12 February 2007

Drivers on Lothian Buses routes 2 and 22, from Gyle and Edinburgh Park into the city centre, have in recent years been guided along the Fastlink busway. Based on similar schemes in Essen, Adelaide, Leeds and Crawley, the busway between South Gyle Access and Stenhouse Drive is designed to speed up journey times into Edinburgh, avoiding traffic and bypassing roundabouts.

Originally known as the West Edinburgh Busway, or Webs, the idea was first mooted in the mid-1990s as a way of discouraging people from driving into the city centre. Funded partly by Edinburgh city council and partly by the Scottish executive, Fastlink was eventually completed in December 2004 at a cost of £10m.1

Alongside a new road plan allowing priority for buses, the 1.5km guided corridor — the longest in the UK — was designed by Halcrow and its construction was organised by the council-owned company tie. New buses had to be ordered for the two routes, fitted with rubber guide wheels to fit between rails either side of the concrete track.

Deeming the scheme a success, the council announced plans in late 2006 for a second guided busway, south of the city along Old Dalkeith Road.

Transport Edinburgh, who are in charge of all such projects in the capital, envisage that the infrastructure will eventually be converted for use with trams. It is hoped that two of three proposed Edinburgh tramlines will be in operation by 2011,2 bringing trams into the city for the first time since 1956. Line two is to run along the Fastlink guideway, replacing the buses.

In the year after the project’s completion, the bus lane was forced to close for repair twice, for periods of July and November, in order to smooth out tracks that had been giving passengers a bumpy ride. Fastlink was nonetheless presented the prize for the most innovative transport project in Scotland at the Scottish Transport 2005 awards.

Opposition councillors scoffed at the award, criticising the scheme for the period it took to build and its subsequent faultiness. Edinburgh’s Conservative transport spokesman, Allan Jackson, told the Evening News, he thought the prize was “absolute madness”. He said: “The idea Edinburgh [council] is managing to do anything good or clever is ludicrous. They squander millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on every hare-brained scheme that comes up.”

The Liberal Democrat councillor Fred Mackintosh said: “It is an idea of its time — unfortunately its time was 1995 and it took so long to happen we have all become very cynical about it. I just don’t want the trams to end up like the busway.”3

The proposed tram network has, though, faced numerous setbacks and delays. Royal assent was finally granted after MSPs approved a scaled-down version of two of the lines in March 2006, committing £450m.4 But plans for line three were shelved because a lack of funding, not helped by a no vote to the council’s road-toll scheme.

This decision was criticised by proponents of the tram, such as the sustainable transport campaigners TRANSform Scotland, who argue that the council should instead scrap plans for the Edinburgh airport rail link.5

Members of the Scottish Conservatives and the SNP, however, object to so much public money being spent on the trams. The Conservatives’ transport spokesman, David Davidson, told the BBC he was not convinced the project made good business sense, saying there a “black hole in the money”. According to the Scottish Nationalist MSP Kenny MacAskill, the approved bill was “fundamentally flawed” and money should instead be spent upgrading Waverley station.4

A report in December 2006 revealed that the tram network is likely to cost £592m.6 Tie claim that it will be in profit within two years of operating and have already signed a contract to run the service with Transdev, who operate trams in France, Portugal and Australia.

But just as in other UK cities, Edinburgh’s proposed tram system may yet fail to see the light of day, and the Fastlink guided busway may prove to be a white elephant. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

Update 20 May 2008:

At his first Scottish first minister’s questions, Alex Salmond promised a review of the Edinburgh trams, saying that the SNP favoured more guided bus lanes.7 MSPs voted, however, not to drop plans for the tram scheme and the first roadworks started on Leith Walk in August 2007.

Commenting is closed for this article.