City's trams face long hard journey

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THE money is in the bag. After years of campaigning, pleading, demanding and just hoping, the Government has finally decided to fund the re-introduction of trams to Edinburgh, at the cost of a cool £375 million.

For this, the city will see a circular tram route running from Princes Street to Leith to the new development at the waterfront in Granton and then back to the city centre. The council is also hoping that the cash will fund the majority of a second line from Haymarket to Edinburgh Airport via South Gyle.

All of which is good news when it comes to helping cut congestion, as an estimated 11 million journeys will be made by tram every year once it’s up and running by 2009 - and the council hopes that will be 11 million journeys currently made by car.

So the Capital is finally set to join the six English cities which already have successful tram networks and which have seen passenger journeys on their trams increase by six per cent to 127.3 million - a near doubling of usage in six years.

But there’s still a long way to go before the first Edinburgh tram car hits the rails, so what can the city expect to happen between now and then?

First there’s the convoluted planning process, then massive public consultation, the Scottish Parliament will be involved, contracts will have to be awarded, there will be huge disruption to the roads as rails are laid, and then finally, after all that, a journey will be made by tram around the city.

But the council’s transport executive member Councillor Andrew Burns says it will be worth the wait. "One of the reasons it will take so long is because we want to get it right. We also don’t want to say it will be up and running by 2006 and then overshoot by three years and leave everyone disappointed. We are trying to be realistic about this because it is a very involved process.

"Having the money is just the start. Now we’ve got a very prescriptive planning process we need to go through which can’t be speeded up even if we wanted to. The council’s arms-length company Transport Initiatives Edinburgh is still in the process of drawing up the final routes of where we want the trams to run and where tram stops will be placed - there are no platforms being built, all the trams will be on-street pick-ups - so that all has to be finalised before going out to public consultation."

And at this point, probably in late May, he says the council is ready for the first potential backlash. "Everyone will think trams are wonderful until they discover one will run past their house every six minutes, which will happen in some cases," says Burns. "It will be a similar case to the flood prevention plan - everyone realises it’s a good idea, but no-one wants them in their area. We are expecting some objections at this point, but not major ones, although there will probably be a public inquiry."

The actual routes and stopping points do have serious implications for the city. Property prices along and near the tramways could rocket as they have done in other cities and in London around tube stations, while other developments and businesses are likely to spring up where they have easy access to the trams.

"The whole city development along tram lines will have to be managed very carefully, although we don’t expect any land problems as the route has been secured already," says Burns. "After that, there will have to be a Private Member’s Bill in the Scottish Parliament. This will be virgin territory for the parliament, but it will have to grant us a parliamentary order to enable us to do the work."

If all goes well, the council hopes to receive Royal Assent for the bill by autumn 2005, and by this point Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) - which is the first infrastructure development company set up by a council in the UK - will also hopefully be able to issue contracts to the companies who will carry out the work for the whole tram system.

Here again, Burns admits there could be problems. "By October 2006, we expect construction to begin, which is what the money from the Scottish Executive will cover. We have to be prepared for the inevitable criticism when roads are dug up. That’s why public consultation will be so important - as will getting it right first time. However, there are tram construction companies out there with experience in how to do all this with the minimal disruption.

"And long before that we will have to look at how the trams will actually operate, and we are already looking at examples from other cities as to how that’s happening. The last thing we want is overt competition between buses and trams, as that’s not beneficial to the passenger. Instead, we want co-operation, such as an integrated ticket for both bus and tram networks. To that end, there is the potential to have a conglomeration between an existing bus company and a company with experience in developing tram infrastructure to actually operate the trams.

"We are steering towards the Nottingham example, which will have an integrated bus and tram network."

Nottingham is the latest city to introduce trams and its 200m scheme will go live in November, 14 years after the idea of a tram network was first mooted.

Spokesman for Nottingham City Council, Stephan Richeux, says: "The political climate is now very different from when we first spoke about trams, so hopefully it won’t take Edinburgh as long to get there.

"We’ve gone down the Private Finance Initiative route. The council said it would like a tram network, and a conglomerate of businesses went to the bank to get the money to build the infrastructure. But after that it took until the early 1990s to get the scheme to any semblance of a plan.

"In 1994 we had to get an Act of Parliament allowing the council to have the powers to build a tram system. Then after that, until 1999, there were important, complex negotiations between the various parties in the public and private sectors."

Nottingham’s council is unconcerned about the fact that other PFI-funded tram systems such as Croydon, Birmingham and Manchester have all hit financial difficulties while being successful at getting passengers on board.

It was revealed last month that Manchester Metrolink failed to return accounts for the year 2001 and that the operating company Altram Manchester’s most recent accounts - dating back to December 31, 2000 - showed the company burdened with almost 77m of debt and with pre-tax losses of 3.9m.

Similarly, auditors refused to sign off the accounts of Midland Metro, the tram system that links Birmingham and Wolverhampton, and the company is trying to refinance itself after its accounts for the year to December 31, 2001, recorded a pre-tax loss of 11.4m on a turnover of 4.32m. And Tramtrack Croydon has admitted to pre-tax losses of almost 9.5m last year and that it "did not have sufficient funds to continue trading beyond March 25, 2003".

Richeux says: "We’ve done things differently. There’s no risk to the council financially, and the scheme doesn’t rely on operating profitability. Basically, if the tram operators meet their targets - getting bums on seats, running the trams to time and making them clean and efficient - we will pay them through government monies and that will service their debt."

Burns says Edinburgh is also determined not to make the same mistakes as other cities. "What’s happened in some English cities is there was over-projection of patronage and lack of management. We’re determined not to make those mistakes and to make sure the tram integrates with the rest of the public transport network."

Nottingham is expecting 11 million passenger journeys a year on its trams. Edinburgh expects 11.6 million - which admittedly is a drop in a congested ocean, as a total of 220 million passenger journeys are currently made in the city every year, either by car or bus.

Nottingham, though, has not looked at road tolls to supplement its transport plans. Instead, it is going to implement workplace parking levies, charging 150 a year to those who park outside their place of work in a bid to reduce congestion. However, Richeux says, if people continue to park, the council expects to raise 10m.

"It is a drop in the ocean," admits Burns. "But that’s why we have to leave the door open on other ways of tackling congestion, like road tolls."

According to Richeux, success lies in communication with the public. "We said from the start there would be disruption, but we managed to minimise it and, because we let people know what was happening, it’s been generally accepted in the city that it was handled successfully and hasn’t generated the sort of level of criticism as we might have expected it to or brought the city to a standstill."

Burns believes that in Edinburgh communication will be key, which is why public consultation is the first step.

"The whole scheme is ambitious and so is the timetable, but we think it’s realistic and achievable, and we will make it work."