Trams have returned to Leith Walk for the first time in almost 67 years as testing for Edinburgh’s long-awaited line extension officially got under way.
Work to take the tracks from the capital’s city centre to Newhaven started in November 2019, but were impacted by delays due to the Covid pandemic and supply chain issues.
The controversial £207m project, which was initially set to be operational from “Spring 2023,” attracted the ire of local businesses in Leith after forcing the closure of vast swathes of the street over the last four years.
A smattering of interested onlookers braved freezing conditions in the capital to catch a glimpse of the “ghost tram” as it snaked its way down the thoroughfare from Picardy Place and towards the Newhaven terminus on Monday evening.
It mirrored scenes in 1956, when crowds gathered to watch the city’s last tram make a ceremonial journey to the area via the Mound and Princes Street before the rails were ripped up.
City of Edinburgh Council transport convener, Cllr Scott Arthur, hailed it as a “huge milestone,” adding passenger services were “not far away”.
“Bringing the tram to Newhaven will be transformative for the area, and the wider city,” he said.
“As well as boosting the economy and providing sustainable, high-capacity public transport to this densely populated part of Edinburgh, the project has significantly improved the entire route, with new cycle links, spaces to relax and spend time and newly planted trees and shrubs.
“As we enter the final phase of the project, testing and commissioning will make sure the line and infrastructure works safely and efficiently, while also confirming service capacity.
“Of course, this is the first time there will be trams on Leith Walk and in Leith in recent years so I would urge people to take extra care when in the area.”
Further testing of the trams, which will not have any passengers on board during this phase, is due to take place every night this week between 8pm and 4am.
Drivers have been put through their paces on “state-of-the-art” simulators allowing them to practice on the route before getting into the vehicle’s cab.
Construction of the initial tram line – which runs from Edinburgh Airport to York Place – was marred by controversies after the total price reached £776m, more than double the original estimate of £375m
A public inquiry sparked by the failures, which is still to release its findings eight years after it was first announced, has also gained notoriety for its £13m price tag – the same as the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War.
Plans to extend the network from Granton to the city centre via Orchard Brae and out into Dalkeith are to be considered by the council this year.
Potential future routes published by transport bosses show extensions to link up with Sherrifhall park and ride, Newcraighall and Shawfair’s train stations.
However, expansion of the network beyond the city’s boundary is likely to be many years off, with current estimations indicating the Granton to BioQuarter line would not be open until at least 2032.
Council leader Cammy Day said: “People have been keen to develop by the harbour at the end of Leith once they heard they trams were coming there – we’ve seen thousands of new homes and many businesses starting up.
“We know the communities in Leith will welcome this – it’ll be a fast track to get them from the new developments in Leith up Leith Walk which is one of the most densely populated parts of the country, into the city and to the airport.
“I don’t want to speak to early but it will be time for us to start talking soon about line 1B and then how we get the tram into the south of the city so we are ambitious about that.”