Edinburgh tram extension should terminate in the City Chambers

Edinburgh tram extension should terminate in the City Chambers

by Nick Cook
article from Tuesday 5, March, 2019

LATER THIS MONTH, Edinburgh councillors will take a final decision on extending the city’s troubled tram project. Despite the massive cost overrun, delay, disruption and reputational damage brought by the original project, there is a principled view that favours extending the tram line. 

Indeed, a majority of councillors in Edinburgh City Chambers seem committed to extending the line no matter the cost. 

Just as principled is the view that the Council should terminate this vanity project and focus on the real priorities facing the capital. 

An already expensive project previously estimated to cost £165m, the tram extension has now ballooned in cost to £257m. For context, the extension would cost £93m per mile while the original project, which ran three times over budget, was eventually delivered for £89m per mile. This cost is even more ludicrous when you factor in that we already own the tram cars, tracks and substations. 

Astoundingly, despite previous works endured by Leith businesses, there are still around 1200 conflicts below Leith Walk – many categorised as ‘high risk’. 

The Edinburgh Tram Inquiry rumbles on, set to become one of the most expensive in British history. Yet Edinburgh Council’s SNP/Labour administration confidently assert they have learned the lessons of the previous project. But the proposed extension is already subject to years of delayed decision and big cost increases. The Inquiry conclusions are fundamental. 

The Council’s business case notes that the Inquiry outcome could lead to additional project costs – which officers have confirmed are impossible to quantify before Lord Hardie has reported. Similarly, while several ‘stress tests’ are applied to the financials of the business case – such as interest rate hikes or a drop in projected tram patronage figures, these are all considered in isolation. No ‘worst case scenario’ is presented where several things go wrong at once – you know, like in real life. 

Brexit isn’t given a mention, let alone identified as a risk. An odd oversight for an SNP-led local authority who’s party has attempted to exploit the issue at every turn since the EU referendum. 

Lothian Buses and its passengers will also pay dearly. The tram extension remains predicated upon a £20 million raid of Lothian Buses’ coffers and on passengers migrating from bus to tram. The business case is clear the project presents significant logistical and financial challenges for Lothian Buses. Fewer services means passenger reductions, and increases in fares. 

It’s worth noting that 91 per cent of Leith residents are already happy with public transport provision in their area. Still, we all agree we must deal with the implications of a growing city. 

Rather than pour money into the tram, some of the £20m dividend could help deliver a world-leading low and zero emissions bus fleet, alongside road and public realm improvements which ease congestion and make it easier for the bus network to drive our city into future decades.

Future ticket sales revenue from the existing tram line could be better ploughed into improving public services – including building new city schools. After all, what greater investment can the public sector make than in the workers of tomorrow? 

Let’s be clear. Contrary to SNP/Labour claims, spending money extending the tram is a political choice, not a case of money for trams or no money at all. When first considered in 2015, I led on Transport for an Edinburgh Conservative Group that stood as the lone voice of opposition to the tram extension. 

Four years on, Edinburgh Council’s SNP/Labour administration – and their hard left Green comrades – have at least succeeded on one front. They have united a motley crew against this overpriced vanity project, including Conservatives, members of Unite the Union and the Scottish Socialists. In the last few days, even the Liberal Democrats – once the all too enthusiastic face of the Edinburgh Tram project – have come out against the scheme. 

It’s time for councillors to put the good of the whole city first, by voting to terminate the tram extension in the City Chambers, not Newhaven. 

Councillor Nick Cook is Conservative Transport Spokesman on Edinburgh City Council. An abridged version of this article appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News.

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