Scott Macnab: Edinburgh braced for more tram chaos

The prospect of extending Edinburgh's tram system suggests city fathers haven't learned from the past, says Scott Macnab.

Ten years after Leith Walk was first disrupted for tram works investigations, the spectre has reappeared.

More than a decade ago John Swinney issued a prophetic warning to fellow MSPs at Holyrood.

It came as the then newly elected SNP government found itself being effectively railroaded into pressing ahead with controversial plans to introduce trams on to the streets of Edinburgh, which it desperately wanted to abandon.

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“The danger with the project is that there is an unwillingness to deliver it as the people of Edinburgh expected it to be delivered when it was launched – there is also a lack of focus,” he said.

Ten years after Leith Walk was first disrupted for tram works investigations, the spectre has reappeared.

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It was a forlorn plea, as the fledgling Nationalist administration was about the lose a Holyrood vote on the issue as the opposition parties combined to demand the controversial scheme progress.

It prompted years of upheaval, disruption and diversions on the capital’s streets, not to mention overruns to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds and, of course, the inevitable years of delay before the trams were finally operational in 2014.

Ten years after Leith Walk was first disrupted for tram works investigations, the spectre has reappeared.

The whole unsavoury episode brought with it an unwelcome reputation for civic incompetence in Scotland’s capital.

Now it seems we’re about to embark on the whole business again with the emergence of a business case to extend the tram line down the eastern side of central Edinburgh through Leith to the Newhaven waterfront. For city fathers it seems to have a whiff of “unfinished business”.

This was the originally proposed route before cost overruns took their toll and this part of the line was curtailed three years into the initial building works. Instead, a £776 million line was delivered which runs from the airport to the west of the capital, to York Place in the city centre. This of course was more than double the £375m estimate of the original plans which were drawn up by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration back in 2003.

These also envisaged trams running in the capital by 2009 – so just five years late then.

Much of the blame was directed towards the German construction giant Bilfinger Berger which was laying the tram lines.

David MacKay, the head of Transport to Edinburgh which managed the scheme on behalf of the city, was scathing in his assessment of the firm. Its executives were forced to maintain a diplomatic silence due to contractual obligations, but relations got so bad that work on the project was even halted for several months in 2011 and the project came close to collapse after the council’s then Labour and Tory opposition groups won a vote to end the line at Haymarket, a terminus two miles short of the planned stop at St Andrew Square in the city centre.

It was only when the Scottish Government threatened to turn off the funding tap that a second council emergency vote was held and this was overturned.

The forthcoming trams inquiry may shed some light on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans but the truth is that Edinburgh is an old, historic city and once the council had given the green light to start digging up roads to make way for tram lines, engineers were always likely to come across structural issues with pipes and cables, along with other foundation works which couldn’t simply be ignored once unearthed.

The hope is that similar unforeseen nightmare scenarios will be avoided on the line down to Newhaven – because much of the preparatory work has already been undertaken when utilities were diverted along the Leith corridor before the section from the city centre down to the waterfront was scrapped amid mounting costs.

But it has emerged that there remain more than 1,200 “conflicts” – objects that may have to be shifted in the Leith Walk area to accommodate the next phase. The 2.9 mile route is only a third of the previous line from the airport into the city and with current estimates of £162m, the hope is that the costs won’t spiral out of control in the same way.

But the potential for years of disruption and chaos already loom large. Leith Walk will be reduced to just one lane of traffic for an 18 month period when the works get underway.

The congestion logjams likely on nearby Bonnington Road and Easter Road, where traffic is being diverted during this period, will be a nightmare for those living in nearby areas.

The zealous push to forge ahead with the trams may be understandable if they had been a resounding success since they were introduced to the capital in 2014. But many passengers have complained that the trams continue to be slower than the bus, particularly when travelling out to the airport, where the shuttle bus can be twice as fast.

Some residents are so furious with the inconvenience caused that they refuse to use the line.

The trams are still barely a quarter full on average, official figures indicate, although they can be full during peak periods and passenger numbers have almost doubled to 5.3 million in 2015. Operators have also, in fairness, introduced extra services to deal with the additional demand at peak times.

But it does often feel the trams are more popular with tourists – a welcome and vital addition to the capital’s economy – than they are with locals.

However, the real victims here are surely the businesses operating on Leith Walk. This is one of the city’s flagship thoroughfares, with previous council administrations having declared lofty ambitions of transforming it into the capital’s answer to Las Ramblas in Barcelona.

Instead shops were hit with years of disruption the first time round when the council decided to press ahead with regeneration work on top of the mothballed tram preparations in the area.

Almost 300 businesses claimed takings were cut as a result of major thoroughfares being shut and dwindling shopper numbers. One Indian restaurant owner insisted that takings were down by as much as 75 per cent and the £10m which was offered in compensation would simply not be enough to cover the likely losses involved.

So when council leader Adam McVey pledges this time around that a compensation scheme will be put in place to help ease burden for the hundreds of city firms likely to be affected, it’s perhaps easy understand why many appear unimpressed.