Residents of Edinburgh rejoice in the new tram extension completion, or do they? For some the Edinburgh trams are a sign of public transport innovation and of a greener future. But on the other hand, one Leith Walk business owner described the tram extension line as a “trail of destruction”, there’s no question that his experience was not a positive one. Unfortunately this business owner is not alone.
June brought about the first-time trams had operated in Leith for over 60 years as the inaugural journey moseyed its way down from York Place (the former end of the line), past Ocean Terminal and all the way down to Newhaven. Councillors, MSPs, and the media were all aboard to mark the first time Edinburgh can say they delivered a tram line that was miraculously on time (kind of) and not double the original budget, it was quite the spectacle. However, the occasion was perhaps slightly muted, there were no fireworks, pipe bands or partying, just a fairly quiet procession. The at times controversial trams in Edinburgh have not been to everyone’s pleasing and it’s telling that the unveiling of the completed tram extension line was respectful of that fact.
Leader of the Edinburgh City Council called the day a “momentous occasion”, while the director for infrastructure at Turner and Townsend (responsible for project management of the trams) called this a proud moment for the city and stated that the line will be truly transformative. It may well be, if you look to any other city in the world with world-class public transport more often than not trams are part of the infrastructure, Munich, Vienna, Stockholm. They’re a much greener way of getting around the city, easy to use and often quicker than other forms of transport, yet it doesn’t seem that Edinburgh is quite there yet, carbon offset will eventually kick in which is great but there’s just something missing when comparing it to the European cities previously mentioned. A lack of streamlining perhaps. If we were to examine the ticket situation, bus tickets are different from tram tickets, you validate them differently and if you want to go to the airport on the tram that’s a different ticket, yet also a different price than the airlink bus to the airport, which is also different if you want to get on a Lothian country bus or an East coast bus and let’s not even get started on night-buses. There are approximately 43 different ticket options on the Lothian Bus app. Don’t get me wrong I’m a big fan of the bus network in Edinburgh, I think it could possibly be the best one in Scotland, the prices seem fair, tracking is usually straightforward, and it often seems that appropriate investment is being put into their fleet of buses. Yet something that all of the best transport networks have in common is the ability to buy a ticket that covers them all, hop off the bus and head straight for the tram, without having to wrestle with a QR code on the wall to validate your ticket, then maybe hire an e-bike, all from the same pass. I still believe that the public transport in Edinburgh is a huge asset to the city, yet we could easily apply some more continental Europe common sense.
However, for many the trouble of building the trams has not been worth it, never mind the extension line. As far back as 2016 reports were made that the trams were on average running three quarters empty, and with the hidden costs of maintenance etc the 2022 accounts for Edinburgh Trams still shows a £10 million loss. So with the new extension being built those in charge needed to ensure that it would be sufficiently used, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the route of one of the most popular bus routes (the 22) that followed the path of the new tram extension was completely changed, ensuring that those who used the bus previously will now have to seriously consider using the tram.
For many, the reasoning to push on for this most recent tram extension was questioned, especially since the first go at the modern Edinburgh trams have resulted in one of the longest running public inquiries in the UK, even overtaking the Iraq War inquiry. To date the trams inquiry headed by Lord Hardie has cost taxpayers £13 million, with most of the money being used for staffing and legal fees. It is expected that we will get the findings of the inquiry, originally set up in 2014, in the Autumn. However, the latest update from the inquiry is that the final report is finished and has been with the publishers for over nine weeks, but we still shouldn’t be expecting it in the coming weeks. This almost ten-year inquiry has led some to call for an inquiry to investigate this inquiry. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror in some respects.
I know firsthand of the anger and frustration of those living and trying to make a living when the tram works were taking place, as from 2019-2022 I was one of the residents living on a cul-de-sac off of Leith Walk. From the word go it was a nightmare for a lot of people. The poor people living on Leith Walk had constant noise and disruption. The traffic and congestion was so bad that it felt that at times the carbon alleviating benefits of the trams would already be on the backfoot from the outset.
It was a maze of ever-changing temporary traffic lights, bus stops and crossings that made it hard to cross the road. In the time that I was there I saw construction workers tear up and re-lay a road three times, I saw the bike path change numerous times, not to mention the time the put several lampposts right bang in the middle of the bike path.
Businesses struggled, a lot. Hairdressers, art shops, gift shops, and restaurants all struggled to keep persuading customers to make their way down Leith Walk. Restaurants trying to take advantage of the influx of visitors to Edinburgh during the festival would be hard pressed to persuade customers to sit outside a couple meters away from a construction worker drilling, therefore missing out on the extra tables they could have outside. Businesses did however get help with deliveries (as nothing could stop on Leith Walk itself) as the tram works always had employees on hand who had the job of carting stock to and from delivery vans.
Living on a cul-de-sac left us with no option but to rely on Leith Walk to get anywhere, whatever form of transport that may be. Quite often I could outwalk the buses and cars stuck in traffic, so it was mostly walking. Especially if our road was shut off with no warning, that was not fun.
However, now that the trams are up and running Leith Walk is looking great, the sparkling white trams are almost endearing the way they glide along with their little bells. The construction noise has ceased and the cafés and restaurants are lined with people dining outside, and for many the disruption has been forgotten. Yet, it still seems that the City of Edinburgh isn’t quite ready to fully embrace their shiny new tramline.
Roll on the next phase in the tramline extension saga……… toot toot!