“Hell on wheels”: The Miserable History of the Edinburgh Trams project, 2001 to the Present

In January 2020, the City of Edinburgh Council announced the City Plan 2030, including the ambitious goal of making the city carbon neutral by the beginning of the next decade. They aimed to do this through focused development and the pedestrianisation of key streets – including George Street, which seems to be a big test project in the coming years. It also contained a draft for the City Mobility Plan 2030which teases that “Edinburgh’s tram line could be extended to Granton and south to the Bio Quarter”, after the ongoing extension to Newhaven is completed, as part of the effort to move traffic out of the city’s perennially congested streets. For many a resident, the combination of ‘tram’ and ‘extension’ has a certain ominous and distrustful clang to it, a legacy of the miserable history of its development, a saga of false starts, dashed promises, political squabbling, rising costs and beyond all else, delays. “Hell on Wheels” as David Mackay called it when, in frustration, he resigned as chairman of Transport Edinburgh Limited in 2010.

Since its official opening on 31 May 2014, the Edinburgh Trams have run from Edinburgh Airport to York Place (the stop to be extended and renamed Picardy Place) in New Town. For those frustrated with the limited reach of the light rail, even with the ongoing extension to Leith and Newhaven scheduled to be completed by early 2023, it is small comfort to learn that its current extent is quite stunted from what was originally proposed.

The current plan for the Newhaven extension, to be completed in early 2023. Edinburgh City Council, found at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-47555231

Like most British cities, Edinburgh had tramways before the twenty-first century, consisting of successive horse-drawn, cable-pulled, and electric coaches until they were done away with in 1956. This occurred amidst the rise of the private car and a new government consensus on its prioritisation as the preferred means of transportation. However, the City of Edinburgh Council launched a proposal in 2001 for new trams in Edinburgh, based on the enduring Continental Model of electric trams that have in recent years had a resurgence in British cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, and in the London Borough of Croydon.

This ambitious plan envisaged a cross-city network built in three stages, from the village of Newbridge in the west to Musselburgh in the east, through the city centre and the Bio Quarter, in addition to a circular lane through the northern wards of the city. The scale is noteworthy, as it rejected the range of a preceding proposal in 1999, which contended itself with only going from Prince’s Street to Newhaven, indicating a clear change in mentality which saw clear prominence given to public transportation. It bears to mention that this was shortly after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, which was to be permanently seated in the new construction in Holyrood – itself ambitious, polarising, and far out of budget. Both were then new developments meant to put Edinburgh back on the map as a European capital.

Original 2001 proposal for Line 1 (red) and Line 2 (grey). Edinburgh City Council, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8967005.
Original 2001 proposal for Line 3 (red). Edinburgh City Council, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8967005

That said, the road from proposal to building proved hazardous. The council’s attempt at getting it funded through a congestion tax referendum in 2005 proved a humiliating failure, losing 74 per cent.  As a result, funding proposals were considered by the Scottish Parliament, who were unwilling to finance Line 3, reducing the scope of the project to the first two. However, this funding proved fleeting following the landslide win for the Scottish National Party (SNP) under Alex Salmond in the 2007 election, replacing the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition. The SNP had made reducing public spending a pillar of their campaign, including saving an estimated £1.1 billion by cancelling the planned railway link to Edinburgh airport that same year, another piece of public infrastructure of genuine utility, along with the Edinburgh tramway. Though they lacked a majority in parliament for the latter and lost the vote. In a compromise, the government agreed to finance the line from the airport to Newhaven, with the council responsible for the rest. Providing £375 million in funding for the 2003 £498 million estimate, with the outstanding £45 million to be provided by the council. Already here, we see the scale and utility of the project being hamstrung by competing levels of government with different ideas of what constitutes the best use of public money. The SNP cited both the tram and airport link as superfluous when bus routes already existed. They were not convinced by the added benefits more rail would bring to the capital and skeptical that national funds were to be spent on a local project. Consequentially, its status as a capital prestige project, national by implication, failed to convince all those it needed to.

The finalised 2006 plan, with its reduced scale and optimistic outlook. Edinburgh City Council

Although the funding process proved to be a struggle, it was the beleaguered construction from 2007 to 2014 which garnered the project’s enduring infamy. By the end of 2009, clear alarm bells were sounding. It had already run over the 2008 estimate of £521 million, with increasing delays projecting completion back to 2012, if not 2014. This was only for the first phase of construction, Phase 1a, from the airport to Newhaven. These expensive delays, combined with the economic downturn of the financial crisis commencing in 2008, led the Council to scrap the remaining plans for Phase 1b and beyond as well as the extensions to Newbridge in the west and the northern loop through Granton. Beyond the disappointment of the project yet again being scaled down, the construction had forced traffic to a standstill, especially the intensive construction in Prince’s Street in 2009 aggravated from disputes between contractors and the Council-owned company that managed the project, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE). The result was that it essentially immobilised the entire city’s traffic, causing severe economic disruption to local businesses, as well as generating much public fury.

