For some unknown reason I felt I should go to Edinburgh as soon as the long awaited tram opens, and as I could fit it into my spring schedule, I did book a flight as soon as the beginning of operation was finally announced a few weeks ago. For several months the official Edinburgh Trams website had stated that operation would start in May, so to keep that promise, I guess, they picked May 31 and not one day earlier. This day happened to be a Saturday, usually a good day for an opening, to fix teething problems before regular commuters would get on the following Monday.
I don't want to list all the problems that had led to the long delayed conclusion of the works (see the respective Wikipedia article), but the general impression reading the news in all sorts of tram magazines over the last years was that this tram might never open as it was often close to being cancelled altogether.
With these delays and the enormous (though actually quite common) cost overruns, I was getting excited to find out whether the result was worth all the wait. So following are my personal impressions gained on the first two days of operation, which means that some initial problems may have been solved and can be filed under normal teething problems. Some, or maybe too many, problems, however, will either need another large amount of money to be fixed, or people will have to bear with them forever.
Generally, the 14 km line that connects the city centre to the airport, is 'o.k.'. The CAF trams are nice, run smoothly and have rather comfortable seating. As the line goes to the airport, luggage racks are provided, too. A positive thing, at first sight, but once you look through the 7-section tram, you'll find out that there are five such racks, each about 2 m wide and with three shelves. An approximate calculation resulted in a capacity of some 60 typical suitcases to be stored, a number I would consider very excessive for a tram that runs every 10 minutes and with the airport buses continuing service on a similar route. My guess is that eventually, if a little money is available, some of these (probably mostly empty) racks will be withdrawn to increase the number of seats. After all, the tram is meant to provide an urban service and not just an airport service. If the airport had been the primary purpose to build the tram, then certainly a railway branch would have been a cheaper and more recommendable solution. In fact, there was a project to build a rail access, which would have been useful for people from other Scottish regions, too, whereas the tram is only good really to go from the airport into Edinburgh itself, although there is also convenient interchange at Edinburgh Park station for local trains west.
Otherwise the CAF trams feature most things one would expect of a new tram, screens announcing the next stop, acoustic announcements, etc. but no air-conditioning, and as it appeared, no proper ventilation either. Unexpectedly, the first day of operation, 31 May 2014, turned out to be a very warm day, and with the trams packed with curious passengers, the air inside the trams got quite unbearable despite some open windows.
The opening as such was quite disappointing, as there was actually no opening ceremony at all. The toughest fans (not me) gathered at 5 in the morning at Gyle Centre, where the first regular tram coming from the nearby depot entered service. An eye-witness told me the first tram was overcrowded and some people couldn't even get on. Unlike other grand tram openings like those in France in recent years, Edinburgh Trams did not organise any kind of popular festival around it, and they did not hand out free try-out tickets to residents along the line. Instead they made everybody pay a full fare from the very beginning. Loudspeakers at stops continuously announced that all passengers must purchase a ticket and that inspectors (well, they call them something milder) will be on board to check tickets, and they did. So all that left a bad taste in my mouth, especially as service was getting very irregular during late morning, when they even switched off the next-tram indicators, and just announced that trams would arrive every 10 minutes. In reality, waiting times became much longer, and often two trams came one shortly after the other. But it seemed they gave up checking tickets in the afternoon. So Edinburgh Trams as the operator somehow missed this unique opportunity to get the public opinion on their side from the first day.
A single ride costs 1.50 GBP, quite reasonable, and a day ticket for 3.50 GBP including all Lothian Buses is actually a very good deal. So, compared to the really bad fare system in Glasgow, Edinburgh at least has good integration of buses and trams, although local trains are left out as of yet.
The initial tram line, which was supposed to continue northeast to Leith but was curtailed due to the cost overruns, actually consists of two rather different sections. The eastern part, between York Place and Haymarket railway station, is a typical tram with a high share of on-street running, just the easternmost 300 m before the York Place terminus is on a central reservation. Other parts are shared by private cars and mostly by hundreds of buses which run along Princes Street, so that could cause mutual obstruction. Otherwise my major objection to this stretch is the lack of a stop near Edinburgh's main railway station Waverley. So, people with suitcases arriving in Edinburgh and not familiar with the surroundings of the station, will have problems finding the nearest stop. For St. Andrew Square stop (which on maps shows 'for Waverley') they will have to walk a couple of hundreds of metres, the Princes Street stop is a bit further away, but might be the better choice if going westwards. Princes Street is one of the city's main shopping streets, but funnily, it is here where you find the longest distance between stops. The next stop west lies some 800 m away, a distance more typical for metros, but even for those not recommendable in the city centre, where generally more stops are necessary to spread people out a bit. The island platform at Princes Street will soon get problems with overcrowding, never a good thing in the middle of a 4-lane road. I assume that even shop owners (who suffered most during construction) realised that the stop called Princes Street is so far east and that passengers might not bother to walk back west to their shops. As a result the next western stop, initially marked as 'Shandwick Place', was renamed 'West End-Princes Street' although Princes Street actually only begins some 250 m further east!! So my advice is, move the present 'Princes Street' stop further east towards the Waverley Bridge, and add another stop, maybe called 'Princes Street West' somewhere in between. The last stop of the tram-like section, at Haymarket, is conveniently located just outside the railway station of that name, busy with commuters, but long-distance trains often just serve Waverley.
