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Trams to Newhaven: How did we get here?

At the time of writing (July 2023), the Newhaven extension to the Edinburgh Trams service has been open to passengers for six weeks — 12 years later than originally promised. The first stage of the tram project, from 2007 to 2014, was marred with disputes, delays, extra costs and eventually, a much shorter line than planned. Many in Leith breathed a sigh of relief when the Newhaven line opened in 2023 and "Phase 1a" (as it was known) was complete after 15 years. But why did the council decide to bring back trams in Leith? Why were they ever removed in the first place? And what's coming next for the controversial mode of transport? Read on to find out...

Leith's original trams: 1871 to 1956

Historically Leith had been a part of Edinburgh on a municipal level, but in 1833 it became a separate burgh with its own council. This led to some key differences in local governance to Edinburgh. The burgh boundary was at Pilrig Street on Leith Walk — more on that later.

In November 1871, Edinburgh Street Tramways (EST) began operating a horse-drawn tramway from Haymarket to Bernard Street, crossing the municipal line on Leith Walk. The first cable trams were introduced by Edinburgh Northern Tramways in 1888, which was necessary to serve the steep topography of the route stretching north from Hanover Street to Ferry Road.

Edinburgh Corporation, the local government, took over the lines within the Edinburgh city boundary in 1893, and Leith Corporation Tramways took over the Leith lines in 1894. At this point both companies were still running horse-drawn tramways. But this was about to change.

In 1899, Edinburgh Corporation introduced cable trams up until the Pilrig boundary. Leith Town Council refused to allow it to extend to the Foot of the Walk, meaning that anyone who wanted to travel further than Pilrig in either direction had to switch from a horse-drawn tram to a cable tram (or vice versa). So began what was locally known as the "Pilrig Muddle".

The Pilrig Muddle was an inconvenience to say the least, but it is a likely factor as to why trains in Leith (such as the line to Leith Central which opened in 1903) flourished in the first two decades of the 20th century. Taking the train directly to your destination would have been much more convenient than disembarking the tram at Pilrig and boarding another.

Instead of making the jump to cable-hauled tram, in 1905 Leith decided to convert its system directly to electric trams — the first of its kind in Scotland. The Pilrig Muddle persisted, except now you'd leave an Edinburgh cable tram and join a Leith electric tram (as opposed to a Leith horse-drawn tram). Edinburgh resisted electrification due to worries that the overhead lines would spoil the architectural beauty of the city centre.


The picture below, dated around 1905, shows the Pilrig Muddle in action. You can see the electric overhead lines of the Leith tram in the background, with the Edinburgh tram in the foreground. The grand building dominating the image is the Pilrig Free Church — now Pilrig St Paul's Church of Scotland, on the corner of Leith Walk and Pilrig Street.

An old picture of Pilrig in Leith showing the tram interchange

© F. C. Inglis, in: Hunter, D. L. G. (1992) Edinburgh's Transport: The Early Years

In 1905, Leith's electric trams could take you along the waterfront from Granton and Newhaven, along Lindsay Road and Commercial Street to the town's municipal centre at Bernard Street. At the Foot of the Walk they would join up with trams from Great Junction Street and Duke Street to make their way up Leith Walk. At Pilrig some trams turned right, towards Trinity and Granton. This, accompanied by a thriving railway network in the area, is something today's Leithers could only dream of!

In 1920, Leith once again became a part of Edinburgh, and Leith Corporation Tramway services were taken over by Edinburgh Corporation Tramways. This prompted Edinburgh to electrify their lines so a through-service to Leith could finally be achieved.

20th June 1922 marked the first tram to drive all the way along Leith Walk, and Edinburgh had fully electrified all tram lines by 1923. The Pilrig Muddle had ended, after 22 long years.

1922 image of the first through-tram at Pilrig

Crowds gather at Pilrig to see the first electric through-tram, 1922 © Edwin O. Catford, in: Hunter, D. L. G. (1999) Edinburgh's Transport: The Corporation Years

Once the trams had been electrified, they continued to see high levels of usage, and usage increased on Leith Walk now there was no need to disembark at Pilrig. This is one factor that contributed to the decline of the suburban railways.

This map from 1924 shows the extent of Edinburgh's tram system (click to zoom).

A map of Edinburgh's tramways from 1924

© Portobello Library

Some of the tram routes and numbers may seem familiar to regular users of Lothian Buses. This is because when the trams were replaced by buses in the 1950s, many bus routes took on the route and number of their tram predecessor! For example, the number 7 tram follows a very similar route to the current number 7 bus — nearly 100 years on.

Speaking of buses; after WW2, the rising costs of tram repair and track maintenance combined with increased traffic brought about a bus replacement scheme throughout the 1950s, just 30 years after electrification. The last tram ran on 16 November 1956, terminating at the Shrubhill Depot on Leith Walk.


A special tram livery was designed for the final week of the trams. © Kenneth G Williamson on Flickr, used with permission.

