EDINBURGH’s controversial trams could be up and running at least six months earlier than expected.
Behind-the-scenes talks are taking place to try to allow passengers on board the first services by the end of next year, sources close to the project have revealed.
An improved rate of progress since a long-running dispute with contractors was settled a year ago has raised hopes of an earlier-than-scheduled completion of the project’s curtailed route from Edinburgh airport to the city centre.
Under the current timetable, the city’s £776 million system was not due to be operational until July 2014 at the earliest.
But it is understood so much progress has been made since the contractual dispute ended that the timetable is about to be brought forward.
Gordon Henderson, the development manager of the Federation of Small Businesses in Edinburgh, said: “We’ve been told that all the disruption should be over by Christmas next year.”
A full update is due to be provided to councillors later this month, and it will include details of the first test runs of trams between the airport and the depot that has been completed at Gogarburn on the outskirts of the city.
The Scotsman understands the council will also reveal more than £630m has been spent on the project to date – compared with £500m a year ago.
Insiders say the talks with contractors might lead to them agreeing to finish the project well before the deadline, which is listed in the official programme as the third quarter of 2014.
Senior councillors in the joint Labour-SNP administration are wary about announcing an earlier completion date until much nearer the time in case the timetable slips again.
However, business leaders have told The Scotsman the council is hopeful the first trams may be able to start running into the city centre in time for the 2013-14 festive season.
Edinburgh city council transport leader Lesley Hinds said: “Our officials are working on a report on the tram project which will be published later this month and I have had some briefings ahead of that happening. I am expecting an update on both the budget and the timetable to be part of the report.
“If there is any possibility at all of bringing forward the finish date to the project, then we will be striving to see if that can be delivered.”
She added: “I would be very shocked if there is any delay until after 2014 from where we are now, as I have been at weekly progress meetings on the project, and there has been no question of any problems in the last few months.”
One option understood to be under consideration is running the first phase between the airport and the Haymarket area. It is thought test runs to Haymarket could be possible by the spring or summer of next year, raising the prospect of passengers being allowed on board within the year.
Mr Henderson said: “This does sound like excellent news. I’m no engineer, but there does appear to have been huge progress made along the route they have been building on over the last year.
“If all the test runs are successful, there doesn’t seem any reason not to allow people on to the trams a lot earlier.
He added: “We’ve been crying out for a bit of good news. It would be the first the businesses in the city centre have had about the tram project.”
One retailer, who asked not to be identified, said: “The council is having to be extremely cautious because of its relationship with the contractors, as an earlier finish date would have to be agreed with them and any speculation weakens the council’s position.
“But all the indications we’ve been given is the council has been pushing hard to hit a much earlier deadline.
“We’ve been told the pain at the moment may be worth it if it means a much earlier start date.”
Another business representative said: “We’ve been told there is no question of a further delay and that every effort is being made for an earlier finish.
“The council doesn’t want to give an actual date at the moment, in case there are unforeseen problems, but we’ve been told it could be at least six months early if there are no severe weather problems over the winter.
“There is a lot of work still going on between the airport and the city centre, but you only have to look around to see the extent of the progress that has been made in the space of the past year.”
Talks are also to get under way over possible extensions to the airport-city centre route, although these are not expected to be delivered until after 2017.
Council leader Andrew Burns declined to comment on what he described as “pure speculation” ahead of the report’s publication.
The tram project was originally awarded £375m from the then Scottish Executive in 2003 and two initial lines were supposed to be finished five years later.
By 2008, when the overall budget had leapt to £545m and a final contract was signed off, it was thought the council had only enough funding to pay for an initial line, from the airport to Newhaven.