Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Edinburgh Trams - finish what you started!

I'm not entirely sure what I think of the Edinburgh Tram project.  I hear so many contradictory things.  At this time I can only go on my gut instinct. My gut instinct is this: finish what you started!

We are told that the Edinburgh trams will reduce congestion, we are told they will reduce pollution, we are told they will enhance the image of a city that competes globally in the same league as the likes of Barcelona, Munich and Prague.

Certainly Edinburgh is becoming more congested.  According to international figures it is one of the most congested cities in Europe now.  Edinburgh has an outstanding bus service but it is at maximum capacity.  With congestion comes pollution.  At its worst some of the pollution levels can match those of Beijing in some of the city canyons created by tenements.

The trams will alleviate these problems.

But this tram project has been beset with problems.  It was due to complete this year but is now projected to complete in 2015.  It was due to cost £545m, now cost estimates are for £770m and that is running one line to the city centre from the airport - no line to the modern Royal Infirmary and teaching hospital and no line to the fashionable Leith waterfront (home to Britannia, some Michelin Star restaurants and a gaggle of civil servants).

So the project is truncated, over budget and behind time!

With a smaller scale project I am hearing some of the original assumptions and benefits being challenged.

As I said, the whole thing was meant to cover a considerably larger area.  Originally the trams went hand in hand with a congestion charging scheme to reduce traffic.  And, originally the trams went alongside an ambitious housing and re-development plan for Leith (the port area) and along the waterfront.  Two of the tram lines are not going ahead, the congestion charging got voted out in a local referendum and the recession put paid to the Leith redevelopment - for now.

But new figures have been given and apparently the reduced trams project still brings about appreciable advantages in congestion and pollution reduction.

Maybe some of these figures should be questioned - will this just benefit tourists - is everyone being entirely truthful or realistic with their projected numbers?  Time will tell.

I also believe it is just a start.  Once the core infrastructure is up and running it is much easier and cheaper to extend it.  I think in time the trams will go to Leith and maybe even the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on the edge of the city.

Congestion is not going away.  Modern transport modes will not stand still.  This is a project for the future and one we will build on.

Even if the numbers don't stack up well at this stage, as opponents of the scheme argue, I think they will over time. But I am prepared to change my mind on this if it can be outlined that none of the revised numbers stack up at all. 

I'm also told that, paradoxically the traffic re-routing necessitated by trams will create pollution black spots in some new places.  However, I think the net affect will be an overall reduction in pollution for the city.

There have been a few other examples of big engineering projects which should help us put this project in some sort of perspective.    The Dublin tram project was hated during the building disruption and ended up costing three times the original estimates.  It is now a big success and being extended!! The Manchester trams are being extended too.

Wembley Stadium was beset with delays and increasing costs and also in Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament building cost 10 times the original proposal and is now an iconic building.

The Edinburgh trams project is actually a relative minor offender in terms of rising costs.  True the project is over budget by around £200m, with just a third of the work completed. But most of the hard bits have been done: new bridges, the tram depot, the groundwork - moving gas, water and electricity pipes along the route much of which involved renewing pipework that would have needed renewal anyway.

So, what has gone wrong and who is to blame? 

Despite putting the costs over run in perspective there is no doubt that this is much worse given we have a recession at this time. I also think after the parliament building debacle there was a determination to put a stop to major engineering contracts being so open ended in terms of costs.

This project has had a massive time over-run and at times in terms of project management has seemed something of a shambles.

Huge disruption has been caused on Princes Street and down Leith Walk meaning traders have suffered.  Those living close to the route are driven to despair.  Particular vitriol seems to come from the good citizens of around Leith Walk as it has been dug up, is still dug up and the tram will never go there.  'Which genius thought that one up?' they cry!

Well it probably will someday - just not yet!

This project has a messy structure and governance.  There is the Council, a firm called TIE (Transport Initiatives Edinburgh) to project manage the construction and the main contractors - Bilfinger Berger.

Hit by delays and overspend there has been a series of disputes.  Work stopped and external mediators had to come in to solve a series of contract disputes between the city and the contractors.

Political pass the parcel

The politics of all this has become quite grisly.  It resembles a game of pass the parcel in reverse as the parties try not to be associated with a once glorious project as we near election time.

I actually think this is a complicated saga and to pin the blame on one party is ridiculously simplistic and probably wholly inaccurate.

Make no mistake, this is a long standing project with original all party support in Edinburgh.

The LibDems and SNP can be criticised because they form the current administration and most of the problems have come to a head while they have been in office.  In particular they signed a contract in 2008 with the contractor which did not prove water tight on the costs.  But they were told that 95% of the costs were fixed.

I for one would like to know if the council lawyers and council officials and TIE people should have done better with the contract that was put in place in 2008.

The SNP point out, rightly, that they were the only ones against the project.  However, they are part of the current ruling group and they signed off the contracts in 2008 and since then have made the project impossible from within making them more responsible for difficulties than the LibDems, reckons the Green Party's James Mackenzie who does media for their MSPs.

The SNP in Edinburgh are interesting, they do spend a lot of time trying to look both ways and pass the buck on this issue even though they have voted for it.

They did oppose it originally.  They seemed to do this for political advantage in 2007 rather than as a profound policy position.  At Holyrood they opposed it but that was because they saw spending on roads as more important and didn't want big capital projects in Edinburgh and Glasgow, they wanted it spent up north where their support came from at that time.

I'm not sure what the SNP in Edinburgh thought before 2007 as they were barely a factor in those days.  I don't remember them taking a strong line against the original Tram ideas.. 

Labour have been particularly political in a pathetic and disingenuous way.  They say there was no trouble before 2007 and the problems all come from the 2008 contract with the developer.  Apart from the fact that this is over simplistic to the point of inaccuracy I have one problem with this.  The problems with the project management stem from the governance arrangements and the responsibility for the Edinburgh trams governance arrangements lies entirely with Labour!  Though I think that too is over simplistic as there was all party support but I do think the project management problems are at the root of the problems - the 2008 contract is symptomatic of that.

I don't want to get bogged down in this but each political party shares in the responsibility for the shambolic management, and there are questions to ask of TIE, lawyers and council officials.

So back to where I started from.

Its a bit of a mess.  We can't be sure of all the new figures and assessments and the politicians are trying to pass the buck in a pathetic manner.  But my instinct is they are better finishing what they started; and like Dublin, Nottingham, Manchester, Seville and countless other European cities, I hope we will be glad we did this one day and will want to extend the Edinburgh tram project.

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