If you had said to me three years ago that by this time in 2014 trams would already have become part of the fabric of Edinburgh life, with thousands upon thousands of passenger trips made by tram every week, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
It’s been a very difficult journey to get us to this point, and we don’t and shouldn’t underestimate the damaging impact the project’s tribulations had on businesses and indeed on the image and reputation of this great capital.
When I took up office as transport convener in May 2012, I pledged to do everything in my power to ensure that we got the tram project delivered in line with the revised schedule and revised budget.
This was also the express goal of City of Edinburgh Council chief executive Sue Bruce, who has overseen an incredible team effort between the council, the project contractors, Edinburgh Trams, Lothian Buses and new over-arching body Transport for Edinburgh.
I’m proud to say that with all party support, we really took this project by the scruff of the neck and drove it forward so that we were ready to start taking passengers by 31 May, ahead of the revised schedule of summer 2014.
That first weekend of Edinburgh Trams’ operational service got things off to a very encouraging start. More than 40,000 passenger journeys were made and Twitter came alive with excited tweets and “on tram selfie” photographs as people sought to record their first experience riding a tram through the city’s streets and out to Edinburgh Airport.
While there’s no doubt many of these inaugural trips – 130,000 in the first week alone – were made largely for their own sake and to sate people’s curiosity, even at 5:30am on that very first day there were quite a few people using the tram as a means of getting from A to B, such as Seamus Kealey heading from York Place to the airport to fly to Belfast for the Derry Marathon.
As well as enthusing about the trams’ smooth, comfortable ride and sleek, modern look, I was delighted to see how many of the tweeters wanted to get across their admiration for the Edinburgh Trams staff, who are a real credit to the company.
I know from speaking to one ticketing services assistant that first weekend how much she and all her colleagues were relishing putting all their hard work and training into practice, meeting members of the public and helping them to learn the ins and outs of this new public transport system.
After so much disruption and so many disappointing delays these past few years, the positive and upbeat mood which greeted the trams’ launch made it feel almost as if the city had breathed a collective sigh of relief that things had finally turned a corner and we could all start looking forward.
Having Edinburgh Trams and Lothian Buses run by Transport for Edinburgh makes a lot of sense – it allows us to develop a truly integrated public transport system for the capital. With bus passengers recently voting Lothian Buses the best bus company in the whole of the UK, I’m sure that we’ll see similar feedback in due course for the trams and that people will come to love them as much as they do the buses.
Starting to take passengers doesn’t mean we can sit back and relax entirely, though – far from it. These are the very early days of a brand new transport system and it inevitably needs time to bed in.
The council and Edinburgh Trams will jointly be monitoring things very closely to make sure the system is performing as best it can and you may still see contractors out and about along the route, checking and double-checking the infrastructure and picking up on and resolving any issues.
Thriving cities know that to continue to flourish, it’s vital to invest in excellent transport links. The experience of cities such as Dublin, Croydon and Manchester among others proves that trams are a boon to the local economy and already we’ve seen the “tram effect” in action at Edinburgh Park and the securing of the £850m St James Quarter development.
The capital already outstrips the rest of Scotland in having more people using public transport to get to and from work, as well as walking and cycling, and the advent of the trams has been a very important milestone in our vision of a truly integrated public transport system for Edinburgh.
In just a few weeks’ time, Edinburgh’s busy summer festivals period will be upon us and we’ll once again welcome the world to Scotland’s capital. I have no doubt this will give Edinburgh Trams their best opportunity yet to demonstrate their appeal and we’re all looking forward to seeing trams come into their own as the newest kid on the transport block in Edinburgh.
• Councillor Lesley Hinds is convener of Transport and Environment and chair of Transport for Edinburgh www.edinburgh.gov.uk