Edinburgh’s trams will be carrying passengers by May next year, the city council has announced, with testing along the full line under way by early December.
All works associated with the project will also be cleared from the streets for the first time in six years by 19 October, the local authority said.
The May launch date is around two months earlier than a revised timetable but more than three years over the original February 2011 target.
Lesley Hinds, the city’s transport leader, said that it was hoped that the May launch date could be brought forward if testing is swifter than expected.
She said: “I’m very keen for it to be finished even earlier if possible.”
The clearing of roadworks and testing along the full route will come as a relief to motorists facing ongoing disruption and traders, particularly in the city’s West End, who have lost earnings.
However, as recently as late June, tram officials had briefed senior business leaders on the possibility that passenger services could be running by Christmas, while former project consultant Vic Emery and others predicted full tests were expected to be running this month.
Delays are believed to have been caused in part by the problems in the Shandwick Place area of the West End, with concrete having to be relaid on several occasions.
Ms Hinds said that the May launch date would be met and brought forward if possible.
“I’ve asked that all of these timeframes are reassessed at the beginning of next year so that any further gains in progress can be factored in to our plans,” she said.
“Our target for launch is now May 2014 but we’ll bring this forward if we can and we’ll announce a start date for the tram service when we’re 100 per cent sure,” Ms Hinds added.
“There’s a major testing, commissioning and driver training programme to be done, work to be done on tram stops and, of course, a Scottish winter to get through.”
The project has faced several major setbacks including a long-running dispute between the council and the main contractor, Bilfinger.
It was originally intended that trams would run from Edinburgh Airport to Newhaven in the north for £545 million but they will now terminate at York Place at the east end of the city centre and cost £776m.
Around 150 empty tram services will be checked every day during the testing phase.
Completion of the works between Haymarket and Shandwick Place means most city centre infrastructure is now in place.
Operators will make sure businesses, residents and commuters on the route know what to expect, according to the council, and they will start a city-wide safety and awareness campaign before December.
Keith Brown, Scotland’s transport minister, said: “This is good news for people and business in Edinburgh and we are all looking forward to a city centre free of major disruption ahead of the busy Christmas period.”
Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, added: “Trams will offer those arriving in Edinburgh an efficient, consistent and modern way to access the capital.
“Not only that, but when the links with our national rail network at Haymarket, Edinburgh Park and, importantly, Gogar are complete, it will provide real integration and slash journey times across Scotland.”
John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, said: “We welcome the good news that the city centre will be clear of tram disruption ahead of the busy festive period and launch of Edinburgh’s Winter Festival celebrations in November.”
Lothian Buses, the publicly owned transport firm which will run the line, under the operating name Edinburgh Trams, is currently hiring the final four of its 47 drivers – positions for which about 860 people have applied.
It is also hiring 52 ticket staff who will be on board each service.
Ian Craig, CEO of Lothian Buses, told The Scotsman: “We’re looking for enthusiastic, fun, energetic and customer-focused individuals with great interpersonal skills.”