Tramfail Edinburgh

Years ago, back before the 2008 banks failure, there was a plan to build shiny new blocks of flats out along Newhaven breakwater and other shiny new buildings along Leith waterfront.  The wealthy people who would live there would step into a tram – the terminus at Newhaven – and in a few stops be at Princes Street, or stay on and reach Edinburgh Airport. This was going to cost £545 million, mostly funded by a £500M grant from the Scottish Government.

What the regular people, those of us who use public transport daily, thought and said was:

But wait! The railway line goes directly past Edinburgh Airport. Commuters between Edinburgh and Fife pass the airfield every day of the working week. Instead of paying £545 million for a connecting line from Newhaven to the airport, why not pay far less and get a railway halt by the airfield, and a connecting road between the halt and the airport, and spring for a fleet of transport buses for the road?

Granted that would have meant that the rich folks who were in principle going to be living out at Newhaven, and the Scottish Government employees from Victoria Quay (the tram would have gone right past them), would have had to plan on getting by public transport from their home or their work to Waverley or Haymarket, and getting on the train, rather than one beautifully comfortable ride, but it would have cost less.

But wait! The tram line is going to occupy a fair amount of space on Edinburgh’s not-very-wide streets. There already is a public transport service that goes from Ocean Terminal along Princes Street to the Gyle regularly, one of the most useful buses in LRT’s fleet, the 22 – and this tram line is going to ensure that the 22 runs less frequently, at the very least.

Granted getting on a bus and finding the exact change and sitting with a lot of plebs isn’t as glam as a shiny new tram. But we vote too, the many who ride on the bus.

This was all before any of the other issues came up. All along the proposed tram route, including Leith Walk, Princes Street, and Shandwick Place – three of the busiest streets in Edinburgh – the road was going to have to be closed down and dug up. For months at a time. To move and refurbish old pipe and wires, so that – eventually – tram lines could be laid. Leith, hardest hit for years, got least attention or compensation. But the roadworks hurt everybody. And what was said, in a friend of a friend of friend way, was that the company hired at the start to evaluate the costs of the tram enterprise and the damage the road closures would do to business, had been told they must provide a positive report: that any doubts they had about the timescale or the costs must be squelched.

For a while there were boards down Leith Walk advertising that the trams would take you to work in 2011. (Some wag wrote on one “I can’t wait that long!“) They got taken down in early 2010, but well before that, everyone knew – 2011 was an early estimate date, not a final completion date.

Edinburgh trams at Ocean Terminal

For a while there were a pair of tram carriages at Ocean Terminal, for people to admire, but they've gone too.

And then the council met, and decided that the best solution was to truncate the line – the rich people’s homes out at Newhaven weren’t being built or bought, and the tram had never been meant for the plebs, so the best solution was to have it go from St Andrew’s Square all the way out to the airport: a tram line running in parallel to the train line that already goes to the airport. Further public transport disruption, more costs, for a line of doubtful value in the first place.

The costs of this truncated project are currently estimated at £830 million and probably more. The project has already cost £550 million and terminating it would cost the council £180 million more as a one-off payment which they don’t have the revenue to cover (and the Scottish Government refuses to help). I suppose the Council are still hoping that if they can only get a shiny new tram line running, gradually people will forget.

I doubt it.

–Update: Oh wait.

The council’s report, which wasn’t going to be available till Monday, is now online:

Section 3.20 deals with the costs of just quitting – no longer throwing good money after bad. “The specific agreement reached at mediation was that each of the Consortium members would prepare sealed envelope estimates of their costs for walking away from the contract in the event that the Council was unable to secure the necessary funding to complete the project. Further discussions now indicate, in the event that the Council is unable to secure approval of the funding to complete to St. Andrew Square, termination of the contract by this mechanism, resolving all related liabilities, as at the 25 August, i.e. some £80m below the costs of unilateral separation as previously calculated. However, it should be noted that this is currently not legally binding.”

So it will probably cost £100M to wrap up the project and admit it was a foolish idea. But no one really knows, still, what it will cost to build the tramline from St Andrew’s Square to the airport.

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