It all started so well but the tram journey fast careered downhill

IT WAS originally billed as the scheme that would follow the successful introduction of trams across Europe and learn from the mistakes that befell others – so what could possibly go wrong?

Edinburgh was going to do things differently and not repeat the errors made elsewhere.

Trams would be co-ordinated with the buses rather than compete against them, a tram operator would be appointed to help develop the scheme from the start, and all the underground pipes and cables would be moved from the tram route by a single contractor. How refreshing.

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Then there were plans for more lines to follow the original two, west to Newbridge and the Princes Street-Granton loop.

A third line would head south to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and Newcraighall, while there was even talk of a fourth – as recently as last year – along London Road to the east of the city.

But then things started to unravel. The cost has rocketed, the route map has shrunk, and the opening date – even though the trams have now all been built – has receded ever further into the future.

It all started relatively smoothly.

The then Scottish Executive awarded funding – which was then £375 million – to the city council for the first two lines.

Two parliamentary bills were lodged and subsequently passed without major hiccup.

However, as more detailed preparations progressed, it was found there wasn’t sufficient cash to complete both routes, and bit, by bit, sections were mothballed. First to go was the airport-Newbridge section, then the northern part of the loop between Granton and Newhaven.

But when work started on the ground, even greater problems started to set in.

The seeds of the bitter construction dispute, which was to almost scupper the entire scheme, were sown in the advance work required to divert underground utilities from the tram route.

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To great fanfare, in July 2007, a grand strategy was unveiled, whereby the entire remaining main route from the airport to Newhaven would be worked on in stages to prepare for tram line construction.

Utilities had to be moved so future work did not impede tram running.

The council was confident extensive research and test bores had been completed so no major nasties would be found – although archeological remains and unexploded bombs were a possibility.

But, as it turned out, such preparations proved woefully lacking because miles of extra pipes and cables were found, along with assorted obstacles such as underground chambers and air raid shelters.

The utility diversion work then inevitably ran late and cost much more than expected, leading to a head-on clash with the planned start of construction work, laying tram tracks.

The showdown came in Princes Street two years ago, with the construction consortium, comprising German firms Bilfinger Berger and Siemens and Spanish tram builder CAF, refusing to start work because the preliminary work had not been finished, as had been agreed with the council.

The dispute over Princes Street was also the starkest example of the impasse that had been reached between city council tram developers Tie and the constructors over the contract between them.

Over the next two years, with little major work continuing, arguments raged between the two sides, which eventually went to a formal dispute resolution process.

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Tie lost most of the independent adjudications which followed over the key issue – who should pay for changes to design of the project.

There have been claims that the original contract was drawn up and completed in a rush, allegedly so Tie directors could land major bonuses.

That’s never been proved but will no doubt come out in whatever inquiry will follow the end of the debacle. A change at the head of the council at the start of this year with the arrival of new chief executive Sue Bruce was to be a watershed in the saga.

She took the lead in the mediation process agreed by both sides, with secret talks held in March eventually resulting in an end to hostilities and both sides could focus once again on getting on with the project.

So what’s left? Well, along the way, the soaring cost of the scheme, fuelled mainly by the cost of the dispute and attempts to resolve it, have led to further cuts here there and everywhere.

The tram operator appointed nearly a decade ago was axed, the eastern leg of the remaining route was truncated at St Andrew Square with trams turning in York Place, and now the red line has become even shorter, only reaching as far east as Haymarket on the edge of the city centre.

Tie – which once also was spearheading the ill-fated congestion charge which was hoped would be a tram money stream – has now all but gone in the wake of a succession of chief executive departures over the last five years.

Tram tracks have been laid in Princes Street, but now need lengthy repairs, and the only other visible rails are on the former guided busway at Stenhouse.

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However, the council can point to some solid achievements with which to make a final push to get at least part of the line open, like having a tram fleet in place, major bridges almost complete and the Gogar tram depot well under way.

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