curiosity about the ways of the world

Don’t scrap the tram


Flashback to the successful Friends of the Earth Scotland campaign 2007

“A great city let down by its elected representatives”, BBC Scotland environment and science correspondent David Miller sums up last night’s Newsnight Scotland tram story, possibly the best news coverage so far of this extraordinary mess. The thunder is still rumbling around the city today and it has a long way to roll yet.

But last night’s story asked some very important questions. Not least, where is Jenny Dawe, city council leader. As Miller said last night, if this was happening in London you can bet Boris would be all over the media.

Edinburgh’s media does have some questions of its own to answer. The Evening News has consistently focused on the myths and mischief making of politicians with a party axe to grind.  Where was the journalistic investigation into the contract, where the forensic analysis of budgets, where the curiosity about the contractors? How have Bilfinger Berger managed to complete other projects around the world without this difficulty and is it true that the Scottish government has placed a gagging order on the company?

Today as Alex Salmond grants a public enquiry, the city council is faced with the official version of that leaked report claiming it will cost more to scrap the tram than carry on. So the Evening News has published poll results claiming most people in the city want to scrap the tram.  Like all polls it begs more questions than it answers. I for one am passionately in favour of the tram.  But like most people I know (whether for or against the tram) I cannot understand how the project has become such an extraordinary disaster, or who is to blame.   (And I am not at all sure a public enquiry  is the best use of public cash).

Apart from lack of leadership and gobsmacking inefficiency, my main criticism of the council is that it has utterly failed to present an inspiring case for the tram.  It shouldn’t be difficult. The tram is a fast and energy-efficient way to connect communities across a city with a growing population; it increases social mobility and reduces congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions.  These are benefits which should suit the green claims of the Scottish Government. Now the SNP represents so many urban constituencies maybe the tram could begin to look more attractive?

They (and the Evening News) might take a look at  Linkedin where Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has been conducting a civilised and balanced debate with many good reasons for not scrapping the tram. Even as I write a wonderfully sane and intelligent discussion is live on the Better Nation blog.  With luck some of the writers will stand for election to the city council next year!


  1. Alan D Rudland

    While I have been critical of the management of this project in the past, I have endeavoured to maintain an open mind to the potential benefits of a tram system. Unfortunately we have now reached the point where a tram system cannot be delivered within a budget which will do anything other than bankrupt the city.

    Until such time as there is full public disclosure of all of the facts behind the figures being quoted for the ooptions to be considered by the Council on 30 June, there must be NO VOTE!

    The latest report is biased in the extreme, and does not provide sufficient information for Councillors, let alone the general public to understnad the implications of the various options: status quo, termination or build a truncated line to St Andrew Square.

    No costs have been given for the status quo / termination options – how can this be democratic? Does the cost to build to St Andrew Sqaure include the ‘true cost of purchase’, including costs of borrowing, subsidies etc? Does the cost to terminate include costs which are not relevant or required (e.g. cost to remove redundant structures such as the Gogar Depot – something NOT required by the Tram Act)

    Pressing ahead because, ‘too much money has already been spent’ is illogical according to economic principles, and is known as the sunk cost fallacy.

    What services are you willing to sacrifice to fund the borrowing to continue with this project at this time? The borrowing required will cost millions of pounds annually to service the debt – the Council has limited budgets, and can only meet these obligations by cutting services – so what goes? Education, care for the elderly, roads, economic development…

  2. Administrator

    Thanks for commenting Matthew. Compared with many other cities Edinburgh does indeed have good bus services. The problem is that buses (even upgraded and environmentally sound vehicles) simply cannot carry enough passengers to cope with the population growth in Leith and other parts of the city. Nose-to-tail buses up Leith Walk could not carry as many passengers as the tram. What’s more new buildings on the Waterfront are actually not well served by buses and residents need cars to be connected to the rest of the city – therefore adding to congestion, carbon emissions and air pollution.

    I agree the route was (lets say IS, I still hope the trams will run in the city) too limited. Sadly, 2 of the 3 original routes were ruled out by the failed congestion charge project.

    Regarding the moving of utilities – these Victorian utilities would have had to be replaced at some point in the near future anyway. There is a good argument to be made that investment in this kind of essential infrastructure should have been completely separate from the cost of installing the tram.

    I also agree that the tram is a grand project and is of course politically driven. But I don’t think either of those are necessarily a bad thing. Most civic improvements require either political leadership or philanthropists (or both) to make them happen. To me the real tragedy is that political leadership is sadly lacking in Edinburgh. And you and I can probably agree on the woeful management of the project.

  3. Matthew

    This was never the right plan for Edinburgh. Any benefits would be more effectively provided by movement to an upgraded and more environmentally sound fleet of Lothian Buses. A long-vehicle, fixed-line, badly-routed tram project requiring the movement of existing utilities and co-ordination of multiple foreign contractors by ill-qualified, overpaid public servants was never going to be a good prospect in a city with excellent public transport that needed bright thinking rather than the folly of politically driven and divisive ‘grand projets’.

  4. Administrator

    Agreed, it was good to see not only Lesley Hinds make that point but Gordon Brewer reinforcing it strongly. To my mind it is not only irresponsible to share power without responsibility, it is also immoral.

  5. Ray

    The way the SNP spokesman on Newsnight Scotland tried to wash his hands of the whole affair was an absolute disgrace. SNP signed the contract in 2008. They have shared power with the no-profile Lib-Dems ever since. Instead of carping and trying to score party points for the last four years why did they not take control of the affair and sort it out?

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