Edinburgh’s trams could be running by Christmas, business leaders have been told.
The Scotsman has learned that several major retailers briefed on the project have been assured that the route may be ready by mid-December, once test runs are completed and mandatory safety certificates issued.
Senior transport officials held a series of private meetings with traders last week to provide them with an update on the project’s progress. The director of one major store said he had even been privately told of a date – 15 December – but council leaders last night denied this.
A Christmas launch would provide a huge confidence boost to retailers as they prepare for what is expected to be an uncertain trading season.
However, critics said launching in December could pose its own problems if faults arose.
Tram chiefs have said they would set aside six months for mandatory safety testing, but have admitted that the dummy runs could be completed sooner.
Lesley Hinds, city transport leader, has refused to commit to an earlier start date – the official completion remains summer 2014 – but admitted work was progressing better than planned.
The Labour councillor said construction was about three months ahead of schedule and said the six-month test period was only an estimate.
Vic Emery, a former consultant on the project and now chairman of the Scottish Police Authority, said in May that he believed that passengers would be riding on the £776 million line by the end of this year.
Traders have hoped that being given a launch date would allow them to mount a major publicity drive.
“We have been told by the council that by September we should see empty trams test running on the whole route, or certainly October at the latest,” one business leader briefed on the project told The Scotsman.
“This means that the final quarter of the year will be devoted to testing. What is impossible to know is how long testing will take – it’s carried out independently – but the often-quoted six-month figure is just an estimate.
“We have been told is that all of the infrastructure would be in a position to go pre-Christmas if this safety certificate is given.”
A Christmas launch date would bring thousands of extra shoppers into the city centre – each service carries 250 passengers – but also carries risks, he said. “The advantage to the first is that it would deliver a huge boost to traders but the risk is that if something goes wrong it would be right in the middle of the festive season,” he said.
“The second option is to launch in mid-January, and although you would miss the Christmas boost, it would be quiet and any problems could be ironed out. Clearly traders would be delighted at the first option.”
Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, which represents 600 traders said that he too had been assured of better than expected progress.
He said: “At the event I attended I asked the officials that, if construction work is completed on time and the safety certificate is granted, would the infrastructure be ready to go for Christmas, and I was told ‘yes’. It now looks as if going pre-Christmas might be an option, and if there is political will to do so and the safety certificate is signed off, then we may well see.”
He added: “If you think that shoppers from further afield would have the option, for example, to park at Ingliston Park and Ride, jump on a tram and avoid all the Christmas traffic, that’s a real incentive to come and shop here.”
Council leaders are believed to be nervous about setting a date in case of any delays. Shandwick Place is currently being relaid with fresh concrete after a fault was detected last month.
Gordon Henderson, for the Federation of Small Businesses, said that the impact of greater transport connections to the city centre could be a major boost to long-suffering traders. “It’s not just Christmas which would benefit. If you think of the impact it would have on Hogmanay, whether it was late services taking people home for example, that would be a great asset when it comes to marketing the city to visitors,” he said.
Full speed tests between completed sections of the route between Edinburgh Airport and the tram depot at Gogar have been running since late last year. However, some politicians highlighted the possibility of problems when testing the full route.
Joanna Mowat, a city centre councillor, cautioned against setting too early a start date.
“We can see the physical progress made in a way that we haven’t been able to before and that might lead to certain assumptions, but we really won’t know until September, when the launch date will be announced,” she said.
“There are a lot of imponderables. Testing may be completed quicker than expected, because mechanically a lot of the trams been tested on the ‘off-street’ airport stretch.
“However, we have never tested what we call the ‘on-street’ section and we need to be mindful of possible issues, such as what we found at Shandwick Place.”
Ms Hinds said: “In all our discussions with local businesses the council has never set a fixed date for the initiation of passenger services. We have always said that, come September, we will be able to update on the current progress of the tram project, including the timetable for beginning passenger services.”