The in-between years: 1980s to 2000s

By the time the 1980s rolled around, Edinburgh (and hence Leith) had been without a tram network for over 25 years, while the suburban rail network had all but disappeared by the end of the 60s. Traffic levels were growing and more people were choosing to take the car as the buses were too slow. Something needed to be done.

The answer? The Edinburgh Metro. Proposed by Lothian Regional Council (who had responsibility for transport in the days of two-tier local government), the strategy proposed two metro rail lines, one North-South and one East-West, as well as reopening the South Suburban Line and other new railway stations in the west. Here is a map of the proposals from a 1989 leaflet focused on the North-South line.

a 1989 map of the proposed Edinburgh Metro

© Mike Ashworth on Flickr, used with permission

The plans were very ambitious given the political and financial climate at the time, and building the underground route underneath Waverley would have been challenging given the steep topography of the city centre. The section of the North-South line from Canonmills to Bangholm, and from the metro depot to Crewe Toll, would've been built on the former railway lines that are now cycle paths. These were transferred from the British Railways Board to Lothian Regional Council in the early 80s, so the council could do what they wished with them (more on that later).

Back to Leith. Although this map was not focused on the East-West metro line (in orange), you can see the section from the city centre to Leith is not dissimilar to the current tram line, as it roughly matches Leith Walk.

The only parts of this rail-based plan that actually materialised were the Sighthill (Edinburgh Park) and Maybury (Edinburgh Gateway) railway stations in 2003 and 2016 respectively.

However, these plans would eventually become Edinburgh Trams in their current iteration. By 1993 the council were looking for a cheaper option using some of the Edinburgh Metro ideas. This was CERT — City of Edinburgh Rapid Transport — a guided busway from the airport to the city centre on a reserved route.

CERT itself never materialised, but in 2001 it became WEBS - West Edinburgh Busway Scheme — going from South Gyle to Saughton, on what would become the tramway (and it was designed specifically with this in mind). Known later as "Fastlink", it opened in 2004 and was served by the 2 and 22 bus routes, which had to be fitted with special guided wheels. It closed in 2009 to be converted into the tramway.


The number 2 Fastlink bus on the busway in 2005 at Saughton. © Richard Webb on Geograph, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Edinburgh Trams: 2001 to present

While CERT, WEBS and Fastlink were all focused on the west of Edinburgh rather than Leith, the 2001 proposals for trams certainly included the area. Bringing trams back to Edinburgh was first mooted in the mid-1990s but serious proposals did not emerge until the new millenium. A new transport blueprint was launched in 2001 and included the re-introduction of trams. Three lines were proposed. (Click on the maps below to enlarge them!)

All of these routes (and associated land for segregated tramways) were safeguarded by the council, and those that remain unbuilt are still safeguarded today.

Compare these lines to the Edinburgh Metro map and you can see some real similarities in the routes. At some point in the 1990s, the council must have seen the benefit of trams and light rail over building (or re-building) entire new railway lines.

But what are these benefits that trams supposedly bring? Here are some listed in the 2007 business case for the tram network:

  • Trams are great for higher flows of passengers — each tram has a capacity of 250 people, the equivalent of three double decker buses

  • They have a distinct "right of way" on roads due to their tracks

  • When segregated from other traffic they can reach a high speed with good acceleration

  • As they are electric, they are emission-free at the point of use so benefit the environment

  • Provide a smooth journey

  • Accessible, with step-free access

  • Encourage active travel as bikes can be taken on them

  • and hopefully, a change from private modes of transport (cars) to public

In 2006, Line 1 and 2 received parliamentary assent. Line 3 was scrapped due to the failed congestion charge referendum in 2005. If residents had voted in favour of a congestion charge, this would have funded Line 3.

Once parliamentary assent was received, the construction for the remaining two lines was split into four phases:

The initial plans for the Edinburgh Tram network, published in 2006

From "Tram Facts", an Edinburgh Trams factsheet published in 2006

  • Phase 1a was to be from the Airport to the Waterfront — combining parts of Lines 1 and 2

  • Phase 1b followed the Caledonian Railway path from Haymarket to Crewe Toll and onto Granton (comprising most of the remainder of line 1)

  • Phase 2 would link Granton and Newhaven along the waterfront, completing the line 1 loop

  • and Phase 3 would extend the airport line to Newbridge, completing line 2.

Only Phase 1a actually got built, and it was not completed in full until 2023 (as opposed to a promised opening date of 2011). I won't go into details of how tram construction got derailed (pardon the pun) as it has been covered extensively elsewhere and is the subject of a hefty inquiry that should be published any day now. Instead I'll focus on Leith, and the portion of the line from the city centre to Newhaven.

Leith Walk was particularly affected by the tram construction. In the years from 2007 until 2023, it was dug up no less than four times. One of the first areas of construction in Phase 1a, work first began in July 2007 to divert utilities. Track laying was suspended in 2009 as a result of legal disputes that marred the whole project. Things were at a standstill until 2011, while Leith Walk remained a building site. Costs continued to rise, and it was at this point, in September 2011, that councillors voted to continue with a curtailed line from the city centre to the airport, essentially cancelling the portion of the line to Newhaven. Leith Walk was hastily resurfaced and it was back to business as usual, minus the trams that Leithers were promised would be there by 2011.