The entire section west of Haymarket can be classified as 'light rail', completely on its own right-of-way, with only a few level crossings (the only major one just south of Gyle Centre), and with some sections allowing speeds of up to 70 km/h. Around Bankhead/Saughton the tram took over an existing busway alignment, which already had dedicated bridges to avoid level crossings. To reach this busway alignment, however, two viaducts had to be built to take the tram to the south side of the mainline railway which it parallels between Haymarket and Edinburgh Park station. So, here the big question remains, whether this alignment was really necessary or whether another one or two stations for local trains would have done the job, while the tram could have stayed in a more urban environment. But that's done now. After Edinburgh Park the line runs through nice lawns between office buildings in this business park, and most likely a lot of new buildings will be built in this area soon. Beyond Gyle Centre, once the depot has been passed, the line continues through farmland, just serving a Royal Bank of Scotland business park at Gogarburn and the free Ingliston car park. Between these two stops, two level crossings as well as a ghost stop can be seen amidst a huge meadow, so this area may also change in the future. Another ghost stop is visible just east of the depot which may provide interchange to a still-to-be-built railway station, though likely requiring a long walk if I got the local situation right.
Ingliston P+R is the last stop within the normal fare zone, for the Airport a special fare of 5 GBP is required (9 GBP for a day ticket). The Airport terminus, unlike York Place, which has only one track, features two stub tracks with a scissors crossover before it. I don't know whether this stop is the property of the Airport, but it was surprising that it had no signs at all, no name signs and no next-tram indicators. There are several ticket machines, and there was an assistant on the first day, but there is no information office in the airport. Many passengers will therefore rather take the bus because there is a manned ticket booth and also drivers available for information.
So, it might seem that the fast light-rail section would compensate for the naturally slower urban tram section, but this optimism is soon erased by the fact that too many curves along this section are so badly built that trams have to reduce speed drastically. Funnily, there is a speed restriction of 10 km/h at the depot entrance, but not for trams going into the depot, but for trams staying on the running tracks. Was this a planning mistake?? On other curves, most notably just west of the Ingliston stop, tracks were laid on concrete (honestly, no idea why!), and obviously badly laid, because these curves cause noises I have never heard before in my long tram-watching life! A similar flaw, though not as loud, can be found just west of Gogarburn, where the trams take an S-curve through empty grassland. Like at Ingliston, the immediate question comes up, why did they have to align the platforms parallel to the nearby road, and why didn't they build them some 45 degrees to the northwest to avoid the need of such tight curves? Another not-approvable section can be found around Murrayfield Stadium where trams wind their way around a train yard, requiring speed limits of 25 km/h. I would say that on a new light rail line a continuous speed of 45-50 km/h should always be allowed, otherwise the respective engineers should be sacked, in the case of Ingliston even taken to jail. I wonder if the original planners are responsible for that or whether it was German construction company Bilfinger Berger? In any case, they should have refused to build such bad trackbeds even if the local supervisors had insisted. I have not been on Manchester's latest extensions, but on U.S. light rail systems which have very similar alignments, I have never observed such a series of construction flaws.
The tram stops all have a uniform design, St. Andrew Square, Princes Street, West End-Princes Street and Airport with island platforms, the rest with side platforms. There are small shelters, ticket machines, an information poster, next-tram indicators and proper station name signs. The latter are better than elsewhere, and repeated along the platform, at least twice. I would have preferred an inverted colour scheme, though, a maroon (or whatever the corporate colour is supposed to be), with white, slightly larger characters. The only stop that is slightly different is Murrayfield Stadium next to the Rugby stadium. It is on an elevated section, with a huge flight of stairs to cater for large crowds, and all in typical Edinburgh sandstone, which brings us to another point. Edinburgh is without doubt an elegant city, but with its uniform sandstone style it is also a very colourless city, especially on a rainy day. And the choice of a very decent colour shared by Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams, both now under the Transport for Edinburgh brand, has not added a little colour touch to the city, while it could have been a modern contrast to the otherwise classic urban environment, for example by using a strong but noble red instead. From experience we know, however, that British liveries change at least every five years anyway, so there is hope....
So, if someone asked me, should the system be extended, I would say, I don't know. They should at least build the extension to Leith as initially planned to give the present line more reason to be, as it would serve a busy corridor and could thus replace many of the current buses. But I think it will be hard to convince local residents and politicians to invest further, as the present tram is not even capable of providing a faster journey to the airport. After having been to Leith on a bus instead, I would say, that at least a tram is much more comfortable than the bumpy buses (if it wasn't for the squealing noise in so many curves...). In any case, I'm afraid, we won't see any extensions for a while as the Scottish transport minister said they wouldn't give any more money for the tram. It will also take a while until people realise the advantages of the tram, as the present line actually only serves a very small portion of the population. What would help is a much more frequent hop-on hop-off service in the city centre between York Place and Haymarket (an existing siding between here and Murrayfield Stadium would make this easily possible). Trams would be much more visible and worth to wait for, whereas currently it is mostly faster to walk instead of waiting for the next tram in 'about' 10 minutes. The single-track stub at York Place might limit such aspirations, however. Rolling stock would not be the problem as 27 trams were purchased for the entire line including the Leith extension, while only 17 are now needed for an 8-10 minute service.
Edinburgh Trams (Official Website)
Edinburgh Tram at UrbanRail.Net