Having been up close and personal I’m impressed with the trams – they’re sleek, clean, with plenty of room and easy access.
“They’re really good news if you’ve a wheelchair or a buggy, or even just for all your extra bags packed with duty free shopping . . . They’ve the capacity of four double decker buses, and the ticket price is same as a bus.
“The airport stop is a work in progress, but there’s no getting away from the fact it’s going to be good and well used.
“It’s close to the terminal, a covered walkway all the way and there will always be a tram sitting there. They’ll be leaving every five to ten minutes, and they’ll be running from 5am until just after midnight. The poor airport bus has served me well down the years, but it’s not going to be able to compete with the tram. The trams reach 70kph in the off-street sections and never hit a red light in the city centre.
“So, what did I learn? I think they’ll be a good addition to the city, I’ll use them happily – in fact I’m looking forward to using them happily – just so long as nobody gets me started on the cost and management of the project down the years.”