Paris Gourtsoyannis: Tram inquiry can't decide the future

The big questions about how our cities look won't be settled by Lord Hardie, says Paris Gourtsoyannis
Relaying the past: Edinburgh tore up its tram lines 60 years ago  replacing just some of them proved divisive. Picture: TSPLRelaying the past: Edinburgh tore up its tram lines 60 years ago  replacing just some of them proved divisive. Picture: TSPL
Relaying the past: Edinburgh tore up its tram lines 60 years ago  replacing just some of them proved divisive. Picture: TSPL

Nothing had been swift about the capital’s tram network, and so it has proven with the inquiry: last week it held its first oral evidence session, more than three years after getting under way and with £6m of public money already spent.

You couldn’t extend the tram to Leith on that sort of money, but it would help. As inquiry chairman Lord Hardie drowns in paperwork trying to get to the bottom of what went wrong, Edinburgh’s councillors have been grappling with the future.

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Should another £162m be spent delivering the tram line that residents were originally promised over a decade ago, or should Edinburgh content itself with what it got for its three-quarter of a billion pounds?

As a recovered Edinburgh Evening News transport correspondent, it is with some trepidation that I grapple again with a city’s most divisive issue not involving football.

But as the testimony unfolds over the comings weeks, months, and all too likely years, it will be important to remember that the inquiry is about how the trams were delivered – not about the overall merits of having them. And it cannot be allowed to delay or influence the decision about whether to extend the line further.

When it finally arrives, the tram inquiry report should hopefully provide a manual for how not to manage a major infrastructure project.

The scheme was nobbled by a lack of political consensus before it began. In a country the size of Scotland, a project of that scale should have commanded not just the resources of the whole nation, but national support.

Instead, the Scottish Government handed over the cash but left delivery to the council, pulling Transport Scotland out of the project and denying it badly-needed clout.

The result was predictable: contractors, council officers, tram agency executives all ran rings around elected councillors.

Already we’ve heard from former council leaders that they were misled and denied critical information when things started going wrong and the lawyers were called in.

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But we already knew this: the tracks hadn’t even been laid (for a second time) when Gordon Mackenzie, a councillor with a background in social work who was put on the board of the delivery agency, admitted that the body “probably didn’t have the right skill mix” to give the project sufficient scrutiny.

More uncomfortable lessons will follow, but if we’re raking over the past, a more important question has gone completely unexamined.

It is a far older one, and it may seem pointless to ask it now, but getting to the bottom of it will have more to tell us about how we want our cities to work in future.

Why on earth were the tramlines ever ripped up in the first place?

Like cities across the developed world – many of which also decided to pull up streetcar rails in the second half of the last century – Edinburgh faces serious problems with traffic and air pollution.

Its economic success and appeal as a place to live means both problems can only get worse as the city grows before they get better.

Until 1956, the city had a 76km network of trams running from Levenhall in the east to Corstorphine in the west. Think about that – at the price-per-kilometre paid for the 14km that Edinburgh has now, rebuilding that network would cost £4.2bn.

Such losses of public infrastructure are usually the effect of natural disasters. In Edinburgh, the damage was willing and self-inflicted. The rails were ripped up in the belief that trams could be easily replaced with buses, and to facilitate the explosion of private car ownership sparked by postwar wealth.

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Just like the Beeching cuts to the UK’s railways that are now being made good at huge public cost, that decision can now only be seen as a disaster for public health, wellbeing and the economy.

Fast-forward to the present day and Scotland has been loudly celebrating a feat of transport engineering. But the Queensferry Crossing represents a £1.35bn investment in road transport that will only add to emissions – to say nothing of the congestion it will add to the already-choked streets of west Edinburgh.

Considering the politics of the two projects, they make for a telling comparison. Both were delivered late, although admittedly the disruption caused by the trams was far greater and most costly. And both were, despite what the Scottish Government insists, far more expensive than originally thought.

Many question whether a redundant road bridge was necessary, given there were viable plans to repair the corroded cables on the original for a fraction of the cost. What is undeniable is that the earliest estimates for the new bridge ran to £600m in today’s money.

In fifty years time, which project will future generations look at with greater pride?

The Scottish Government is making far-sighted decisions on transport.

Setting a bold target that all new vehicles sold must be electric by 2032 is welcome. As is the doubling of annual spending on active travel to £80m – although if the government wants to make a real difference to Scotland’s sub-standard cycling infrastructure, it needs to go further.

Spending on cycling in the Netherlands is roughly half a billion euros, or around £28 per person, compared to around £14 in Scotland after the boost.

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Are we making the right decisions so that our towns and cities will be more liveable in 60 years, not less? And are we committing enough resources to deliver on that goal?

The Edinburgh tram inquiry won’t give us the answers, but those are the questions that urgently need to be asked.

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