Hannah Ross, the Senior Responsible Officer for Trams to Newhaven, told me that in her personal view, "if the council had known it was only going to build one section of line rather than the complete line, [the Newhaven portion] is the section of line that [they] would’ve chosen to build." Why? "Leith is hugely densely populated, it has historically low levels of car ownership, and the route also serves brownfield development sites which the council wants to see brought forward in a sustainable high-density way. Trams support all of those outcomes."

Trams didn't reach Leith until 2023, but in the interim period, Leith Walk was dug up for a second time in 2012 to fix the utilities that were diverted for the aborted tramway and for resurfacing work. The curtailed line opened to passengers in 2014 at more than double the original cost forecast for Phases 1 to 3. Parts of Leith Walk were dug up a third time in 2016 to put in a new pavement around Pilrig street — only to be dug up again and redone in 2019!

Hannah said: "When the first project [was] completed, conversation turned quite quickly to completing the line to Leith, because I think it was seen as something that we really needed to do to support that sustainable development."

This checks out — by the end of 2014, a business case for extending the line was ordered and it was approved in 2017. Locals were consulted in 2018 and the council approved the extension, which became known as Trams to Newhaven, in 2019. At this point the line was expected to be operational in early 2023, and it's refreshing to see that that essentially happened, especially as construction had to be put on hold for three months in 2020 due to Covid.

Leith Walk was dug up for a fourth (and hopefully final?) time in 2019 and thankfully, the outcome was successful this time. One thing the Trams to Newhaven project was keen to do was to learn from the mistakes made originally, and this is outlined clearly on their website. This included a "one-dig" approach, making sure that roads are only opened up once and everything is completed before they are resurfaced. They followed through on this with regards to Leith Walk.


The route of Edinburgh Trams as of July 2023. To view an interactive map visit their website here.

At last, Leith is served by an efficient tram line that runs faster than the buses and has a much higher capacity. Prior to construction it was expected that passenger numbers for the first year of operation would be 15.7 million, and in my view this seems more than realistic. Every tram I've been on has been very busy and it's clear the extension is proving popular. Hannah agreed with this based on very early statistics, but warned me that "we are seeing people who are having a wee ‘trip out’ on the tram who maybe won’t come back regularly and use it."

She added: "What we need to see is what does business as usual look like? That’s what we’ll be interested in, to see how that’s meeting demand against our financial model."

"Business as usual" is a good phrase, since you could argue Leith hasn't seen much of that since 2007. Maybe we'll get to that after the Fringe finishes and Edinburgh settles back into its normal way of things. I, for one, am excited to see what positive changes the tram line brings to my neighbourhood. I think many longer-term residents of Leith are tentatively hoping that all the years of disruption will prove worthwhile, in the end.

What's next for the trams?

Remember how I said that the council safeguarded all three original tramlines prior to 2006? That still remains the case, and the next plan is to construct a north-south line from Granton to the BioQuarter. This would incorporate parts of Line 1 (aka Phase 1b) and Line 3. The council has mentioned this next stage in multiple documents over the last few years, including the City Plan 2030, the draft Public Transport Action Plan and the City Mobility Plan.

The Waterfront (stretching from Leith to Granton) has long been a key area of growth and redevelopment for the council, both in terms of housing and industry. Now trams serve the Leith portion of it, it's time to look west to Granton.

At the time of writing, a study known as ESSTS2 (Edinburgh Strategic Sustainable Transport Study Phase 2 — found in Appendix 3 of the City Mobility Plan) has been completed and a Final Business Case for the line is being worked on. There are plans to consult on the specifics of the route later this year. The safeguarded, original route goes along the old Caledonian Railway path from Crewe Toll to Roseburn, but another option is to put that portion of the route on the road. It's also not clear whether it would tie in with the existing tram line at Roseburn or Haymarket, or what route the tram would take after the BioQuarter. Options include Newcraighall or Sherriffhall, with more options on whether this would be on-street or segregated tramway. The map below, from ESSTS2, outlines all of this.

A map outlining options for the next tram line in Edinburgh

Current estimates put the route at completion between 2030 and 2035, so some time away now. But when it does open, Leithers will be able to travel to the south of the city by tram too (a loop will be put in at Leith Street so that the Newhaven section of tram line connects to the new portion). This will link Leith up to key Edinburgh locations including:

  • Old Town

  • The University of Edinburgh (both central and King's Buildings campuses)

  • The Meadows

  • Cameron Toll

  • The Royal Infirmary hospital and BioQuarter

  • as well as key areas for housing development in the south-east of the city and potentially Midlothian too

Connecting the Granton and Newhaven terminuses has also been proposed — this is also still a safeguarded route, as it's Phase 2 of the 2006 plans — but it may be decades away at this point.

Tram seems to be the way forward for Edinburgh's public transport system. Population forecasts are pointing towards a 15% increase by 2041, and our housing and infrastructure needs to keep up. Hopefully the success of the Newhaven extension has proved, and will continue to prove, the value of the trams in our city. Only time will tell.

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