Rail Industry Focus

01.11.14

Everyday learning for Edinburgh Trams

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Oct/Nov 2014

Tom Norris, director and general manager at Edinburgh Trams, talks to RTM about the first six months the trams have been up and running in the Scottish capital and the long-term ambitions for the new light rail line.

After six years of construction and a great deal of controversy, delay and vitriol along the way, Edinburgh Trams started running on 31 May, with the city council saying it marked “the start of a new era for integrated public transport in the city”.

In September it was announced that during the first 100 days of operation the service was holding up well and more than 1.5 million passengers had used the new system.

This ridership level was more or less in line with initial projections, as were revenue levels, according to Tom Norris, director and general manager at Edinburgh Trams.

He told RTM that so far disruption had been minimal, but the real measure will be when the trams have been operational for a full year.

“Then we can compare what we’re seeing against what the modelling expected,” said Norris. “It is still early days and we are learning every day that we operate, but we’re seeing pretty good sustained performance of the system. ‘So far, so good’ is the message. But I wouldn’t want to jump the gun yet.”

Edinburgh extension

The 14km tram route runs from Edinburgh Airport to York Place in the city centre. Along the route are 15 stops, connecting passengers with bus and rail services and popular shopping and commuter destinations.

The original 2001 proposal envisaged three lines, one of which was shelved early on. The other two lines were combined and split into phases, but only part of the phase 1a line has actually been built.

But Norris has an open mind about the future, telling us: “Our view, right now, is that if there are plans for an extension, we’d be delighted to operate it.”

He said that if future plans “include a longer tramline, that’s fantastic – if it doesn’t we will manage with what we’ve got”.

“But at the moment we’re focusing on what we do have. If the council and the people of Edinburgh decide that there is a reason to extend then we’d be fully supportive of that. We just want to continue learning and operating the system, and improve performance even further.”

Teething problems

The overall scheme was originally costed at £375m in 2003, but by May 2008, when contracts were signed, the cost had ballooned to £521m. In the end, the Edinburgh Trams project had a revised budget of £776m, which it remained in line with – although there is interest to pay too.

As part of the programme, 27 CAF Urbos 3 trams – the same family of vehicles as those now being used on the Midland Metro (see page 42) – were procured in a £40m contract. And, for the most part, the trams have been well-received, noted Norris.

But there have been disruptive incidents. In July, a coach collided with one of the new trams near Shandwick Place, and at the end of August, a bus crashed into one of the Urbos 3 trams after swerving to avoid a cyclist. The incident, which happened at rush hour, caused long delays – but there was no major damage to the tram.

Norris said: “It was hugely disruptive event for our passengers and traffic in Edinburgh. But we have been clear from the outset about that event that we didn’t have a chance [to avoid it].

“The response to the incident was ‘cautious’ as we made sure we weren’t going to damage the tram or the bus further in the removal. So we made sure we put safety first in that instance.

“It took us three hours or so to get the system back. That said, these incidents are all part of the learning process for our control centre, the emergency services and all the other parties involved.”

Overall, he was happy with how the partners managed the incident in a “multi-agency environment” at rush hour.

Feedback

Edinburgh Trams asked for passenger feedback earlier this year and, in general, many said they were happy with the new, clean and comfortable Urbos 3 trams. But some complained about the heat on the fleet during the summer months.

“There have been concerns raised about the heating systems on the new trams,” said Norris, “we’re looking at the air circulation system and what we can do, but it is early days.

“We had some really hot days when it was challenging for our staff and passengers, but equally there were plenty of days when the temperature was fine. We’re now coming into winter and we need to see how the system works, with people on the trams, through the cold months.

“We’ll take a view as to what, if anything, we need to do or can do. At the moment, however, we’re not looking at installing air conditioning on the trams. We’re looking at how we can improve air circulation.”

In terms of reliability, Norris is happy with how the system and the trams are operating. He believes this is largely down to how Edinburgh Trams, which also operates Lothian Buses, runs the system.

“We don’t take any chances,” he said. “If we were concerned about a tram, which may have a problem occurring, we will swap it out at that point. The depot, close to the airport, is in the perfect place to swap the trams in and out.

“We are quite conservative when it comes to how we deal with the trams, and at times we’ll bring one [out of service] and it’ll actually be fine, but we’d much prefer to do that rather than having it impact on our passengers.”

Of course, Edinburgh Trams has the luxury of having a bigger fleet than is strictly necessary – the order for 27 trams was originally to serve the phase 1b route as well, which has not been built. There were even plans at one point to supply some of the 'excess' trams to serve Tramlink in south London instead.

Knocking heads together

At the recent Light Rail Awards, the judges gave a ‘Special Award’ to City of Edinburgh Council chief executive Sue Bruce and to transport convener Cllr Lesley Hinds, for their efforts in bringing the city’s tramway to completion.

The pair were hailed by judges for “knocking heads together” at Transport Initiatives Edinburgh – the defunct arm’s-length company created to deliver the tram system – and contractor Bilfinger Berger, as delays and cost overruns threatened to derail the project.

Cllr Hinds said: “I for one certainly didn’t expect to be winning this kind of industry accolade when I first took over the project in May 2012.”

Although Norris’s own role is operator as opposed to infrastructure deliverer, when asked about the award, he told us: “What I can say is that bringing on Lothian Buses, Edinburgh Trams and Transport for Edinburgh with regards to operating it was a very good idea, which came from the council and politicians.

“Great leadership from all parties, pulling [the project] across the line, was needed and delivered.”

Revenue collection

All light rail operators spend a lot of time considering how best to sell tickets, collect revenue and deal with enforcement as regards fare-dodging.

Edinburgh chose early on to put staff, known as ticket services assistants (TSAs), on every tram.

Norris told us: “That was first and foremost for revenue protection purposes, but actually what we’re finding is these people, who are our frontline staff, are great ambassadors for Edinburgh.”

The operator recently did a spot check on trams at Edinburgh Airport, and Norris said they could count the number of people with no ticket or the wrong ticket “on one hand”. He wouldn’t give a percentage on fare-dodging, but he said the system was performing “extremely well” and people “understand the ticketing system”.

The ‘standard fare’ for people without a valid ticket is relatively lenient – £10. In Manchester, it is £100, halved if paid within two weeks, and in London it is £80, or £40 if paid within three weeks. 

As well as having the TSAs on board, every tram stop has ticket vending machines where passengers can buy singles, returns, and all-day tickets. Ridacard smartcard holders can travel on both Edinburgh Trams and Lothian Buses at no extra cost, but the cards must be validated before boarding. Alternatively, passengers can purchase m-tickets with the Transport for Edinburgh app, allowing them to turn their phone into their ticket.

“There has been a lot of positivity,” said Norris. “We’ve learned a lot about different ways people are interacting with the system. One challenge, as with any system, is passenger information during disruption.

“We’ve done a lot of work to make sure all of our staff and systems know what is going on as quickly as possible, so passengers are armed with the best information when we have a disruption. But, that said, disruption is few and far between.”

He added that smart ticketing options were a request from the travelling public, and Edinburgh Trams has attempted to deliver the best service available.

“Going forward, we’ve got our day-to-day operations to concentrate on and we want to get that to a level of world-class performance and passenger satisfaction, which will come as a result of performance being very good,” said Norris. “The big challenge and focus is how we integrate with the buses and how we make public transport the number one choice for people in Edinburgh.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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