Tram line design months late as budget slips £10m off track

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THE cost of designing Edinburgh's tram line is more than £10 million over budget and months behind schedule, the Evening News has learned.

Despite two years of work on the 512m line, transport chiefs have still not finalised the final design of the airport to Newhaven route.

It is understood that problems with key sections of the route – including Picardy Place, York Place and Princes Street – have pushed design work over budget and off schedule. The lack of finalised designs is at the heart of an ongoing dispute between tram firm TIE and its German contractor Bilfinger Berger.

The New York-based Parsons Brinkerhoff Group was given the 23m design contract in 2005.

It was expected the design would be finished last February but this changed when contracts were signed with the tram consortium in May.

It was then agreed that the consortium – which includes Bilfinger, Siemens and tram-maker CAF – would take responsibility for the final completion of the design.

However, this last phase – around 20 per cent of the total design work – has proved the most difficult in terms of getting the contractors, TIE and the city council to agree to a final plan.

Yesterday, the Evening News revealed just 40m remains of the original 96m set aside for overruns or tram line problems.

TIE today said it would not be drawn on the overrun, but added that completing the design work was a "contractual responsibility" for the contractors.

Administration and opposition councillors both raised concerns about the cost increases. Deputy council leader Steve Cardownie said: "This is not good news and once more brings into question the original tram budget."

The city's Labour leader Andrew Burns said: "This constant flow of stories about potential budget problems simply underlines the urgent need for some clear political leadership of the tram project."

"For such a large-scale development it's crucial that the politicians currently in charge get to grips with every detail and ensure a proper understanding of what's going on."

A spokeswoman for TIE said: "As TIE is in dispute with the Infraco consortium it would not be appropriate for us to comment on contractual issues related to this dispute."

Tram closure 'not putting shoppers off'

THE closure of Princes Street for tramworks has not put shoppers off visiting the city centre, according to new statistics.

The figures show visitor numbers in key areas in the first week of the closure were generally higher than the average for the first six weeks of this year. Shoppers' footfall at Rohan on George Street showed the biggest increase with 99.2 per cent, which was followed closely by George Street's Dome which saw an 86.3 per cent rise in footfall.

Latest News on South Bridge showed the biggest drop in footfall – 59.9 per cent down – with Offbeat on the same street experiencing a 15.4 per cent reduction in passing shoppers.

Three out of four areas on Princes Street saw an increase in visitors for the week beginning February 23, when all diversions and road closures were in place. A council spokeswoman said: "George Street and St Andrew Square have been positively affected by the tram works. Princes Street saw footfall remain steady or increase."

General manager of Jenners store, George Bell, said: "We have benefited from having the tram outside our front door. Obviously more people are now getting off the bus on George Street or St Andrew Square, but the diversions do seem to be running smoothly and this past weekend was pretty buoyant for us. But it's very early days."

The city's economic development leader, Tom Buchanan, insisted the figures were only one indicator and added: "We're not going to pretend everything is rosy."

Watchdog says no to tram probe

MSPs have criticised the Auditor General's decision not to investigate major problems with Edinburgh's trams project.

Lothians Nationalist MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville contacted Audit Scotland along with Edinburgh Conservative MSP David McLetchie to request an investigation after work ground to a halt last month.

Mr McLetchie said he accepted the decision but would prefer it if the Auditor General was prepared to "crack the whip".

Ms Somerville reportedly said: "It is disappointing, but no surprise, that Audit Scotland is unwilling to intervene. We must get a real estimate of final costs and the finish date for a project that is clearly running behind and well over budget.

"Audit Scotland should reconsider and come back to investigate what chance there is left of finishing this project on time and on budget."

Auditor General Robert Black said: "I consider it would be inappropriate for me to become involved at this stage.

"Auditors will, of course, continue to monitor the project's progress through our normal audit activity."