Edinburgh tram extension work begins before tram inquiry report is published – Alastair Dalton

Work has started on extending Edinburgh Trams to Newhaven but the inquiry report by Lord Hardie into its chaotic predecessor is nowhere to be seen.

The tram line is being extended north east from York Place. Picture: Jane Barlow
The tram line is being extended north east from York Place. Picture: Jane Barlow

It’s been the week some tram haters hoped they would never see, but equally the one others knew would always come.

Construction started on Monday on extending Edinburgh’s tram line from the city centre to Newhaven, five years after it opened for business.

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The project is effectively just the completion of the original scheme, or at least that of the most recent section to be truncated after delays and cost over-runs spiralled.

Work getting underway on Monday in Constution Street, Leith. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

City council leader Adam McVey described the beginning of work as a “major milestone” and said there was a “real sense of anticipation in the community as we embark on this exciting new chapter for the area”.

But while everything else appears to have been lined up to build the extra three miles of tram line, there is one significant part of the jigsaw missing.

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Where is the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry report from Lord Hardie? It was set up by the Scottish Government in 2014, which talked of a “swift” investigation so lessons could be learned from the original tram fiasco.

However, that soon became unlikely as the scale of the task confronting the judge emerged – the need to address 65 aspects of the case after sifting through six million documents from a potential pool of 500 million.

Scotsman’s diversion map

Four years ago, I warned in this column: “You’ve got a potential situation of tram line construction restarting while the inquiry into what wrong the first time is still under way.”

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A spokeswoman for the inquiry told me yesterday there was still no date for the report’s publication, and it was for the council to comment on the extension going ahead.

A council source told me it was also in the dark as to when the report would appear, and it “can’t hang around” waiting – despite not knowing if the report’s recommendations will be binding. I’m told officials have “rigorously interrogated” what went gone wrong with the original project to prevent the same mistakes being made again. But isn’t that what the inquiry has been doing?

It’s true that Lord Hardie’s report may well provide useful pointers for future tram schemes, but nowhere else in Scotland is rushing to build one.

I understand only two of the firms involved in Edinburgh’s initial project are part of the current scheme, while there is no arms-length company like Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (Tie), around which much of the previous trouble appears to have focused.

I would even hazard a guess that Lord Hardie’s report will point the finger at Tie, and the council, as chiefly responsible for the mess, remembering how chaotic things were at the start of work last time round, 12 years ago, when Tie failed to produce a map of preliminary roadworks to divert underground pipes and cables.

I spent a late night creating one with The Scotsman’s graphics team, only for Tie to call later and ask if they could use it. This time round, the council has produced its own map.

It might be tempting fate to think it’ll all go swimmingly this time. Perhaps everyone involved is so bruised by the memory of what happened before that they are doing their damnedest to ensure things are right from the start. But equally, the die may have been cast on something catastrophic but still hidden in the project, which we haven’t had the benefit of the inquiry report to head off. Don’t book that tram ticket to Newhaven for 2023 just yet.