Capital trams are on track at long last as council begins ‘charm offensive’

THE bell sounds and with a slight jolt the 60-tonne tram moves off. It will be two years before this is a common sight in the city centre but for now the tram inches its way along the track inside the Gogar depot.

Those invited for the sneak preview are among the first to get a taste of the future of transport in the Capital – but with the council on a “charm offensive” to rebuild faith in the controversial project they will not be the last.

It was revealed the council will be offering tours of the depot and short tram rides to interested parties – and is even thinking of opening pre-booked visits to the public.

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The experience may be short, but for a project that has 
dominated the headlines for all the wrong reasons it is still revealing.

Our journey takes the tram into the carwash-style cleaning shed, where it is given a “sidewash” before continuing along the track – at slightly higher speeds – around the stabling yard. It is hoped that the trams should be properly up and running between the city centre and the airport by 2014. And officials were quick to assure their guests that the grating noise they could hear as the tram took a bend would not be a feature of normal operation.

“It’s because we’re in the yard and the track hasn’t been lubricated,” said one. So far, there are 20 trams at the Gogar depot, with another seven due to arrive from Spain before the end of the year to complete the fleet. Only about half of them are needed to operate the curtailed route, but all of them will be used on a rota basis to keep them in running order.

“If they stand for too long a period, the wheels go flat and we have to grind them to make them smooth again,” an official explained.

The washing routine will depend on the weather and conditions, but it is expected each vehicle will be washed at least once a day. Each tram can carry 250 
people – more than double the capacity of a double-decker – though only 78 of them will get a seat. One tram official admits a full tram will feel “pretty cramped”, but says most people will be making short journeys so will not mind standing. There are also two reserved spaces for wheelchairs. The seats – dark blue with red trim – are comfortable with firm, supportive backs, while the surroundings on-board are suitably hi-tech given the cost, with visual displays and a recorded announcements to let passengers know the next stop, as well as another screen to carry general travel information.

In the cab, the controls are straightforward – a handle which the driver pushes forward to advance and pulls back to brake, a computer screen showing the route, a speedometer in kilometres per hour, buttons to press to change the points ahead, and a microphone to speak to control or make announcements to passengers. At each end of the dashboard is a split screen which shows images from CCTV cameras positioned outside as wing 

As well as the bell – to be used by the driver before he sets off from each stop and if he sees pedestrians straying too near the track – the trams are equipped with horns, which will normally only be used on the off-road sections of the route to alert workmen on the track.

The trams will travel at speeds of up to 45mph on the off-road sections, much slower in the city centre.

Each tram carries a store of sand which is released automatically onto the track when there is any wheelspin to provide more grip. Driver trainer Graeme Healy has now had plenty of experience driving trams within the depot and on the test track, but is looking forward to taking a tram onto the streets.

“We’re champing at the bit,” he says. “It’s really good to drive – very smooth, both braking and acceleration.”

But he says it is quite different from driving a bus.

“As a car driver you try to read the road so far ahead; as a bus driver you read the road further ahead; but as a tram driver you have to read the road a lot further ahead,” he says. “You have to anticipate what everyone is going to do.”

The Gogar depot also houses the control room, where banks of monitors linked to CCTV cameras at each tram stop will allow staff to keep an eye on the whole route. There are five desks in the control room, although only two controllers are expected to be on duty at any one time.

“This was built when we were going to have the full route,” explains an official.

Transport convener Lesley Hinds says her priority is to complete the project by the revised target of summer 2014 and within the revised budget of £776 million.

Councillor Hinds claims recent progress on the project – including tracks being laid in Princes Street and St Andrew Square and bridges being installed along the route – is helping to change public attitudes to the trams. “People are beginning to think there a visibility and the tram is coming,” she says.

“We can talk about the past but I want to focus on the future so we can get back the city’s reputation because I think it has damaged the city’s reputation.

Cllr Hinds had no new figures to chart the financial progress of the project, saying only there would be an update presented to councillors in the autumn. But she says she is confident they can deliver on the existing timetable – and she even talks of possible extensions to the initial route, fulfilling the original plan to run trams to Leith. She plans to set up a transport forum, bringing interested parties and community representatives, to discuss future plans.

“Hopefully that will look at the trams and Leith Walk, engaging with people to see how we plan that, whether they would be supportive of it,” she says.

To be agreed

With two years to go until the trams come into general use, there are still several issues to be resolved, including:

• Livery: The trams are currently white with red trim – all except for one, which was used for display on Princes Street a couple of years ago, and is decked out with the Edinburgh logo. No decision has yet been made on what the livery will be once trams start running.

• Fares: The working assumption is that fares will be the same as for the buses – and that concessions will apply – but no final decision has been made. Work is under way to integrate the ticketing system so people can switch from bus to tram and back again on the same ticket.

• Drivers/conductors: No decision has been made on whether trams should have conductors as well as drivers. One option is staff could be paired on a vehicle, one driving in the morning while the other acts as conductor, then swapping for the afternoon.