Comment: turning Edinburgh tram pain into positive

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SO they are finally coming. In 2014, for the first time in more than five decades, trams will run through the city centre of the Scottish capital. While it’s not quite the multi-phase development we were initially presented with we will have a functioning service all the same.

The escalating price tag which finally peaked at around £775m, the devastation of many local businesses whose trade plummeted during the protracted building process and the disputes between the key contractor and Edinburgh City Council are all sore points which must not be forgotten but now that trams are about to start running, we need to change the focus on how we make this investment work for the city’s future.

Edinburgh tram testing at Haymarket.   Picture: Ian Rutherford

Edinburgh tram testing at Haymarket. Picture: Ian Rutherford

There were, of course, some sound reasons for embarking on this project. Firstly, the city’s population of around 486,600 is growing and forecast to rise by more than 55,000 people by 2030 creating a real need for additional public transport provision.

While there were other options that could have been considered, research from other tram and light rail projects throughout Europe has shown that they provide the only public transport medium which impacts on private car usage.

A 2013 UK Government report into light rail, trams and other rapid transit systems also highlighted the significant contribution these modes of transport made in improving the attractiveness and quality of public transport in major conurbations in England while promoting local economic growth and reducing carbon emissions.

Indeed the UK Government is so impressed by the benefits of trams and light rail that it has committed additional funding for a number of projects including the refurbishment of the Tyne & Wear Metro; extensions to the Manchester Metrolink and the development of phase two for the Nottingham Express Transit.

Tram use

While the congestion issue may be more acute south of the border, there are encouraging signs in terms of passenger usage on tram and light rail facilities which could also give heart to the future progress of Edinburgh’s new service. The overall trend has been an upwards rise in passenger numbers since tram and light rail services began to reappear in English cities from 1983.

The Manchester Metro recorded 11m annual passenger journeys in its first year in 1994/95 and has grown to over 19m passengers today. While this did coincide with the addition of phase 2 to the service, it is delivered beyond the further 3m annual

passenger journeys that were forecast from this extension.

Meanwhile the Sheffield Supertram usage has grown from its first year of operations in 1995/96 with 6.6m passenger journeys to around 15m annual trips last year.

The National Audit Office also examined the impact of trams and light rail on regeneration concluding that it has brought improvements to many previously socially deprived areas. Manchester Metrolink, for example, has helped to regenerate the Salford Quays and Eccles areas while the Croydon Tramlink helped attract inward investment to Croydon and brought good transport links to relatively socially deprived areas such as the New Addington area of the borough.

A study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research for the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive indicated that Midland Metro expansion would create around 15,000 jobs and add nearly half a billion pounds to the West Midlands economy. Meanwhile, it has been estimated that phase 2 of the Nottingham trams project will bring a £1bn boost to the local economy and create 10,000 jobs through local community regeneration.

Of course, we are just about to begin a new chapter in terms of transport in Edinburgh but there are encouraging signs. The first phase was expected to generate benefits of around £1.77 per £1 of cost and although that will likely fall due

to the escalation project costs, we should expect to see a decent return on initial investment. We are possibly also seeing a trams-led premium in property values with six deals worth around £100 million signed on Princes Street at the end of last year.

North Edinburgh

Phase 2 of Edinburgh Trams, if it does go ahead, could deliver an even greater return as it would coincide with regeneration of some deprived communities in the north of the city.

One of the biggest challenges will be convincing the people of Edinburgh that the tram really can be a success. A survey conducted last summer highlighted the local skepticism that has understandably arisen on the back of the troubled history of this project. Nearly half of those questioned – 48 per cent – did not believe the trams would bring economic benefits to the city while 59 per cent felt the project would not benefit commuters.

While it won’t be easy to forget the chequered history of this project, it is important for Edinburgh to look forward and focus on how we can replicate some of the success that has resulted from tram and light rail projects in England. We must

ensure that all the controversy and pain can be turned into something positive for the future development of Scotland’s capital.

• Gavin Maclean is a Partner and the Head of Retail and Leisure at legal firm Davidson Chalmers