THERE was no ribbon cutting, plaque unveiling or cake slicing - the official launch of Edinburgh’s £776 million tram line was marked today with a low-key run to the airport and back.
The curtain-raiser for tomorrow’s long-awaited public launch of the system featured little more than a group photograph and an acapella vocal group to welcome the tram back to St Andrew Square.
City council officials will have been happy just to breathe a sigh of relief the event passed off smoothly after the project’s past turmoil - while keeping fingers crossed that all will go equally well when passenger services starts at 5am - just hours away.
The nine-mile route runs between the airport and York Place, off St Andrew Square in the city centre, but its completion has come three years late and hundreds of millions of pounds over budget.
City council leader Andrew Burns and transport convener Lesley Hinds were joined by anti-tram transport minister Keith Brown for the inaugural journey. But while they posed for pictures together, the Labour councillors and SNP minister remained poles apart over the return of trams to Edinburgh after 58 years.
While Ms Hinds was optimistic the system will expand in due course, Mr Brown simply repeated the Scottish Government’s seven-year-old “not a penny more” mantra. The reference to ministers grudgingly honouring their predecessors’ £500m tram funding was also used by Mr Brown to stress there would be no further cash for more lines.
Ms Hinds said: “There seems to be a growing positivity in the city about the start of a brand new transport service.” Mr Brown said: “We have no intention of promoting further extensions of the tram network.”
Joining the politicians on the trip were two veteran tram passengers who had travelled on Edinburgh’s last service as schoolboys before the run-down system shut in 1956.
One of them, Alastair Byres, 66, said the buses in those days had been warmer and more comfortable than the cold, “rickerty” trams - but he said it was hard to compare the new trams with today’s buses.
Trams will run between 5am and around 11:30pm, every eight to ten minutes, and 12-15 minutes on Sundays. Fares for all journeys except those to the airport are the same as for Lothian Buses - £1.50 single and £3.50 for a day ticket, which can be used on both trams and buses.
The project has cost far more and taken far longer to finish than planned because of a major dispute between the council and its building contractors, and problems with moving underground pipes and cables from the tram route.
Fans in town for tram launch
TRAM fans will flock to Edinburgh tomorrow from at least as far as Berlin to sample the capital’s first fare-paying services for nearly 60 years.
German publisher Robert Schwandl will be among aficionados boarding the inaugural trams as the long-delayed project finally starts to recoup its £776 million cost.
Dawn will have barely broken over the Gyle shopping centre when an unknown number of the most eager passengers gather expectantly for the 5am departure to York Place.
Their enthusiasm is likely to gladden the hearts of city council officials who have endured the – some say self-inflicted –construction nightmare that has beset the capital.
But if there are glowing smiles aboard the first tram, the acid test for the scheme will come later in the day when more sceptical passengers take to the rails to pass their own verdict.
Mr Schwandl said he had been anticipating his visit for some time, as it would enable him to complete a new book on British trams.
He told The Scotsman: “It is a good excuse for a trip to Edinburgh, and we’ve been waiting for a long time to see this open.
“For 2015, I’m planning a Tram Atlas British Isles, and apart from important extensions still under way in Birmingham and Nottingham, Edinburgh’s tram has always been the one I had to wait for anyway before publishing such a book.
“I hope the weather will be fine for some nice photos.”
However, with the air of a tram purist, Mr Schwandl added that he would bide his time to avoid having to squeeze on to the first service.
He said: “I’m not too eager to be on the very first tram, which is usually packed with people who otherwise never take a tram, and not very enjoyable, so I would rather wait for a more relaxed ride.”
Less bothered by the likely crush is Vic Simons, a former British Rail manager, who is coming from St Albans in Hertfordshire for the occasion.
Mr Simons will be staying in a nearby hotel before getting a taxi to the Gyle for the first run.
He said: “It’s a big deal – the last new tram system was in Nottingham ten years ago.
“Edinburgh people will take to it and want extra lines, especially to Leith.”
Mr Simons, 68, who is also a director of tram campaigners the Light Rail Transit Association, said he had been bitten by the tram bug as a six-year-old in London.
He said: “I remember the feel of being on rails, but on a street, and gliding along while the rest of the traffic was much slower.”
Closer to home, Edinburgh solicitor Andrew Boyd, 66, plans to join the 5am queue to make amends for missing the city’s last tram in 1956.
He said: “It will be a historic occasion after all the troubles the project has experienced in the course of its construction.
“I travelled quite a lot on the old trams as a small boy, but they were not sleek and the track was not very well maintained.
“I will be making good an omission not to have travelled on the last one.”
Fellow Edinburgh resident Paul Tetlaw, 64, who is also planning to take the first tram, said he would be using the service regularly.
Mr Tetlaw, who is a director of public transport group Transform Scotland, said: “There will be interest from around the world and it will be the beginning of a change of public attitude towards the trams – people will grow to love them.”
However, one man who says he will not be on the first – or indeed any – Edinburgh tram is Alan Rudland, a former chairman of the Leith Business Association.
He said: “I could not enjoy a journey on the tram without thinking of the misery their installation has caused to me, and other small business owners like me.
“The tram does not go from where I live and does not go to where I require to be.
“If going to the airport, I would not choose to travel first to the tram to then take it in a composite journey, risking a missed flight.”