EDINBURGH'S tram developers were yesterday criticised for their "absurd" revelation that they are planning a fourth route even as problems mount with the half-built first line.
The news came as Edinburgh Trams chief executive Richard Jeffrey admitted that a major dispute which had delayed construction "could not be further" from the position he would have preferred.
The city council firm, formerly TIE, confirmed it was considering a line along London Road to eastern Edinburgh as part of an eventual tram network across the city.
An initial 11-mile route is being built from Edinburgh Airport to Newhaven, while the Scottish Parliament has also approved a loop via Granton and a western extension to Newbridge.
A third line was proposed to Newcraighall via Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, but was shelved because it depended on funding from congestion charging, which was dropped five years ago.
The SNP described the timing of news of a possible fourth line as "astonishing".
SNP Lothians MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville said: "It is absurd to be talking about tram line four before they are halfway through line one. People want answers about the works that have already started, and which are fast going off the rails in terms of budget and end date."
The year-long dispute between the tram developers and a construction consortium led by German firm Bilfinger Berger threatens to delay completion of the first line from the current date of February 2012 to 2013.
The row over changes to the project has halted track-laying on streets, although work is continuing on off-street sections west of Haymarket, with nearly one mile of track laid on the former guided busway at Stenhouse.
The cost of the project is expected to soar beyond its 545 million funding, which would leave the council to find a shortfall which could run to 90m.
A dispute resolution process was to have been completed by the end of last year. The tram firm has refused to comment on reports the consortium has won up to four rounds, pocketing millions of pounds in the process.
In a further headache, separate work to move pipes and cables from the tram route has still not been completed and is more than a year behind schedule.
Figures recently issued by Edinburgh Council showed an 8 per cent decrease to footfall in the city centre – suggesting visitors, shoppers and tourists have been put off by the disruption and roadworks. Traffic is still being disrupted by the work, which is continuing at six sites, including Haymarket and York Place. Edinburgh Trams has promised the work will be completed "as safely and promptly as possible".
The only part of the project still on target is the fleet of 27 trams, the first of which is being tested in Germany before arriving in Edinburgh next month.
The stretch of track between the airport and the Gogar depot will act as a test run for the first trams. After this drivers will begin training at night.
Mr Jeffrey said: "Given the lack of agreement on progressing the on-street works, Edinburgh Trams is examining options to mitigate against ongoing disagreements with the consortium and continued slow progress on some sites.
"The current situation could not be further from how we would all wish to see this vital project delivered."
Project director Steven Bell said no specific route had been decided for a new line to the east.
He said: "One suggestion might be that this goes down London Road towards Newcraighall. There are a number of routes a line could take to reach Newcraighall, including the original proposals for line three, but beyond this none of these potential routes has been tested, as we are focused on completing the original scope."