After seven long years, endless excavations and countless diversions, Edinburgh Trams opened their doors to the public today, Saturday 31st May 2014. To mark the occasion, I decided to travel to Edinburgh Airport by tram. These are my impressions:
My outward journey began at York Place. A crowd mobbed the tram station. Unsurprisingly, everyone wanted to go to the airport today. I knew it was going to be like this. The passengers were predominately local. In their undemonstrative way, the citizens of Edinburgh will always want to know what’s going on. They will be there in force, whether it’s an exhibition, a march, remembrance day or, indeed, the launching of a tram service. They have a sense of occasion. I felt an undercurrent of restrained excitement: no virtual “tap, tap, swipe” but eyes engaged and reality in the ascendant. There were a number of push chairs on board. I caught a glimpse of myself in a “selfie”. Perhaps this will be become a regular family jaunt; there’s something about that “ding-ding” which appeals to the child in all of us. At Haymarket, there was even a sense of “poop-poop” as tram turned train and squirreled into the country. Later, on the return to Edinburgh, train turned tram before being let loose in the city. All rather Harry Potter.
I stood on a circular hinge between tramcars. I felt hot, as if sealed in a glass tank. The pipers in Princes Street sounded far away. The tram stopped for no apparent reason on a couple of occasions. The heat intensified. I had even thought of wearing a tweed jacket. Just imagine it. Always wear a deodorant and apply it liberally before travelling by tram. I felt the sweat running down my back, and imagined myself, yet another middle aged bystander, with soaking shirt and sweating armpits. An apparent lack of ventilation made me think affectionately of the upstairs windows of a double decker bus. Operable side windows, as I later discovered, alternate on either side of a tram car. It was not such a good idea to travel on the hinge although I did like the sound of the rubber seal (marked Hubner GmbB… Kessen) which attached the tramcars. Every time we rounded a bend, it creaked, like the wheel of a sailing ship. It’ll only be a matter of time before the smell of fresh rubber will be replaced by something altogether more unpleasant.
I was not instantly converted to the world of tram, not on the outward journey to the airport, but I certainly enjoyed its smooth acceleration, particularly on the stretch to Balgreen. “I am a tram no longer, a train me”, it seemed to be saying, as it moved effortlessly beside the Glasgow Express. In town, it nonchalantly overtook buses and gave no impression of speed. Everything seemed so smooth. Released from captivity at Haymarket, the tram entered a new world. A train buff would be interested by the Haymarket train depot. Equally, a retail therapist would be fascinated by Jenners Depository. We had close encounters with both. A small incline opened up enormous views. Near Saughton, I looked to the Pentland Hills. There was an incredible depth to the Hills of Home, a backdrop as familiar to Edinburgh citizens today as it was to RLS a hundred and forty years ago. As we left Edinburgh Park Station, I caught a backwards glimpse of tram station, railway station and Premier Inn, a perfect 21st century triptych, built in the middle of nowhere and composed entirely of concrete and plate glass. Even more bizarre was Edinburgh Park Central. Here, I gazed upon an urban vista which resembled an utterly implausible 1970s representations of the future (e.g. flying saucers landing on helipads). I noticed a few random human beings walking by a canal. We seemed to have strayed into an architect’s model. I marvelled at its total lack of charm. Was there anything about this Godless place which suggested Edinburgh? It could have been anywhere. After the Gyle where the tram disgorged some but not all of its passengers, we juddered past a new tram depot just beyond the Edinburgh by-pass. This was not a pleasant sensation: not unlike the screech of rusty nails being drawn down the side of a cruise ship. I daresay that Edinburgh Trams will rectify this temporary glitch. The tram edged forward at 5 mph before picking up speed on the approach to Gogarburn. Then, we flew though green fields. A buzzard kept pace with us.
I disembarked at Ingliston Park and Ride and walked the last stretch to the Airport. The walk from Ingliston Park and Ride to Edinburgh Airport “Where Scotland meets the World”, involves a stroll along the airport approach road, and the negotiation of several roundabouts. It does not equate with, for example, a pre-dawn ascent in the Anti-Atlas Mountains. Nonetheless, like any canny Scot, I wanted to establish how long the final stage of the journey, which would otherwise add £ 3.50 to a single tram fare to the airport, would take on foot. For the record, it takes 25 minutes to walk in a relatively unhurried way from Ingliston Park and Ride to the airport terminal building.
My return journey saw the beginnings of a conversion but I still find all those endless diversions and excavations difficult to forget. What, I wondered, would a first time visitor make of the journey into town? Is it exciting? Does it presage the city to come? City bound, the first stage is disconcerting. The tram plunges into the country with no hint of suburbs – a good advert for the Edinburgh green belt. Beyond Ingliston Park and Ride, I caught sight of a delightful stone bridge, more Robin Hood than Brave Heart, and at Gogarburn, I noticed a pretty parish church. All this is by way of pastoral prelude. At concrete Edinburgh Park Central, a Eurocrat would probably feel pretty much at home but there is still no hint of the city to come. Curiously enough, it is only during the descent to Edinburgh Park Station, my favourite 21st Century triptych, that one gets one’s first sweeping glimpse of a majestic city. There, out there, is the Castle. From here on, the visitor could be nowhere else. At Balgreen the golfers promote the national sport.