On 31 May Edinburgh’s trams will welcome the first fare-paying passengers in the city for more than 50 years. With a “ding ding” of their bells, drivers will make history as they step into they step into their cabs before heading off from the airport, the Gyle and into the capital.
But in a small office, some eight miles from the city centre, lies the true heart of the operation. Even now, a week before the service launches, the tram control centre is a hub of activity, with screens broadcasting tram stops across the city, drivers signing in to begin their shifts and the constant flash of a computer monitor, showing animated trams moving along their route.
John Devlin, 34, tram controller two for the day, pours over VICOS, the operating system allowing him to see where every tram in the city is at any one moment, helping him to keep the service on track. “The system shows you whether the trams are early or late, their number and who the driver is, so we can keep a track of all the trams and where they are,” he said. “Then when one’s in town you can see where all the signals are control these to keep everything on track without any major delays.”
Today former baggage handler John is backing up controller one, Jon McCulley, who is in charge of the city’s main lines and fleet of trams, up to 13 (14 when boyband One Direction play Murrayfield) in operation at a time. The pair are in constant communication with drivers, engineers and transport partners to make sure the service runs smoothly, with day-to-day jobs involving everything from dealing with technical issues to controlling signals or arranging a wash for the trams.
“If there are any emergencies or situations when a system fails then I help keep everything moving,” says John. “But mostly I control the depot, moving trams in, sending them through the wash and into the workshops for maintenance.”
With the Gogar depot ticking over both controllers, accompanied by a duty manager, can keep a close eye on the city’s trams via 18 CCTV cameras and VICOS, which represents each vehicle along the line with a small flashing box on-screen. To keep them right, a white board sits in the centre of the room, with red and green markers detailing where any vehicle is at one time, even the depot.
Jon, 39, explains its importance: “We use that as a back-up to our systems and it’s just a quick visual reference for everybody. While we know what’s going on it’s about keeping other people in the know, and this corresponds to the timetable, our operational pool and a representation of the depot.” As well as keeping the trams to time controllers, of which there are ten in total, are responsible for the whole system’s power source using the SCADA control system. “With this we’ve got control of all the power in the overhead lines and the sub stations,” says John. “If there was a problem say with one of the substations then we would shut the power off and then you could bypass it round that substation. “You can’t have too many off though, the more you switch off the fewer trams you can have running - we’ve got to manage that as well.”
For now, Jon and John, who are also both trained tram drivers, the countdown is on for the launch of the service, when they will be able to demonstrate their tram skills. “Over time we have learned how to rectify any issues that come up - we kind of know because why they do what they do because we drive them as well,” says Jon, who made a drastic career change when he moved to Edinburgh Trams from Tesco, where he worked as a line manager. “I’m a bit of a techy so when I go the opportunity to do be a tram driver and controller it wasn’t something you turn down. This is a big deal and I wanted to be part of something that’s going to be lasting.”
But with a matter of days to go until the trams’ launch, how do the controllers feel about making history? “I’m excited but nervous,” said Jon, who will be controller for the very first tram, leaving the airport at 5am. “But I’m glad I’m going to be part of a legacy.”