Repeated delays and conflicts between TIE and the contractors were ultimately dragged into court, stalling the project for the coming years, before being woken out of stasis by the unavoidable funding crisis of June 2010.  It was made apparent that the council had spent over £600 million on a still far from finished transport network, leading to estimates being made of where best to truncate it. Since they rejected outright cancelling it, additional financing was procured through further loans. In June 2011, it was eventually decided to end the line from the airport at St Andrews Place. This decision was reversed in August due to the staggering £200 million in shortfall, it was instead shortened to Airport-Haymarket, a decision the Edinburgh’s Chamber of Commerce deemed “bonkers”. The Scottish Government intervened once more, threatening to withhold £75 million in funding if the line did no go all the way to St Andrews Place, to which the Council had little choice but to fold.

Though in another reversal it was agreed that the line was to be extended to York Place, for little extra cost and extra reach, the project finally stabilised. Minor uproars still emerged, however. Most significantly, controversy erupted when the government refused to finance free use for holders of the Scottish National Entitlement Card, mainly granted to elderly and disabled people, as it does for bus services, dashing the hopes of many. A further round of negotiations eventually reached the compromise that the Council would pay for the cost, meaning only those cards issued in Edinburgh would be granted free use, to the bitter complaints of commuters. Once again, the government and Council had different ideas of who should pay for what, seeing the tramway as either a city novelty project or as an integral piece of public and national infrastructure. The line from the airport to York Place finally opened to the public in May 2014, the shallow remnants of the once proposed cross-city ‘network’, whose cost totalled a staggering £1 billion.

What exactly happened to produce this absurdly high expenditure and the delays that accompanied them has been the business of a non-statutory public inquiry since 5 June 2014. Even after over six years, the inquiry has not yet been finalised, itself ironically delayed in 2015 due to a break-in at their offices and their head, the judge Lord Hardie, falling ill. The inquiry has had to deal with over six million documents on the topic, “it will take as long as is necessary” being the current guiding notion, even as the current legal costs paid to the council have amounted to £11 million. That said, there has been some indication of responsibility. Douglas Fairley, a lawyer representing TIE, concluded that it was an “extremely poor deal for the council”. Similar criticism had been made by the, aforementioned, David Mackay in 2010, who described the main contractor, Bilfinger Berger, as a “delinquent company that smelled a victim”, to which the German construction giant has not been able to reply due to contractual restrictions. Therefore, it seems to be the result of a misleading agreement that inexperienced councillors agreed to, dragging them all into a quicksand of bitter and bloody financial disagreement.

In any case, Edinburgh Council decided to go ahead with finishing Phase 1a in 2017, with the £207 million cost to be financed by loans to be paid back with future ticket revenue. The route, which hopefully will be opened to the public in early 2023, is estimated to welcome 16 million passengers in its first year. Faced with another disaster out of the city’s control, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the project from March to June 2020. One can only hope that a lesson has been learned. At least the fact that the Scottish government is an unreliable and demanding ally has sunken in, though given the result, it is hard not to let them feel vindicated. Other changes have also been made: Transport for Scotland is now supervising the project, and care is being taken to ensure that construction is done in a ‘one-dig’ approach, in which each worksite is only closed during construction and opened up directly afterwards. Nevertheless, disruption caused by construction in the most densely populated part of Scotland is nothing to scoff at, and previous attempts have already left a bitter aftertaste. One can only hope, for the council’s sake, that this run proves better than the last, so that the next wave of construction proposed to commence in 2025 will not be such a miserable affair for everyone involved.  

This sort of beleaguered construction is, unfortunately, something of an Edinburgh tradition; from the stop and start construction of New Town in the late eighteenth century due to funding issues, to the planned pantheon on Calton Hill to symbolise the city pretensions to be an “Athens of the North” which also ran into funding issues and was cancelled, its remnants leaving the puzzling ‘National Monument’. Furthermore, the university’s New College, now confusingly called Old College, was itself a rocky project from its 1789 start, beset by funding issues and the interruption of the Napoleonic Wars. The complex was completed in 1827, with other parts like the dome only being added in 1887. The tramway, its disruption and delays caused by internal and external failures, are very much part of Edinburgh’s somewhat melancholy architectural heritage. Seemingly complete things more often than not have a very messy history which seem to fade away upon completion, the finished product creating the false impression that it was always meant to be this way. A reminder of the fluidness of seemingly solid reality. That is one reason to be grateful for the unfinished elements that remain in the urban landscape. At this rate, the tram is most likely to escape this fate, but at least the National Monument remains on top of the Calton Hill, reminding us that very few things actually end up as they were intended to.

Written by Inge Erdal


BBC News, Councillors approve extension to Edinburgh’s tram line (14 March 2019). Accessed 1 March 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-47555231

BBC News, Edinburgh air rail link dropped (27 September 2007). Accessed 1 March 2021. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/edinburgh_and_east/7015407.stm.

Brocklehurst, Steven. ‘Going off the rails: The Edinburgh trams saga’, BBC Scotland News (30 May 2020). Accessed 1 March 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-27159614

Gifford, John, Colin McWilliam, et al. Edinburgh: The Buildings of Scotland. London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Picken, Andrew, ‘When is the last stop for the Edinburgh tram inquiry?’ BBC Scotland News (5 June 2020). Accessed 1 March 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-52731898

Ray, Perman. The Rise and Fall of the City of Money: A Financial History of Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2019.

The City of Edinburgh Council, All aboard for 2030: A greener, healthier, better connected capital 2030 (10 January 2020). Accessed 1 March 2021.  https://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/news/article/12714/all-aboard-for-2030-a-greener-healthier-better-connected-capital

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