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Who asked for the Trams?


Last month your intrepid reporter went all the way to Edinburgh for the launch of Prof David McCrone’s book Who Runs Edinburgh?

It’s a good question, huh? A lot of the book is historical, with descriptions of how the Edinburgh bankers, academics, lawyers, merchants, aristocracy and assorted professionals ran the place, without ‘political interference’, right down to the 1960s.

It gets topical in the chapter on the trams project. Based on many days attending Lord Hardie’s Inquiry and extensively researched elsewhere, he avoids judgement but the evidence is crushing.

Basically, the trams have been extremely expensive and will probably go down in history as a public project disaster. A similar type, if not on quite the same scale, as HS2 in England.

The whole idea was sold to the council as a branding exercise: as an international cultural destination, tourist hot-spot, seat of government, flourishing centre of research and learning, we must have trams.

From the beginning, it was very doubtful that the cost/benefit analysis was in favour of the residents of Edinburgh.

Progressively hollowed out since the 1980s, now under-funded and with very constrained ability to raise its own revenue, the Council simply never had the capacity to manage a mega-project like this.

Despite being a substantial contributor, the government was clear that Edinburgh Council was the principal contracting party. If the government had control, Transport Scotland would have had supervision of the project, as it did of the Queensferry Crossing, which came in on time and within budget.

At the very least, you would expect all the contractors to share the overall vision. They didn’t. They’re good at taking their slice, avoiding risk, and bumping up their prices.

Outsourced contractors and consultants muddy corporate and political accountability. They infantilize government and public bodies, and they warp economies*.

It was said at the Inquiry that contracts were signed that should never have been signed.

A big justification for the trams to Leith was Forth Ports’ proposal to close the docks to shipping and redevelop the whole area with residential accommodation for a population the size of Falkirk.

Then there was the idea of getting all those tourists straight off the plane and into Ocean Terminal, a destination shopping mall, with Former Royal Yacht Britannia alongside.

The docks are still open to shipping. Ocean Terminal’s top-end retail experience has been supplanted by St James Quarter, and FRYB, one of the UK’s biggest single visitor destinations, is increasingly isolated from the tourist trail.

The line from Princes Street southwards to Little France and RIE was a serious proposal, and the income stream was going to be a congestion charge on motorised vehicles in the city centre.

There are good reasons for a congestion charge, but money-raising isn’t the most persuasive. The matter was put to a city-wide referendum in 2005 and was soundly rejected.

Let’s change the question Who Runs Edinburgh? to something simpler and more basic: who stands up for the public good, the interests of all the residents? We thought it was the Council, supported by the government.

The truth is that this space is being invaded by the corporate world. You can be sure that, for all these years, as travel patterns were up-ended and businesses on Leith Walk struggled and folded, corporate dividends and bonuses were paid in full and on time.

It changes us from citizens in a democracy to punters in the market-place.

From Newhaven to Ocean Terminal trams can run at their top speed, but from Ocean Terminal to Coatfield Lane they share the carriageway with other users. To the Foot of the Walk, only a few hundred yards, they have the street to themselves, but from there to Pilrig they share again. To York Place, they run at top speed.

There are limitations to advance signalling giving trams priority, as it can cause knock-on effects to other traffic and pedestrians.

With fewer stops than buses, and faster through the streets in certain sections, trams are mainly useful for longer journeys. They are not capable of diversion, so a hold-up anywhere on the line can cause serious problems.

When first mooted in 2015, the extension from York Place to Newhaven would cost £144.7m. By 2019 this figure was upped to £207m. The whole length, to the airport, has cost around £776m, which comes in at £89m per mile.

Then there’s Lord Hardie’s Inquiry, which still has to report, currently running at a cost of £13m+. That’s more than the Chilcott Inquiry into the Iraq war.

This has happened before in Leith. In 1903, Leith Central Station was opened, grotesquely over-sized and over-ambitious. It had a miserable working life of 49 years – the last timetabled train pulled out in 1952 and it was demolished in 1989. The site is now the car park beside Tesco.

What will the reality – or memory – of the trams be a century from now? ■

Info: *The Big Con by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington

Rebel Bear’s Leith take on the tank man of Tiananmen Square. Photograph by Gavin Booth

Leith has suffered this before, when Leith Central Station opened in 1903 it was grotesquely over-sized and over-ambitious



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