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York Place

Princes St tramworks – more to come <em>Picture: Richard Webb</em>

Princes St tramworks – more to come Picture: Richard Webb

By John Knox

The baffled contractors for the Edinburgh trams are now working out how they will complete the line to St Andrew Square for a mere £776 million.

The white-collared executives at Bilfinger Berger headquarters back in Germany must be ruing the day they ever took on this contract. It has been plagued by problems from the start – vagaries in the initial agreement, disputes, delays, technical difficulties, unforeseen extra work, simple bungling, incompetent middlemen, a divided and confused council, a hostile government and an angry public.

But has there ever been a large public works project that has gone smoothly? When the original railway lines were built in the 19th century there were constant delays and disputes. The tram projects across England in the 1980s and 1990s – in Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Newcastle, Sheffield – took 10 to 15 years to build and were subject to alterations, disputes and financial crises before they finally proved a success. The much vaunted system in Dublin was three times over budget. And yet all of these transport systems are now the boast of their citizens and have been extended or are being extended.

It was all a question of keeping one’s nerve. And this Edinburgh council has finally managed to do, though the councillors have behaved badly along the way. How, for instance, did they ever manage to vote for the madcap option of halting the line at Haymarket? The Labour and Conservative councillors who pushed this through must have been attending a tea party in Wonderland.

The economists were telling them that very few people would want to use a line from the airport that stopped short of the city centre. It would make a loss of £4m a year. And where would the terminus and turnaround area be? And how much extra would that cost?

The Conservatives went further at the final vote and wanted the whole project abandoned. This is after £440m has already been spent. Mind you, the ruling Liberal Democrats had been drinking something peculiar too when they claimed that the cost of cancellation would be £750m – give or take the odd £100m. This must have included not just the money spent already but also the cost of buying out the construction contracts and putting the underground pipes back where they were – a little too much tidying up and somewhat disingenuous.

As for the SNP, their opposition to the trams has always been a little suspicious. It does not easily square with their ambition for Scotland as a modern, well public-serviced nation. Did they really want to leave the capital city without a vibrant city centre and without the transport capacity to expand? Edinburgh would be left as the only major city in Britain without either an underground or overground rail system.

I suspect the SNP’s opposition was all a populist ploy to take advantage of the temporary frustration with the trams in Edinburgh itself and to appeal to people in other parts of Scotland who felt that “posh Edinburgh” was getting too much of the national cake. In the end, though, the SNP saw sense and realised the only thing to do was finish the line to St Andrew Square, whatever the cost.

John Swinney, the finance secretary, finally brought people to their senses by threatening to withhold the £72m the government still had to pay as its share of the cost. That allowed the council – in the SNP’s favourite phrase – to think again.

Now it’s up to Bilfinger Berger and the other contractors to get on with the job and finish the line by, say, 2016. They have three major embankments to build. Then they need to lay most of the track, re-lay the botched section along Princes Street, build a terminus at York Place, install signalling and CCTV and arrange for the Lord Provost to cut the tape.

The council for its part needs to take out a loan for £231m – paying roughly £15m a year for the next 30 years. It needs to stop arguing with the contractors. And it needs to hold on to the vision that the line between the airport and St Andrew Square is only the beginning of a network of trams that will stretch to Newhaven and Granton on the north side of the city and to the new hospital at Little France and Musselburgh in the south and east. Then Edinburgh will be able to grow gracefully, with quick and easy access to the city centre from prosperous villages on its outskirts where property prices – and council tax revenues – will be rising nicely in the years ahead.

And as the works begin again, the investigations and the lesson-learning can begin, too. Lesson one: do not employ TIE, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, and their expensive executives. They have very nearly ruined this project. Lesson two: for big transport projects use the experts at Transport Scotland, and here the Scottish government was at fault for not offering this assistance.

Lesson three: make sure the original contracts are clear about who bears the risk of unforeseen difficulties – it should, of course, be the council. Lesson four: do not have lengthy disputes with your contractors – disagreements should be settled while work continues because delays just cause costs to rise.

Lesson five: do not enter into confidentiality agreements, but let your disputes take place in the open air. Lesson six: be patient and understanding. These public works projects are difficult, take time and are expensive. Lesson seven: try to be responsible democrats. Political parties should not give in to every passing frustration in the press or from the public.

And finally, lesson eight: try to take pride in the project. It is creating jobs at a time of recession and it is building something for the long-term benefit of the city.

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