Here’s something I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever see – one of the Edinburgh trams that finally became operational a couple of months ago. The other week I was briefly back in Scotland and, after arriving at Edinburgh Airport, at the western end of the new tramline, I decided to take a tram to Princes Street, near the line’s eastern end.
I’ve written about the Edinburgh tram saga before – about how the project was announced in 2008 and was supposed to be completed in 2011 but took twice as long; how its budget was originally supposed to be 375 million pounds but eventually crept up to a billion; how the whole thing became bogged down in arguments between contractors and Transport Initiatives, the project’s management company, who were embarrassingly ‘relieved of their duties’ in 2011; and how plans to have the trams trundle all the way to Newhaven, north of Leith, were trimmed back to a much shorter route between the airport and York Place, off the end of Queen Street.
All told, the Edinburgh trams scheme was, to quote Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, an omni-shambles. During the run-up to the Scottish referendum on independence, I saw on the websites of (mainly English) newspapers many posts from readers who held up the trams fiasco as conclusive proof that the Scots were way too inept to ever successfully run their own affairs – although the Scottish National Party had always opposed the project while the Unionist parties in Edinburgh Council were the ones who’d pushed ahead with it.
But now that Edinburgh has the things, and leaving aside the debate about whether or not they were needed in the first place, how do they actually measure up? Well, firstly, when I stepped out of the airport terminal building, I was surprised at how far I had to walk to find one. The airport tram-stop is some way beyond the embarkation point for the shuttle bus that runs to the city centre, and I suspect that the majority of folk who land there, laden with luggage, will continue to take the bus because the trams are just too distant. Also, I wasn’t impressed by the fact that the ticket machines at the tram-stop don’t accept notes and don’t give change. And for a five pounds a ride to Princes Street, it’s a tad pricey.
For a good part of the journey, as the tram winds its way through the industrial park / retail park / car park periphery of western Edinburgh and halts at places like the Gyle Centre and Ingliston Park and Ride, the cityscape outside is so anonymous that you feel you could be anywhere. It isn’t until Murrayfield Rugby Stadium looms ahead that you remember you’re in the Scottish capital. And it isn’t until after that, at Haymarket Station, where finally the tramline enters the middle of the street and the stately architecture of the city centre starts to scroll past the windows, that it finally hits you. You’re in – wow! – an Edinburgh tram.
Here’s a photo of the stop I got off at on Princes Street. That columned structure visible in the distance beyond the end of the tram is the unfinished National Monument on Calton Hill. The fact that the city fathers never got around to completing the monument – they gave up on its construction in 1829 – have led some people to dub it ‘Scotland’s disgrace’. Its presence in this picture alongside the tram is coincidental.