They’ve been a long time coming. Over six years after construction started, Edinburgh’s trams boarded their first fare-paying passengers on 31st May, three years behind schedule. Covering just 8.7 miles, the line ended up over twice over budget, with the present cost at £770 million, and with the final cost after interest payments estimated as £1 billion, the system provides a fraction of the route mileage originally intended.
During construction much of Edinburgh has been turned into a giant construction site, constant road closures making driving around in the city a nightmare for the whole construction period. Indeed, Princes Street, the world-famous thoroughfare at the heart of the city, was at one point closed for a 10 month stretch, bringing many traders to their knees.
And now that the much-foreshortened route is complete, tourists viewing the magnificent architecture of those streets have their views spoiled by the overhead wires and supports needed for the tramway to function.
Has Edinburgh benefited from the tramway? Well, apart from being saddled with the massive cost of approaching £100 million per route mile, and the visual impact of the overhead wiring infrastructure, the jury is still out. Even Edinburgh City Council’s Chief Executive has been reported as describing the project as a “shambles”, and the city’s transport leaders will doubtless be watching ridership data very closely over the coming weeks and months. Accident statistics will also be under close scrutiny: cyclists have already voiced strong concerns about the potential for bike wheels to become caught in the trackways. Indeed, Scotlands First Minister Alex Salmond has just ordered a Judge-led public inquiry to establish why the project incurred significant overruns in terms of cost and timing in an effort to understand just what went wrong.
Were there viable alternatives? Almost certainly: Edinburgh has long possessed a highly efficient and award-winning publicly-owned bus system in the form of Lothian Transport, offering commuters and visitors alike a 600 strong clean, modern fleet which uses up-to-the-minute technology to make using the fleet as simple as possible. Yes, like most cities, traffic congestion has been an issue on some routes, however whilst some attempt has been made over the years to address this, more could and probably should have been done in the way of bus lanes, priority junctions and other public transport priority measures. Instead the City’s leaders tended to favour more grandiose schemes, typically the guided busway which was opened to much fanfare in 2004 and closed much more quietly in 2009, not before attracting its share of criticism and being the scene of at least one multi-bus collision.
Even a highly-sophisticated urban motorway could have been built for similar cost, as was done in Glasgow with the M74 which provides a six-lane highway through the city. Even tunnelling through strategic locations could have been an option – although in fairness this would probably have been more expensive.
One thing is for sure: if this is the sort of mess Scotland’s great and good can make on just one major project, it does not bode well for their ability to set up all the systems and infrastructure needed to support their new country if there is a Yes vote in the coming referendum.
As if the Edinburgh Tram debacle was not worrying enough, it looks like all is not what it seems at one of Scotlands other major infrastructure projects. Construction of the new Forth Replacement Road Bridge, due to open in 2016 at a cost of some £1.4 billion was approved by the Scottish Government who were adamant that the existing Forth Road Bridge was suffering from significant deterioration. However, the need for the new bridge has now, it appears, been challenged by no less than the bridges own Chief Engineer He has asserted that examinations have confirmed that the existing bridge structure is in fact in a satisfactory condition following recent repairs and was likely to achieve its original design service life without major repairs. The resulting political outcry could be interesting!
Just at the moment, I think I’m glad I live south of the Border!