EMPTY trams will be driven along Princes Street late at night during a series of “ghost runnings” as network testing reaches its final stages.
The midnight trials are believed to be the preferred city centre option, with tram bosses keen to avoid peak-time disruption and curb public anger at empty carriages coursing through the Capital.
Rush-hour testing will follow at a later point – and tram drivers are already becoming “acclimatised” to frantic conditions by driving buses along the busy city centre route.
Late-night revellers or early morning commuters can expect to see functioning trams piloted on city centre rails as early as October. Sources close to the project said intensive off-road testing between Edinburgh Airport and Murrayfield – where the tram line meets road network – would take place before mixing in with traffic.
They said: “Testing will start when it’s not a busy time, probably during the night, because people are going to be frustrated seeing empty trams running up and down Princes Street all the time.
“It will be very late evening or overnight to start off with, but there will have to be some daytime testing to give drivers a feel for what it’s like when it’s busy.
“They will try to do the least numbers of those [as possible] and that’s why they are using bus training because it gives drivers a feel for the traffic.
“The last thing the public wants is empty trams running along for months, but if the drivers have a chance to get a feel for the traffic, when it comes to testing we won’t have as many empty trams going up and down Princes Street.”
They added: “They will phase it in, then try to do it as quickly as possible, and that will be the last phase in many ways.”
Transport expert Simon Johnston, editor of Tramways and Urban Transit magazine, said it was “standard practice” for rookie tram drivers to enter a “programme of familiarisation” by getting behind the wheel of a bus along busy junctions of the rail line so they could recognise danger spots.
He said after-dark trials along mixed traffic routes were also commonplace across Europe.
Mr Johnston said: “In France it’s called ‘marche à blanc’, which means ghost running. They run the service as they would normally but without any passengers on the vehicles.
“Generally they try to do these things at less busy periods of the day – at night or first thing in the morning – but I’d imagine there would have to be a certain amount of peak-hour testing just so they can see how the vehicles interact with the environment around them.
“It’s probably better to do that without passengers on board in the first instance than it is to potentially disrupt services with a whole bunch of passengers on board the tram.”
Transport chiefs have played down the late-night testing programme, branding it “speculation” until a finalised report is delivered to City Chambers this September.
A city spokeswoman said: “Trams will be run along the length of the route at various times of the day in advance of passenger services beginning.”
But getting pedestrians and motorists accustomed to sharing road space with trams was a crucial step for transport planners as the testing phase reached a final stage, said Mr Johnston.
He pointed to METRORail in Houston, Texas, which averaged 11 collisions per track mile per year as live operations began, as a warning against driver apathy.
But he said the recent introduction of tram systems in Sheffield and Manchester proved the UK had an “enviable record” of avoiding collisions.
A spokesman for South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, which runs Sheffield’s tram network, confirmed there had been “very few accidents” when trams went live in the city in the mid-1990s.
It is understood a huge publicity drive will also be launched to alert pedestrians and motorists of the new dangers when travelling in the city centre.
Edinburgh tram drivers, who are paid around £24,000 a year, must complete a four-week intensive training course with around one day manning a city bus in heavy traffic and scrutinising conditions on foot, according to the city transport department.
Last July, the News told how drivers were being paid to steer the trams round a test track to stop them breaking down. The dummy runs were designed to prevent wheels from seizing up while in storage – costing an estimated £500,000 in wages before the project began generating revenue.
Transport convener Councillor Lesley Hinds said: “As part of their training, tram drivers are spending time in the city centre to observe the interaction between general traffic, pedestrians, cyclists and buses along the tram route. This ensures that when passenger services are up and running, drivers are as prepared as they possibly can be to ensure the safety of all road users is maintained.”
ACCURATE DATE BY SEPTEMBER’
ALTHOUGH “ghost runs” are being planned, the official start-up date for the system is still the summer of next year.
But, with so many false dawns already, transport leader Lesley Hinds has said it will be September before a more accurate date can be given.
She has poured cold water on claims by traders and city-centre organisations that part of the line could be up and running before Christmas – although she has hinted that the project is ahead of its revised schedule.
The deciding factor could be how quickly the system can be tested and the necessary safety certificates issued.
Testing is already under way between the Gogar depot and the airport, and over the next two months it is expected the test area will be extended to other parts of the route.
Community groups have already been given trips around a “test-track” area.
TRAINING IS ‘SENSIBLE OPTION’
Tram drivers are to spend time in the city centre to observe the interaction between general traffic, pedestrians, cyclists and buses along the tram route.
The aim is to ensure they are as prepared as they possibly can be to ensure the safety of all road users.
Transport expert Robert Drysdale said training drivers was a “sensible option” for familiarising them with rush-hour traffic before the project went live.
The light rail system in Houston, Texas, earned the title “Wham Bam tram” for a high rate of accidents despite an extensive training programme of a full year before the system went live. It averaged 11 crashes per track mile per year.