Martin Hannan: We are all owed trams answers

It was while travelling on the excellent Airlink bus service back from the airport into town the other day that I suddenly realised there really are a huge number of questions to be answered about the trams fiasco.

Not the least of them will be this: why when Airlink is such a good and presumably profitable service did we end up having a tram system whose major effect will be to wipe out Airlink?

As we diverted along George Street because the contractors are once again digging up Princes Street, I wondered yet again just how this disaster overtook the city and who is really responsible. Then the questions started to flood into my mind.

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The promised public inquiry into the project must get the answers to all of the following questions and more, and then apportion blame where necessary.

Let’s start with these: back in the day when the project was being mooted, what serious independent examination of alternative transport systems was carried out? In particular, why was the trolley bus option so readily set aside?

Given the then Scottish Government’s position, was it clear in 2007 that if the opposition political parties in Holyrood voted for the £500 million subsidy to the trams, that both the Edinburgh and Glasgow Airport Rail Link projects would have to be abandoned, as they have been?

Was any proper cost-benefit analysis done at the outset of the trams project? If so, and it supposedly formed part of the business case made to the government, was this analysis independently checked?

The council had set up Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) in 2002 to take forward its transport strategy. Who advised that an arms-length organisation was the best way forward? Was TIE rigorously policed from the outset? Do the claims that councillors and officials who sat on TIE were lackadaisical and ignorant have any foundation? What independent reviews of TIE were carried out on regular basis?

When it came to choosing the contractors, was TIE competent to do the job? Was it unduly influenced in any way?

The lead contractor effectively says its Edinburgh client, ie TIE, was the worst it has ever had to deal with anywhere in the world. I am sure many of its clients across the globe will say the same thing about Bilfinger Berger. The inquiry, should it ask for it, can ask me for the sources of my previous writings on that contractor’s problems elsewhere. Did TIE and the council know about these many issues?

The original principal reason for Line 1 North Edinburgh was to “open up” Leith, Granton and the Waterfront in general to public transport that would encourage development in those areas. At what point did the benefits of that laudable aim cease to outweigh the supposed benefits of Line 2 West Edinburgh. In other words, what changed that made TIE plump for Line 2 over Line 1? And why was Line 3 rejected so readily?

Why was TIE so dysfunctional? Chief executives and chairmen came and went, so what was the problem inside the organisation? Who approved the exorbitant pay-offs some of them got? Who set the salaries and why were they so grand? How did at least one PR company trouser a six-figure sum from TIE when the organisation already spent a six-figure sum on its own in-house PR?

Just how much was paid to TIE’s legal and other consultants? Is the figure in excess of £7m as has been reported? Can they be sued for the advice they gave, should it be proven that their advice was wrong?

The “who guards the guards?” question: back in 2007, why did Audit Scotland conclude that the cost projections were accurate when there were already serious doubts about that in many quarters? Was Audit Scotland misled in any way, or was the organisation itself incompetent?

I remind you that my party, the SNP, did not vote for the trams in Holyrood or in the City Chambers, apart from a misguided attempt to present a united front when it came to signing the contracts in 2008, and latterly when the council had to be saved from the ultimate idiocy of stopping the line at Haymarket.

Yet neither the SNP nor any other party, nor any organisation or company that had anything to do with the trams, can walk away from this meltdown. All must be summoned to the inquiry and made to answer in public the above and many, many more questions.

Not only should the inquiry be public, but members of the public must be allowed to submit their own questions to the inquiry. I can hear the politicians and lawyers snorting at that suggestion, but why not? Sometimes the citizens can see clearly through the issues when those involved can’t or won’t examine things properly.

Above all, there must be answers. This is, after all, in monetary terms a bigger scandal than the Holyrood parliament and the council taxpayers and the Scottish people as a whole are paying through the nose for the incompetence and idiocy of others.

The inquiry into the parliament overspend was a whitewash. The inquiry into the trams must not be the same.