Here Come the Trams

Kaitlin Dryburgh

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!

7 thoughts on “Here Come the Trams”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Councillors, and especially Edinburgh councillors, who would sell their grannies to boost Edinburgh and their own profile, will always opt for big spend high risk vanity capital projects using spurious cost benefit analysis techniques to justify. In Edinburgh “culture and tourism” will always take precedence over homelessness, poverty, social care. Glasgow has its problems but at least the city has an authentic soul! Edinburgh may follow London in a long term dispersal of the working class from the inner city, leaving it free for bankers, lawyers and tourists? Edinburgh indulges “McCall Smith; Glasgow indulges (the late) McIlvanney”. Different worlds?
    PS: yes, the 22 bus was a great service which we used on a number of visits. Unsurprised It has been changed to make the tram appear more profitable. The Edinburgh bus service was and is still much better than (mainly privatised) Glasgow, where night time economy has zero support from public transport. Trains/buses/subway go off service before festivals/concerts fully disperse!

  2. What’s missing is that Leith Walk was also shut down during the original tram works. Given a lot of work was supposed to have already been done during that period (2009?), this begs the question of what was actually being done there.
    The entire project is a mess, and it has been since day one, all those years ago. It should have been stopped in its tracks back in 2007.

    The trams make a massive loss, and they are due to be taken over by Lothian Buses within the next 12 months. They’re planning on extending the tram out towards Dalkeith or Musselburgh. They seem intent on throwing good money after bad. The result will be a further disruption to what was, at one time not that long ago, the best bus service in Europe.

    Edinburgh is an utter laughing stock, thanks to the inability of the City Council to run a bath, never mind what purports to be a capital city.

  3. Dave Shepherdson

    Possibly not full because you can’t use a non Edinburgh Saltire Card on them but you can on the buses so you use the bus.

  4. florian albert

    The building of the Edinburgh tram route requires a more sceptical analysis than Kaitlin Dryburgh has given here.
    The cost, close to £100,000,000 – for 11.5 miles, comes close to defying belief.
    There was never any need, nor any desire for it. The existing bus service was more than adequate.
    It became a vanity project for a council whose lack of competence mirrors that of Glasgow Council/Corporation. Unlike the latter, Edinburgh Council had, until fairly recently, a different – and better – reputation.

    From a wider perspective, it has played its part in the credibility crisis facing ‘progressive’ and independence-supporting
    Scotland. That SLAB, which remains intellectually and politically moribund, is likely to be the party to take advantage of this crisis, is an indication of how unprepared Scotland is for any sort of radical change.
    Need it be pointed out that this is just one of a number of fiascos which devolution has visited on Scotland; the Parliament building, Curriculum for Excellence and the Calmac ferries come immediately to mind ?

    1. It is unfair if the reintroduction of trams in Edinburgh has “played its part in the credibility crisis facing ‘progressive’ and independence-supporting Scotland”. As you know, the original proposals for reintroducing trams was made by City of Edinburgh Council in the 1990s, prior to the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999. Then, legislation to allow the project to proceed was passed by the Scottish parliament in 2006 – under a Labour/Lib Dem administration. When the SNP minority government took power in 2007, it sought to cancel the tram scheme but was outvoted by the Unionist parties in the parliament.

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