Edinburgh is extending its widely loathed tram network

A tram on Princes Street in 2014. Image: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons.

Edinburgh City Council has given the go-ahead for the extension of the city’s tram line, despite the debacle the city experienced last time. At present the tram runs from the airport to the city centre, with some useful stops along the way at the busy business parks and for those living in the west of Edinburgh. All this is about to change with the extension through Leith to Newhaven, which was an original intention for the tram network, before it experienced the huge delays and expense for which it’s since become notorious.

The inquiry into why the construction of the first phase of the network went so badly has yet to be completed, but this much we know: the initial line cost twice as much as forecast, was almost cancelled by the Scottish Government due to the spiralling costs and came in a whopping five years late. Although all the right words are being spoken about learning the lessons of last time, at £208m for 2.8 miles of track, the extension is already 25 per cent over its original budget.

The new extension will essentially provide a link from the city centre to the shorefront in the north of the city and should be open to passengers in early 2023. Trams will run from York Place, the current terminus, north east through down Elm Row and Leith Walk before turning west over the Water of Leith river. From there the trams will run past the Scottish Government offices, towards the Ocean Terminal shopping centre and will finish up in Newhaven on the coast.

The tram, with the extension marked as a dotted line. Image: Edinburgh Trams.

One of the odd things about the trams is this: although the chaos of construction means they are almost universally unloved by most people who live in Edinburgh, the project is actually working a lot better than many expected. In 2017, the line made a pre-tax profit of £1.6m, six times greater than anticipated. Passenger numbers also rose 10 per cent in 2018 to 7.7 million. It may be that a substantial number like the trams, but are loathe to admit it.

Of course, one of the reasons the new tram extension has not been greeted enthusiastically in all quarters is the disruption the first line caused, particularly in Leith. After digging up Leith Walk and costing small businesses lots of customers, in April 2009 the authorities then had the unenviable task of having to tell people that it was all for nothing and that the line would end in the city centre after all. Now, of course, these residents are required to go through the rigmarole all over again.


Then there’s the fact that road closures around the busy Leith Walk will inevitably have an impact on commuters in the rest of the city as cars and buses are diverted. At least it seems that this time the project will not infuriate residents by digging up roads in a piecemeal, sporadic fashion. Instead each section will be dug up once, to minimise disruption.

On the plus side, the extension will mean it will be easy for people in the north of the city to escape gridlock and get to the centre in a low-carbon mode of transport. It should mean that, for anyone going to the airport without a car, it will make sense to take the tram all the way rather than messing around with buses or taxis. It could also be that the economies of scale mean that the tram system will become more effective as the line will go all the way from the airport, through the centre to the north of the Edinburgh, rather than the current truncated service on offer.

If the new line is a success it may increase house prices in Leith, which is already undergoing substantial gentrification. The area that was the heroin capital of Europe in the 1980s and immortalised by Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting in the 1990s gradually became more popular via the familiar method of cheap housing, riverside development and the opening of new bars and restaurants. The Ocean Terminal shopping centre and the Royal Yacht Britannia have both brought more visitors to the north of Edinburgh. Today Leith is a highly sought after area by people in their 20s and 30s.

In the long-term, it’s likely the new extension will be good for Edinburgh. It will boost transport to an area with low car ownership and which, despite gentrification, still has pockets of high deprivation. It will improve transport across the city, and may even also help alleviate pollution as more people commute by tram rather than by car or by bus.

But in order to get these benefits, the city may need to take a deep breathe and prepare for some short-term disruption. Surely it can't go worse than last time.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.