Edinburgh trams: End of road chaos in sight

York Place is set to be complete by September. Picture: Greg Macvean
York Place is set to be complete by September. Picture: Greg Macvean
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AN awesome foursome of tram project milestones are to be completed this year – in a major signal the much maligned building project is finally drawing to an end.

For years the Capital has been blighted by seemingly never ending diversions and construction works.

But the completion of the first of four key landmark stages yesterday marked a major turning point in the project – with the other three major city centre sites now expected to be work-free within months. Transport convener Councillor Lesley Hinds is delighted. She said: “What I’m pleased about is that we are beginning to clear the streets and people are seeing visible evidence that a tram is going to be coming into the city. I’m pleased that it’s moving quicker than I first anticipated.”

Yesterday’s breakthrough came when the work barriers were lifted at St Andrew Square. Years of road, track and utility works at the central square on the east end of George Street have caused huge disruption.

But allowing vehicles to drive around the location unhindered for the first time since 2008 marked a significant milestone for the eight mile tram route – one which has been long blighted by overrunning costs, construction delays and contract wrangles resulting in the expected final cost blowing out to £776 million.

And long-suffering businesses and commuters have more light on the horizon, with works at trouble spots Haymarket junction, Shandwick Place and York Place on track to be finished by year’s end.

All road and track works, including resurfacing, are on target to be finished at Shandwick Place and Haymarket by June – up to three months ahead of the revised schedule. York Place – the first stop on the route ending at Edinburgh Airport – will be the final major central junction to be completed.

Overhead and underground cabling still needs to be installed at all three busy sites, meaning some work barriers will remain in place at Shandwick Place and Haymarket throughout the summer.

But in a major first, city transport convener Councillor Lesley Hinds revealed her target was to have Edinburgh’s streets clear of all tram-related works by September.

She said: “We’re trying to get the street as clear as possible to allow more access in terms of people being able to get back into the area. In terms of vehicles, we’ll have a clearer picture in the next few weeks. Obviously the quicker the better.

“What we’re looking for is by September at the latest, we’ll be telling people when the trams will be functional. What we are looking for is the contractors finished by around September.”

City officials have maintained a start for the network of summer next year, having flagged a six-month testing phase along the entire route once line works are complete. But that conservative estimate would still result in the line being operational next March on Cllr Hinds’ forecast timetable.

St Andrew Square was only designated a public space in 2008 after being locked for more than two centuries. But the £2.6m facelift that marked the leafy space’s opening to the public coincided with the start of Edinburgh’s troubled tram project, with surrounding streets soon after being caged off for utility diversions.

Unseasonably freezing conditions had delayed the re-opening by several weeks, preventing contractors from carrying out some concrete and joint sealing work. But yesterday’s landmark has now restored the square to glory.

Traffic arrangements have reverted to the former layout, with vehicles able to drive around the square in a clockwise direction.

Access from the north side has been reinstated via North St David Street, with an exit from the square’s south side.

Transport minister Keith Brown said: “I congratulate everyone involved. However, no-one is getting carried away and it’s important to build on this momentum as we enter a crucial period for the city.

“Work continues apace at several other key sites and we know that further disruption is inevitable as the programme of cable installation approaches.

“We remain committed to ensuring there are no further delays, that any opportunity to increase progress is exploited and that costs are contained within the revised target.”

The trams were originally intended to run from Edinburgh Airport to Newhaven in the north for £545m before technical problems and a long-running dispute between the council and its contractor ground the project to a halt.

Green group leader Councillor Steve Burgess said: “The problem is originally the system was going to be much larger and at much less cost.

“Yes, in principle I’m supportive of having trams in Edinburgh. I just wish that it was going to be not just what we see as an airport link.

“The usefulness of that to people of the city is questionable whereas the original scheme was to have at least to the airport and then that linked up by Granton to Haymarket and then there was talk of even a third tram line towards the Royal Infirmary.

“We just wish that it was a system that met the needs of residents and also that wasn’t over budget by half as much again. We have to remember the history of this thing.”

The practical operation of Shandwick Place remains one of final unknowns two months out from the completion of road and track works.

Cars will be banned from the West End location from 7am-8pm daily to make way for the operation of the new tram line under regulations agreed to by city council planners.

The stretch of road will be limited to the use of trams, buses, bicycles and taxis during the day, with heavy goods vehicles and general traffic allowed on Shandwick Place at night.

However, Conservative transport spokeswoman Joanna Mowat said people still remained in the dark about how traffic would be managed around Shandwick Place.

She said: “I have to say the previous administration of the council never properly engaged with residents at the West End and their concerns, so we’re left with this failure of trust.

“Part of TRO1 [traffic regulation order one] closed Shandwick Place to cars, but we’ve never had the final illustration of exactly what that’s going to look like. People are asking how that junction at Queensferry Street and Lothian Road and West End is going to look – I know that complication is ongoing.”

The council has confirmed to the Evening News that traffic-light controlled junctions and potential “bus gates” are planned for either end of Shandwick Place to restrict traffic flow.

Car access between Athol and Coates Crescents will be maintained, with traffic able to reach Stafford Street via Coates Crescent.

But West End resident Dr Ashley Lloyd, who took claims to the United Nations of rising pollution levels linked to the trams project, said there would still be knock-on traffic issues to address with Shandwick Place closed to general traffic.

The Edinburgh University senior lecturer said: “With vehicles coming in from the west, you just have to ask yourself where they’re going to go. As soon as they get towards Haymarket they’re going to find themselves in a position where ultimately they will be forced to turn onto Palmerston Place. There’s no option.

“Their destination, remember, is the centre of Edinburgh. What they’re being forced to do is go north and be filtered through the north-west residential streets. What in effect is happening here is that for 24/7 the only unrestricted route for general traffic – and that’s all traffic, buses, taxis etc – are residential streets. The main commercial streets, which were built and intended to carry traffic, are being closed”

Reopening comes too late for businesses

THE re-opening of Shandwick Place within months has come too late for some businesses caught up in on-off disruptions stretching across four years.

Au Bar was forced to file a notice of insolvency in January, citing the trams as the cause of the closure.

Sweet shop Sugacane also closed early last year while the Hudson Hotel was put up for sale in 2010, with agents Jones Lang LaSalle claiming the business had lost £200,000 because of the works.

However, three major supermarkets have jumped at the chance to reap the eventual benefits of the tram route.

Sainsbury’s opened a new flagship store in the former Habitat building on Shandwick Place in November last year, explaining the trams would be a “great attraction” with the store so close to the location’s stop. A metro-style Morrisons is taking over the premises of Jessops camera shop, with Tesco to open a new branch at the West End of Princes Street this summer.