The Edinburgh tram gets back on track

30 August 2012

Edinburgh City Council’s transport convenor Lesley Hinds talks to Barry Mansfield about her hopes for the Scottish capital’s tram network, its ongoing development and how she plans to overcome the raft of bad press the project has received.

She has spent the past few months setting out her plans for the completion of one of the UK's most controversial, budget-busting infrastructure projects for decades. With the Scottish National Party and the Labour Party now in coalition in Edinburgh, Labour's Lesley Hinds - a former Lord Provost of Edinburgh - is the woman charged with helping to ensure the £1bn tram project is concluded by the summer of 2014.

Hinds was appointed transport convenor in mid-May, taking over from Gordon McKenzie. The first female leader of Edinburgh District Council - she assumed the position in 1993 - has admitted to being in favour of the trams since the project was first discussed, but has also been critical of the way it has been tackled by Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) and the City Council. "My role is to try and gain back the trust of people," she says. "I will be more than happy to meet anyone. There's no point sitting behind the door of an office."

For Hinds, the state of public transport in continental Europe has provided the inspiration. "When you look at other European centres, you recognise how successful tram systems have been for the economic life of the city," she explains. "We have a bus company, which is over 90% publicly owned by the city of Edinburgh, which is quite unusual. It's popular and well run, but we recognised many years ago that to have a transport system that was integrated, fast and efficient, to help grow the economy, we needed to look at other modes of transport. We felt that the tram was the way to move forward."

A key driver for the new tram network is the regeneration of Edinburgh Waterfront in Leith and Granton.

"Other major cities have developed into their waterfront, but we've not been part of that trend. We see the importance of the Waterfront and its revival," she says, "and want to bring in jobs, housing, leisure and shops. To do that, we need to link to the city and vice versa. I visited Hamburg many years ago and they made a point of putting in the transport link before they regenerated their waterfront space."

According to Hinds, there has been little need to knock buildings down or for clearing work. "A lot of it is off-road, all the way to the airport," she says. "We were using a dedicated bus route."

Scaling back plans

The abandonment of tram lane 1b, from Haymarket to Granton, which was dropped in April 2009, disappointed the national sustainable transport alliance Transform Scotland, which suggested that "until such time as funds are available... the council should look at alternative proposals such as a segregated bus road, bus rapid transit or even trolleybuses. All of these would give the potential for conversion to a tramway as and when resources become available."

"The cost of bringing Leith Walk and Constitution Street up to scratch has also soared from £3.2m to £5.5m in the space of just a few months."

Hind's predecessor had indicated in April that tram works in the capital could be finished by the end of 2013, with work apparently 22 weeks ahead of schedule at that time. But the council's Labour leader Andrew Burns suggested that this claim should be taken with a "huge pinch of salt". Passenger forecasts were also revised down early this year, with a new assessment, disclosed under a Freedom of Information request, providing an updated figure of 5.4m travellers annually.

Little to no work was carried out on the project in 2011 because the main protagonists were engaged in an often public wrangle over the contracts. Additional costs caused by time-consuming utility diversions have forced the council to scale back the project, with its route now significantly reduced. The line was originally due to run from Edinburgh Airport to the old port of Newhaven through the city centre, but instead will now stop at York Place, 5.5km short of Newhaven.

Princes Street reopened to taxis and buses this June, news described by Hinds as "a welcome boost to business at what remains a challenging period for traders". York Place, however, will be closed to all vehicles from September until the end of 2013.

"Obviously there is a recession at the moment, which has not been very good for local businesses," Hinds concedes. "We have been trying to work with them, but I would be the first to admit that communication hasn't been the best. What I'm hoping to do in the coming months is engage with businesses, listen to what they have to say, and see if we can make some changes."

So far, these talks have led to an agreement for the Albany and Broughton Street junction to have signalised pedestrian crossings installed.

Unfinished business

Turner & Townsend was appointed by Edinburgh City Council to manage the project after TIE was disbanded in August 2011. Completing unfinished underground works on two key thoroughfares and restoring them to their previous state is expected to continue until December 2013.

The cost of bringing Leith Walk and Constitution Street up to scratch has also soared from £3.2m to £5.5m in the space of just a few months.

As well as restoring road and pavement surfaces, the council has pledged to carry out a number of "environmental improvements" on the two streets. Options include dedicated lanes for cyclists, new trees and flower beds, additional works of art and new landscaping features.

There have been a few other setbacks. In July, the Scottish Daily Record revealed that the tram project had run up a total of more than £1m in PR bills. This was despite Edinburgh City Council having its own communications and dedicated trams PR departments. The New Civil Engineer publication also claimed in April this year that some engineers have privately expressed doubts that the £34m contingency fund will be enough to cover the risk of utility diversion problems at the York Place terminus.

Advantages and aims

Considering the popularity of the Edinburgh buses, one might be forgiven for questioning the additional benefits of a tram network. The people of Edinburgh are used to double-decker buses, admits Hinds, and they've served the city well. "Certain parts of the population will never go on a bus, though. If you put on a tram, which is faster, more attractive, comfortable and accessible, with disabled access and greater capacity, you attract a different type of passenger. We want to encourage people who normally would travel by car to use public transport."

"When you look at other European centres, you recognise how successful tram systems have been for the economic life of the city."

The council's website refers to a study establishing that 20% of peak hour and 50% of weekend tram passengers in the UK previously travelled by car.

Furthermore, Edinburgh's population is predicted to increase by 12% in the next 20 years, and there simply won't be enough road space to provide the necessary level of bus service. The council says each tram will carry up to 250 people, compared with a maximum of 120 on a bus. There is also the resulting boost to the central business district. Trams will draw shoppers to the city centre, which can lead to more investment by businesses and regeneration. Dublin saw a rise of 20-50% in pedestrian footfall figures on Grafton Street, the city's main shopping thoroughfare. Many retail outlets reported a 25% increase in trade.

Hinds is looking to London's Oyster card concept as a template for how passenger journeys across Edinburgh can be managed seamlessly.

"As for a rider card system, we need to look at how that might allow for an integrated network so you can go from bus to tram to rail," she says. "That's what we're considering at the moment."

Low-level boarding also helps the passenger experience, and attendants will be employed to answer user queries and guard against antisocial behaviour.

"We're at a point in the project now where I'm confident that all the blips, such as those we've seen with the utilities, are out the way," she adds. "It's now full steam ahead. People see something visible. They're positive; they can see it's about to happen. The tracks are laid. A lot of doubters who didn't support the tram are now keen to see it completed as quickly as possible."

The tram line, which originates at Edinburgh Airport, follows what was a dedicated bus route and so means minimal disruption to the surrounding infrastructure and environment.
Edinburgh City Council’s transport convenor Lesley Hinds.
The destination of the tram network will now be York Place, near Leith Walk – an area that is undergoing a £5.5 million regeneration.

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