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Edinburgh’s transport reformation project

8 min

Edinburgh’s success as a tourist hotspot and cultural hub has meant that its transport network is critical now more than ever. Edinburgh City Council’s response to the surging demand has been to put forward proposals to integrate its management structure of Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams, which they believe will help meet their short-term challenges in a population boom and long-term goals of carbon neutrality. Tangent sits down with Cllr Lesley Macinnes, Transport Convener, to find out the main priorities of the council as the nation recovers from COVID-19.

The continued expansion of Edinburgh’s light rail network and growth of its Lothian Buses service has built off the back of surging residential and tourism numbers for the Scottish capital, leading transport planners at Edinburgh City Council to turn towards a more centralised governance structure.

The city’s latest report, the Reform of Transport Arm’s Length External Organisations, puts forward its “preferred option” of bringing together the currently-separated Edinburgh Trams, Lothian Buses, and Transport for Edinburgh bodies under the Transport for Edinburgh governance direction, citing “inefficiencies” with the current system that has led to “challenges regarding collaboration and integration across and between the bodies”.

Three options for the future structure of Lothian Buses, Edinburgh Trams, and Transport for Edinburgh were explored in the report – a ‘do nothing’ scenario; a tailored version of the current system; and a complete revamp into a single company to deliver all services.

Cllr Lesley Macinnes, Transport Convener, Edinburgh City Council

From Cllr Lesley Macinnes’ perspective, the preferred option of a streamlined governance reform system, integrating transport services in a similar way to that of Transport for London (TfL) and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), reflects the necessity of increasing demand in the short-term around the city, but also gives the council the opportunity to be more efficient in meeting long-term aspirations such as the council’s net-zero carbon target of 2030.

“In broad terms, the structure that has developed where we have this iconic bus company, which has an enormously successful track-record in Lothian. So, we have got a strong base here, but then we had the Edinburgh tram network developed, and that was put in place as a separate company,” she told Tangent.

“Now that has matured rapidly; not only in terms of what was in there as a relatively limited single line from the airport into the city centre. But the success of that once it was put in place has allowed the company to mature quite quickly.” The Transport Convener went on to add that the city is building its tram extension to the heavily-populated north area of the city, furthering the maturation of its light rail network.

Of course, what we’re now looking at is looking to marry up, where we can, some functions, some backroom functions, for example, across those two companies – in order to make sure things work effectively between them. Then of course is the whole issue of things around ticketing, around ensuring that networks serve populations and alternative means of transport working together. So there’s a number of things there that we’re looking at.”

Cllr Macinnes highlighted that Edinburgh as a city is in a “unique position” of its provision of services. Edinburgh Trams is a wholly-owned council company, and its Lothian Buses service is 91% owned by the council, with the remaining 9% owned by West Lothian, East Lothian and Midlothian Councils in a minority shareholder agreement.

Edinburgh transport service structure c. Edinburgh City Council

Additionally, Edinburgh itself as a city is expected to take in a further 15% of residents by 2041. As the city itself increases in size and productivity, so will its increase in emissions, particularly from cars. Cllr Macinnes stressed that the reform to governance in the city will allow the improvement of service provision across its public transport networks, making the option more attractive than traditional car usage.

“We’ve already made enormous leaps forward – the Lothian Buses has a remarkably green fleet, and it’s getting more green every month that goes by. So we have already made substantial moves with that – so we’re not starting from scratch in any sense,” Cllr Macinnes told Tangent.

“But there’s a need for us to recognise that an integrated, sustainable transport network, is going to of vital importance to us, in terms of reducing car use, for all the standard reasons – congestion, air pollution, quality of life, economic loss due to congestion – all of the standard factors are very relevant in Edinburgh.

“Clearly our two key public transport operators will form the spine of a lot of that activity, but we also have a need to look at an integrated network that includes cycling, that includes a cycle hire scheme that we have in place and is very successful, and has proved to be enormously popular during this lockdown period.”

Plans pre-and-post-COVID-19

Cllr Macinnes highlighted that Edinburgh as a city is particularly unique in in its make-up: the council’s City Centre Transformation Strategy which has passed through its committee, though implementation has been stalled following the pandemic, seeks to shift away from a car-dominated culture, alleviate pressures from a residentially-dominated city centre, as well as encourage integrated and active transport for tourists and commuters around the capital.

“It goes beyond just bus and tram,” the Transport Convener told Tangent. “It is to encourage active travel in its every sense; so it’s that combination of walking to pick up a tram or a bus, walking to pick up a bike hire, the door-to-door journey time made up of a number of different ways in which people can travel around the city for whatever purpose.

“We’re trying to shift that to a much more sustainable and welcoming place for people who are not in cars – public transport, emphasis on walking, placemaking, accessibility for those with restricted mobility – there’s a number of themes that run through that piece of work, and some of our other wider strategy developments, including our city mobility plan.”

Edinburgh Trams at Gogar Tram Depot

How has falling passenger numbers – an 85% fall in bus passenger usage for West Lothian, for example – impacted the provision of services in the city? Reports surfaced at the end of June that the city council will not be able to rely on a previously expected annual payment of £6m from Lothian Buses due to falling passenger numbers, a potentially stark signal for transport usage in the coming years.

Additionally, on the light rail network, the Scottish Government recently provided £9m of emergency funding for Edinburgh Trams and Glasgow Subway in response to the financial impacts of the pandemic.

Cllr Macinnes noted that the council was “poised” to take the reform forward pre-lockdown, and added that the basic reasoning of the aligning of governance remains “entirely valid”. “However, everyone involved in it, including myself as chair of Transport for Edinburgh – which is one of the bodies involved in it into which the bus and tram report currently – we all recognise the fact that the impact on public transport around patronage, around expectations,” she said. “We’re not going to have a blanket return to the passenger levels that we had before – so how do we work our way out of that, and what implications does that have?

“We are very aware of that, and that’s part of the ongoing discussion around the reform process. I think it’s fair to say that it doesn’t halt the process, but it might reshape it.”

Maintaining public image

One of the key themes throughout the report was to retain the transport services’ brand – particularly Lothian Buses, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary of service in the city – identity if the reform goes ahead. Cllr Macinnes argued that both Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams are held “in very high stead” in the city, and stressed that the potentially reformed structure behind the schemes should not have a serious impact on public perception of services provided.

Lothian Buses

“We want our residents to continue to know what they’re getting, so to speak, in terms of public transport,” Cllr Macinnes noted. “They recognise the demand of Lothian Buses, they recognise the brand of Edinburgh Tram which are both linked by the branding – but we want that to continue, because they are so important to the residents of Edinburgh.

“They’re also very important to the staff. Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams are substantial employers in this city – and the staff are intensely loyal. Lothian Buses is recognised all over this city, the bus drivers are an iconic part of the city’s culture, and they’re very highly-regarded for how they helped with the Beast from the East. There are all sorts of aspects of their operations, which are very well regarded in the city, and well-remembered. We wouldn’t want to cut across any of that.”

The report will go to the Policy and Sustainability Committee on 6 August, incorporating the results of the engagement process with stakeholders in Edinburgh Trams, Transport for Scotland, and Lothian Buses services that the council has been conducting in recent months. “But we are moving pretty quickly on this,” Cllr Macinnes added.