Edinburgh tram line project managers Turner & Townsend reveal "monkey on shoulder" to complete Newhaven extension after previous fiasco
"We always had the monkey on our shoulder of the previous project,” the firm that managed the construction of the Newhaven tram extension has revealed, as final preparations were made for the three-mile route's public launch on Wednesday.
The comment from Turner & Townsend Scotland infrastructure lead Steve Jackson reflects the pressure on the project managers, which oversaw the £207 million scheme on time and budget, in stark contrast to the fiasco over Edinburgh’s original tram line. That inaugural line opened three years late in 2014 and went hundreds of millions of pounds over budget.
From noon, passengers will be able to travel on the new section of the route, which extends the eight-mile Edinburgh Airport-city centre line east from Picardy Place near the Playhouse along Leith Walk and past the Ocean Terminal shopping centre to the Forth.
Much of the route will follow Edinburgh’s first tram line, between Leith and Haymarket, which opened in 1871 and closed with the rest of the system in 1956.
Unlike on much of the rest of the route, trams on the extension will run in mixed traffic, giving it more of a European feel, where trams have been the norm on many cities’ streets for decades. Tram lines occupy one of the two lanes in each direction in Leith Walk, where pavements have been widened and cycle lanes added.
In Leith, the line affords fine views of visiting shipping in the port on the Ocean Drive section past Albert Dock, which also passes the former Northern Lighthouse Board ship Fingal, which is now a floating luxury hotel.
Trams will run up to every seven minutes from 6am to midnight, seven days a week. The first tram leaves Newhaven at 5.20am and the last at 11.50pm. The first trams to Newhaven leave Princes Street at 4.47am and the airport at 6.26am, with the last one leaving the airport at 10.48pm.
Project managers Turner & Townsend had previously been drafted in at the tail end of the original tram line contract as part of a “recovery project” during mediation to settle a bitter dispute between council tram firm Tie and the tram line construction consortium, which led to delays and major budget increases.
Mr Jackson said lessons learned there had been used for the extension. He told The Scotsman: “During construction and delivery of this project, we have always had the monkey on our shoulder of the previous project.
"It’s been a bit of a weight, but it has made us react in a pretty good way as a team in terms of how we’ve delivered this project. We used it in a positive way."
He added: “We have had the impact of the pandemic to deal with and inflationary pressures, and availability of materials and labour – that has been a significant challenge, which we have mitigated as much as we can by re-phasing the work.” As a result, some street work will not be complete for about six weeks.
Sacyr Farrans Neopul, the joint venture of construction companies, described the project as “one of the most important and complex light rail projects in the UK”.
Harald Tobermann, of Community Councils Together on Trams, a coalition representing four such bodies on the route covering 80,000 people, agreed relevant lessons had been learned.
He said “the main lesson was do not cobble together your own contract, but get a standard industry contract”, which had been followed. Mr Tobermann said three of the four lanes of Leith Walk had also been closed so construction could be completed quicker.
The city council will hope the extension accelerates Edinburgh Trams’ recovery from the pandemic since passenger numbers remain below pre-Covid levels. Trams carried 2.39 million people between January and May compared to 4.78m in the whole of 2022, but that was far less than the 7.1m in 2019/20 – the 12 months up to the start of the pandemic.
The council’s Labour leader Cammy Day said the line had led to development such as hundreds of homes around Ocean Terminal. He said: “I’m confident the tram will bring great business to that area of the city.”
The council is discussing potential future extensions beyond the airport and to the south of the city, which are contained in the Scottish Government’s major transport projects strategy. Edinburgh Trams head of service delivery Sarah Singh said: “We are absolutely keen to continue to grow.”
Conservative city centre city councillor Jo Mowat, whose ward covers part of the extension, said it was already a catalyst for regeneration along the route.
She said it was of crucial importance to Leith since the rationale for the original tram line had been to ensure rejuvenation of the area, before the project was truncated at the city centre following the major delays and cost over-runs.
Council transport convener Scott Arthur said the first big test of the extension would be when The Proclaimers play at Leith Links on June 17-18, with plans drawn up to get thousands of fans to from the event by tram.
Among those looking forward to the return of the trams was Irene Fraser, 77, who grew up in the area and travelled on them before their demise in 1956. She said: “That was our mode of transport and we used them regularly – we didn’t go on the bus. It would have been nice to restore the old ones, but as my grand daughter says, you can’t look back.”
Ken Swinney, the father of arch tram critic and former deputy first minister John Swinney, whose own father was an Edinburgh tram driver, had expressed disappointment when the Newhaven section of the line was originally shelved. But his son said this week: “At the grand age of 91, I think it is probably best for my Dad to keep his own counsel.”
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