How Edinburgh’s latest tram plans could cost £2 billion – John McLellan

A city-wide tram network is back on the table. Picture: Ian Georgeson
A city-wide tram network is back on the table. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Proposals for a mass transit network in Edinburgh, including new trams lines, represent a fine concept but the cost will be crippling for city, writes John McLellan.

There is no questioning the ambition of the city council administration to revolutionise transport in Edinburgh, but that hasn’t been in doubt since David Begg was in charge and it’s 20 years since he moved on.

From the Greenways and the West Edinburgh busway, to the city-wide tram network and congestion charge referendum and now the City Mobility Plan being discussed at the transport committee today, the desire by the council to get people out their cars and into public transport has been consistent.

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There is a limit to what can be done in a city as difficult as Edinburgh and, with the possible exception of the sketchy Lauriston tram idea first mooted last year, the latest wish-list has changed little in principle since 2005. It isn’t difficult to pick holes in the paper produced by two engineering and infrastructure consultancies, Steer and Jacobs; in particular there is no attempt at cost estimates and the proposed transport hubs around the city centre are just circles on a map with no explanation of how they would work.

Just a few problems

But it is at least honest about some of the practical difficulties involved in delivering new schemes with a chance of making a meaningful impact on the way people travel. Here are just a few:

1, Running trams along the old Roseburn to Granton rail line wouldn’t link up key destinations like the Craigleith shopping complex or the Western General so a line would need to go along streets.

2, The Coltbridge Viaduct needs major engineering work and can’t take both trams and bikes. A new span across the Water of Leith will be needed.

3, South Bridge is too narrow to accommodate tram lines and bike lanes.

4, Running a tram from Lauriston to Morrison Street would mean demolishing buildings on Bread Street.

5, The South Sub rail line doesn’t take people in and out of town and as freight services make it difficult to schedule regular passenger services it should be discounted.

6, Extending the tram to Newbridge would be less cost effective than a better bus service.

Of course everything is possible with money, but without re-heating the congestion charge and an acceptance that success will diminish returns from a workplace parking levy, where will the cash be found?

Who believes council on cost?

If laying three miles of tram tracks through Leith might cost £250m (who believes the council that the bill will not go a penny over £207m when their own experts give a 38 per cent chance of hitting £250m?) when the hardware has already been bought, then a redesigned Granton Spur plus lines to the Royal Infirmary and beyond will easily top the £1bn the airport-Newhaven line will cost.

Throw in the Nicholson Square-Haymarket line and the city would be lucky to get any change out of £2bn.

It’s not that the principles are wrong, but the disruption and costs are so massive that, in the absence of Scottish Government support, the burden will inevitably fall on Edinburgh citizens. The Newhaven completion relies on heavy borrowing against future fare receipts, but even then still needs a £21m surcharge on Lothian Buses. Unless there is a significant change to the way major transport infrastructure in Edinburgh is funded, be it through council tax, higher bus fares, stiffer parking charges or new levies, you, dear reader, will foot the bill. Yet the administration leaves no room for any doubt. “By 2030, the mass transit network, including tram, will have been extended west to Newbridge and will have been developed to connect the Waterfront in the north to the Royal Infirmary in the south and beyond,” says its report.

So without any financial analysis or detailed engineering reports, the administration says it will all happen in ten years just because it says so.

Pigs may be chasing pies in the stratosphere, but the bill will be coming your way.

John McLellan is Conservative councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston