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.