SIGHS of relief tempered with a suspension of disbelief brought the great Edinburgh tram saga to a close yesterday.

At 5am, as dawn broke and most of the capital's denizens dozed, the first tram with paying members of the public on board left Gyle Central in the west of the city en route to its destination at York Place in the New Town.

Among the early birds were Wendy Armstrong and Kelly Vaughan, both of whom were suitably impressed. "I dragged her here," said Armstrong of her friend. "I thought we might be the only two."

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At York Place, a crowd gathered to await the next tram. As it hove into view Douglas Connell, an Edinburgh lawyer, prepared to re-embark, video camera at the ready. "I've been one of the biggest sceptics," he said, "but it's been a great experience."

The route, which takes a little less than half an hour to travel, is the culmination of a 15-year saga. In that time, £775 million and more has drained from the public purse, businesses have gone bust, heads have rolled, lawyers and consultants have filled their pockets, and Edinburgh's - and Scotland's - reputation has taken an almighty bashing.

So bad did things get that it prompted Ron Butlin, Edinburgh's Makar, to protest:

I'm scunnered wi gaitherin stour an decay,

wi blocking up Princes Street, wastin away

- gang naewhere, daein nowt, nae staps an

nae route,

whiles wunnering whit bein a tram's

aa aboot.

For the moment, however, those currently in charge of running the trams may be forgiven for thinking the Rubicon has at last been crossed. Councillors and officials have spent long years trying to avoid brickbats in the face of what one commentator dubbed "tramophobia".

While elated, Lesley Hinds, convener of Edinburgh's Transport, Infrastructure and Environment Committee which oversees the operation of the trams, is in no mood to airbrush the past.

"It did take longer than expected," she says, "and it cost more than expected, and it did upset many businesses. Some areas suffered more than others, especially around Shandwick Place. I hope now businesses will begin to flourish. But you cannot underestimate how bad this has been for the reputation of the city."

The trams run for just nine miles, starting at Edinburgh airport and calling at 16 stations, including Edinburgh Park, Murrayfield stadium, Haymarket, Princes Street and St Andrew Square, before terminating at York Place. The 17 trams will run all day, no more than 10 minutes apart. Journeys within the city and outwith the "airport zone" cost £1.50; a journey to the airport is £5, £1 more than the airport bus.

The trams are run by Transport For Edinburgh, which also runs Lothian Buses. Its board includes councillors, transport executives and experts, all of whom are painfully aware they are under harsh scrutiny. Its chief executive - or "heid tram-bam" as one anti-tram blogger describes him - is Ian Craig, on an annual salary of £269,000 - almost double that of the First Minister.

His task is to integrate Edinburgh's transport and at the same time convince the population the cost and disruption have been worth it.

What is not in dispute is that the nation's capital looks and feels physically different. Princes Street now has tram lines, overhead cables and swish stopping places. As trams approach and depart a bell sounds, which some find irritating and others musical: Edinburgh is never the easiest of cities in which to find consensus.

What still perplexes many people is whether the city actually needs trams. Certainly, it is peculiarly well served by buses. Lothian Buses is the only municipal bus firm in Scotland and the largest municipal bus company in the UK. It has a fleet of over 720 buses with an "annual ridership" in excess of 115 million.

Buses are generally frequent, clean and, rush-hours excepted, relatively uncrowded. Moreover, they go to places where people live and shop. The same cannot be said of the trams, which many locals believe are an expensive affectation just to impress tourists.

But Edinburghers were bereft when trams stopped running in 1956. Throughout their last week a decorated tramcar ran on the last remaining route, with special tickets.

Crowds of 100,000 lined the route for the last run from Morningside Station to Shrubhill depot. The event was broadcast live by the BBC and tears were shed, perhaps presciently, given the pain bringing back trams has provoked.

William Ward from Glasgow can remember the running of the last Edinburgh tram and he was along for the ride in the capital yesterday. A pensioner, he was under the illusion he could travel for free. Alas, this is an option open only to Edinburgh residents.

By the time the tram service ended, Edinburgh had had trams for 85 years. Indeed, by the last decade of the 19th century it had a cable tramway system 36 miles long. In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, it had 27 electric tramway services operating over 47 miles.

It was the war and the proliferation of buses that did it for the trams. With money scarce, maintenance had gone by the wayside. At war's end, it was reckoned overhauling and modernising the system would have cost £8m. A conversion to buses over five years was estimated to cost £2m. So, in 1952, the Edinburgh Corporation resolved "the tramway system should be abandoned completely and replaced by motor buses".

And that, it was thought, was that. Up came the lines and a tramcar was placed in the Transport Department's museum, along with a horse bus, where it was believed to belong. No-one then could have imagined half a century later there would be a renewed clamour for trams.

Trying to identify the source of the idea for their reintroduction, the journalist George Rosie named Professor Lewis Lesley, professor of transport science at John Moore's University in Liverpool.

"At the beginning of November 1998," wrote Rosie in the Scottish Review of Books, "Lesley was in Edinburgh to try to persuade the council that what the city needed was a tramline running from Haymarket to Newhaven … It seemed a good enough idea for the council's Transportation Committee to scrape together £75,000 from various sources to ask the Edinburgh consultancy DTZ Pieda for a 'technical and financial assessment' of Lesley's scheme."

Though Lesley was soon out of the picture, his proposal took root. With Leith on its way to yuppification and the regeneration of the waterfront, the feeling grew that the best way to link the north side with the centre of the city was by tram. In 2002, Transport Initiative Edinburgh Ltd (TIE) - a wholly-owned, arm's-length company - was set up by the City of Edinburgh Council and supported by the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at Holyrood, and the trams project was given the go-ahead.

In the years since it has come to dominate debate in Edinburgh in a manner similar to the building of the Holyrood parliament. Inevitably, costs escalated. There were disputes between the German contractor Bilfinger Berger and the clients. Resigning as chairman, David Mackay described what he was leaving as "Hell on wheels."

The new SNP Government was not in favour of the trams. Finance Secretary John Swinney was inclined to pull the plug but was told to do so would cost £35m on top of almost £80m already spent. It was put to a Holyrood vote and the opposition clubbed together to defeat the government. There would be no stopping the trams. But one delay followed another. Work stopped and started until Edinburghers got used to seeing the city looking like a tip.

Meanwhile, routes were severely curtailed to contain costs. Plans for trams to Leith or Granton were pulled, to the disgust of those whose businesses had taken a battering. That it had once been mooted to take the trams as far south as the Royal Infirmary at Little France or westwards towards Queensferry seemed like a pipe dream.

In the morning sunlight yesterday, however, Edinburgh felt different. "Cool" might be the best word to describe it. On the buses, no-one talks to anyone. But on the trams pioneer passengers were eager to communicate their enthusiasm in a long-overdue outbreak of tramophilia.

And bad memories, like bad smells sometimes evaporate. Lesley Hinds says it is time to take stock. A report is due to be put before the council by the end of this year. There are, Hinds notes, rails aplenty in storage and paid for and "enough trams to take us as far as Newhaven". Some folk are gluttons for punishment.