Anyone who’s been to Edinburgh in the last 5 years couldn’t have failed to notice the mayhem caused by the new tram “system” being built. (I put “system” in quotes because I’m not sure one single truncated line really counts as a system anymore). If you talk to the locals about it you’ve got a good chance of learning some new swear words. But what’s much less visible now is Edinburgh’s original tram system… there isn’t a lot left of it at all.
The extent of the old network puts the new one to shame. It had numerous lines extending all the way to Corstorphine and Colinton in the west, and through Portobello to Musselburgh and Cockenzie in the east. Many of the major routes in the city centre and surroundings had a tram service. At times, parts of the network were run by different companies and using different technologies – for a while passengers travelling from Edinburgh to Leith had to change from the cable-hauled Edinburgh trams to the electric Leith trams at Pilrig.
Part of the old tram depot at Shrubhill by Leith Walk survives. So while the rest of Edinburgh took advantage of the lovely weather on Sunday to head to the Meadows Festival or Portobello Beach, a few of us went for a nose around.
There was once a huge building here that housed the depot as well as the engine that hauled the tram cable before the system was electrified in the 1920s. Most of it has now been demolished and all that remains are two sections of the building at the back as well as the strikingly tall chimney, but you can still see the line of where the roof used to be on the walls at either side, showing how far the building originally extended.
The old tram system ceased operation in 1956. After that the building was a bus depot for a while, and finally a museum housing one of the tram cars, until it was finally abandoned in the 1980s. As you’d expect from a building in the middle of a city that’s been derelict for so long, it hasn’t fared well. Most of the floor inside is strewn with thick broken glass that once formed the roof and windows, a lot of greenery has found its way in, and the rooms have mostly been gutted, though a few fixtures are still in place. A faded sign on the gate warned of CCTV cameras, but I’d be amazed if the place even still has an electricity supply to run them from.
Although the bright afternoon sunshine coming through the gaps in the roof made for some interesting patterns of light, I suspect a dark stormy night would suit the place better.
There is also a basement level underneath one of the floors, accessed by a staircase that can’t be quite as dodgy as it looks since it did manage to take my weight. Down there, a network of brick lined tunnels extends for quite some distance. The other building doesn’t seem to have a basement – there are holes in the floor but they are quite small and it looks solid underneath.
In the street at the back of the depot are two of the original tram wire poles – one attached to the wall and this freestanding one – possibly the only ones remaining in Edinburgh.
I’m not sure what the site is being used for just now or what will become of it in the end – there have been plans to build houses and then a hotel here at various times in the past decade, but nothing seems to have come to fruition yet. I read somewhere that it’s being used for storage by the current tram construction contractors, but it seemed pretty empty when we were there.