TRAM bosses have recruited a tough-talking construction expert to help fight their corner as the bitter row with their German contractor comes to a head.
Tony Rush, who has held top jobs at Balfour Beatty and Barr Construction, has been parachuted in to help co-ordinate tram firm TIE's "contractual strategy", with sources close to the project indicating the row will be resolved one way or the other within the next few months.
Mr Rush – who was once quoted in industry bible Construction News as saying: "I'm no soft touch. If you kick me in the b***s, I'll head-butt you several times" – has been drafted in as it emerged TIE has now adopted a "no compromise" approach to the dispute.
It is understood the tram firm is no longer negotiating on design detail, but is insisting that the contract is upheld in its entirety.
Sources close to the project today indicated that the dispute could "blow up" within the next two to four months, adding that all on-street work would be stopped until the dispute is resolved.
One insider said: "It's not going to resolve itself, but we can try to keep the battles off the streets of Edinburgh."
The majority of the work would then switch to the off-road section between the airport and Haymarket, adding weight to suggestions that the route could be phased in.
News of Mr Rush's appointment comes as the tram project enters a critical phase of the negotiations with Bilfinger.
A crisis meeting of the tram project board last week is understood to have discussed options for "phasing in" the route.
The Evening News understands the construction consortium, which includes Bilfinger, approached TIE earlier this month about delivering the project in stages, with the airport to Edinburgh Park section finished first.
However, Cllr Gordon Mackenzie, the city's transport convener, said today the proposal was "not worth the paper it was written on," while TIE chairman David Mackay said the timescale proposed was "entirely unacceptable."
Some insiders now believe that the council will push to deliver the airport to Haymarket section in time for the 2012 local elections.
That has sparked fears that once that section is complete, the rest of the route could then effectively be postponed until more funding is in place, as happened with line 1b, the so-called Granton spur.
Questions and answers
WHAT'S GONE WRONG?
It's hard to know where to begin, but most of the current problems began with work to move underground utility pipes and cables, which has turned out to be more complex than expected. The increasingly fractious and on-going contractual dispute between tram firm TIE and construction giant Bilfinger Berger – which has seen much of the city's on-street tram work grind to a halt – largely arose out of these difficulties.
HOW MUCH IS IT GOING TO COST?
Nobody knows – not even the two Richards, Jeffrey and Walker. The official line is that it will be difficult to deliver within the 545 million budget. Estimates from credible sources suggest the final bill could be anything from 600m to more than 1 billion.
WHEN WILL IT BE FINISHED?
Another difficult question. The official deadline for the complete airport to Newhaven line has slipped from next year to early 2012. But the contractors are now saying 2014 is more realistic. TIE for its part remains hopeful that at least a part of the route – between the airport and the city centre – could be open as early as next year, by phasing the works programme.
WILL THE LEITH LINK EVER BE BUILT?
TIE and the council say they remain committed to building the route in its entirety, including the section of the line from Leith to the city centre. Sources close to the project, though, claim that will be impossible without TIE finding more funding.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Negotiations between TIE and Bilfinger are reaching a crunch point. No-one is optimistic about a deal being struck. That could lead to Bilfinger being kicked off the job and replaced (which could prove costly and time-consuming), the dispute heading to court (ditto), or both sides agreeing to binding arbitration (perhaps the best outcome). Whatever happens, it is difficult to envisage any sort of tram line up and running anytime soon.
March 2003: Details of a tram scheme announced, complete with a 2008 finish date and a cost of 375 million.
January 2006: One of the proposed lines is scrapped due to funding crisis. Only line from Leith to airport deemed affordable in a "first phase."
June 2006: Willie Gallagher appointed executive chairman of TIE.
September 2006: Completion date: 2010; Cost: 512m.
June 2007: Scottish Government drops opposition to the plans.
July 2007: Preparatory work begins. Completion date: 2011; Cost: 512m.
November 2008: Gallagher quits for personal reasons.
December 2008: David Mackay appointed new chair of TIE and admits costs rises are "inevitable."
February 2009: Tram work grinds to halt as Bilfinger Berger demands more money to finish.
May 2009: Completion date: 2012; Cost: 545m.
January 2010: Reports suggests costs of the project will soar to about 600m.
March 2010: It emerges Bilfinger Berger has proposed delaying completion until 2014, as fears rise that the route may be scaled back.
The main players
The tram project's director of customer services and communications heads a battery of PR staff who have been hired to promote the trams by TIE and the council. Others include Media House, the Glasgow firm set up by former Scottish Sun editor Jack Irvine.
As the council's transport leader,he is charged with overseeing the tram project.
Like his predecessor Phil Wheeler, who he replaced last May, he has faced calls for more openness and tighter scrutiny of the scheme.
A former executive chairman at construction firm Barr, Rush has been brought in to help in negotiations with Bilfinger Berger.
A tough talker, he once told a journalist:"I'm no soft touch. If you kick me in the balls, I'll head butt you several times."
As chief executive of TIE since May 2009, Jeffrey – a former managing director of Edinburgh Airport – is responsible for delivering the tram line, and handling increasingly fraught disputes with contractor Bilfinger Berger. Working alongside him is chairman David Mackay, a former head of the Scottish Rugby Union.
The managing director of construction company Bilfinger Berger UK, Walker is prevented from commenting publicly on the project by the contract signed with TIE. Behind the scenes, however, he is understood to be growing increasingly frustrated with TIE's position.
The former city leader and now Edinburgh director of PR firm PPS, Anderson has been employed to lobby politicians and the media by the construction consortium which includes Bilfinger Berger.
STEVE CARDOWNIE AND JENNY DAWE
ONE of the trams most vociferous critics has been deputy council leader Steve Cardownie.
The city's SNP leader – who was appointed the city's "tram champion" by virtue of his senior position despite his trenchant opposition – he has expressed concerns about the Leith to city centre section of the line being mothballed.
Memorably, he has claimed Edinburgh could end up with a service fit for "three men and their ferret".
Council leader Jenny Dawe has often been accused of being low-profile during rows about the tram project. Last week, however, she agreed to call for a report, which opponents hope will detail how the various costs are building up.