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Trams on track to be Edinburgh success story

After all the significant delays in getting them up and running, the devastation of many small businesses during the extended building process, the on-going disputes between the key contractor and Edinburgh City Council and the escalating price tag which finally peaked at around £775m, the trams project for Scotland's capital city now has cause for quiet celebration.

Gavin Maclean
Gavin Maclean

Figures released last week showed how that an average of 90,000 passenger trips have taken place each week since the service launched on May 31. While the tram still has its doubters, the initial stats are encouraging. According to one transport expert questioned about last week's figures, the 90,000 average weekly figure is similar to that enjoyed by other tram systems such as Sheffield and Manchester in their opening weeks. What could be further positive news for Edinburgh is that the overall trend has been an upwards rise in passenger numbers since tram and light rail services began to reappear in these and other English cities.

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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 delivered well 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.

Despite the controversy that ensued, there were some sound reasons for embarking on this project in Edinburgh. The city's current population of around 486,600 is forecast to rise by more than 55,000 people by 2030, creating a 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 this is the only 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. The UK Government was so impressed by the prospect of these benefits that it 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.

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.

Of course, we are just beginning a new chapter in terms of tram transport in Edinburgh but there are encouraging signs. The first phase is expected to generate benefits of around £1.77 per £1 of cost and although that figure is likely to 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. 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.

While the initial figures are good, there is still a job to be done to convince the people of Edinburgh that the trams really can be a success. A survey conducted last summer found that 48 per cent of residents did not believe the trams would bring economic benefits to the city while 59 per cent felt the project would not benefit commuters.

It won't be easy to forget the chequered history of this project but a continued rise from the initial positive passenger numbers which were reported last week will help. As we have seen from the impact they've made in a number of English cities, trams could ultimately become an important asset 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

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