Alastair Dalton: Tram inquiry looks set to drag on

Edinburgh Trams celebrates its first birthday with a replica tram cake. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Edinburgh Trams celebrates its first birthday with a replica tram cake. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE Edinburgh tram inquiry now clearly won’t be the “swift” investigation that Alex Salmond hoped when he launched it a year ago.

Chairman Lord Hardie announced this week that the first hearing would not be until August. He also said it would be brief and essentially procedural, and gave no date for the start of the main proceedings.

With 65 areas to be covered and millions of documents to sift through, the inquiry is shaping up to be a gargantuan task for the former judge and his officials.

Talk of it taking two years were previously played down, but that could yet prove a conservative estimate.

It will also be a year tomorrow that trams finally started running, years late and with the £776 million scheme massively over budget.

But the temporary blocks marking the current end of the line at York Place in the city centre may not remain there for much longer. The city council is actively considering completing the section down Leith Walk to Newhaven.

So you’ve got a potential situation of tram line construction restarting while the inquiry into what wrong the first time is still under way.

But unless Edinburgh becomes a rare city that turns its back on extending its new tram network, there is likely to be more to come.

After all, the Newhaven arm was only one of several sections to have fallen by the wayside, along with a northern loop via Granton, an extension from Edinburgh Airport to Newbridge, and a line south to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The key point here is what the inquiry was set up for.

Yes, Lord Hardie’s terms of reference include finding out why the project cost so much, was so late and so little was built. But he has also been charged with advising ministers how “major tram and light rail projects of a similar nature might avoid such failures in future”.

Because that may well not have happened until extending the tram line begins, serious consideration must be given as to who will be in charge of the project.

The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency has stepped in to take over pretty much every major rail project to have hit problems, from the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine and Borders railways to the subsequently-cancelled Glasgow Airport Rail Link.

It has been argued that Edinburgh’s trams are not a strategic project, so not part of the agency’s remit. But that’s just too convenient for a project that the SNP didn’t want to be seen anywhere near. Surely Transport Scotland must take a far more active role in the next stage of tram development, or Lord Hardie could end up with even more on his plate than he has already.