Donald Anderson: Trams pain will be worth it

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Five years to the day after work on the trams began there is an end in sight, says former city council leader Donald Anderson

IT is not easy to be asked to give an overview of the tram project five years on, but it is and has been a very important, albeit often divisive, project for Edinburgh. Having been very involved at the early stages, I was always very clear that the trams were about our economy. As has been seen from the recent UHY Hacker Young study, Edinburgh contributes more per head to the economy than any other UK city. Indeed, at the time when the key decisions were taken, Edinburgh was on the crest of a strong economic “wave”. Job creation was at an all-time high, unemployment was very low and the city looked set for further success.

However, rather than rest on our laurels, the council decided to take forward the trams – with strong public support at the time. The reason was very simple. As an economic powerhouse for Scotland, Edinburgh had to invest in its infrastructure. Roads were becoming more congested, and fast and efficient public transport was an essential for driving future investment and success. I make that point as a simple reminder that whilst Edinburgh led the UK urban renaissance of the late-90s and 2000s, cities like London, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool were becoming much more attractive locations for investment. Without investment Edinburgh simply cannot grow.

Having left the council in 2007, I shared in the excitement of many, when work finally began on the trams on April 2 five years ago to great fanfare. Yes, we’ve all heard the jokes about it really starting the day before. No commentary on the trams can ignore the massive time delays and cost overruns. I’m not here to point fingers. I can’t. My own role in the genesis of the tram project will rightly be subject to scrutiny and cross-examination at some point in the future. I am more than happy to be held accountable for my actions, and I as much as anyone appreciates the importance of knowing what went wrong and why.

But go wrong it did, and badly. The disputes and delays grew over time and built into a crescendo of seeming incompetence. Edinburgh’s reputation as a city was (and still is) dragged through the mud. Our trams became a watchword for ineptitude as comedians, and more importantly Edinburgh residents, spoke in despairing terms about the open wound that was the tram project. People lost faith in the project and to an extent; they lost faith in our city. So where are we now? Well, the blunt truth is it’s still very tough. Residents and retailers are still facing disruption and many of those retailers – particularly the independents – are reeling from the double whammy of the longest economic downturn in modern history and the longest period of ongoing roadworks in Edinburgh’s history. I know that the council is doing and has done much to help support those retailers. Retailers will need all that support and more just to get through.

That said, there are some chinks of light. The improved relationship between council and contractor seems to be – at last – working. The Mound was reopened some four months early. Works at St Andrew Square are on track and utility works at Shandwick Place have been completed three weeks early. The Princes Street works (west of Waverley Bridge) are well ahead of schedule and are likely to be finished by early June. It should have been like this from the start. It wasn’t.

What we can do now – and what is being done – is get the job finished as quickly and efficiently as possible. I hope there will be more achieved ahead of schedule, but I can well understand the caution against making false promises. It is late – and yes horrendously late –but at long last it is getting there.

I am often asked if I think the trams were a mistake. I always reply that it was “the mistakes themselves” on the tram project that were the huge mistake. Blame must be allocated in due course – rightly so. But for Edinburgh, we have to look forward.

Our economy is still fragile. Trams will now be delivered. Investment in areas like Edinburgh Park where there has been almost no new jobs for years need the trams to be finished. Tesco Bank will stay, not leave Edinburgh, because the trams will now be finished.

It’s been a grinding slog. It has been a crushing blow to our reputation, but hopefully the debate can now shift from wondering what went wrong, to deciding how to use trams to help deliver those much-needed jobs, and much needed investment. It is still all about our economy. We need that investment now, even more than we did those five short years ago.

The facts and figures

• £521m spent (as of January 2012). Total budget £776m

• Route length: Airport to York Place (9 miles) with 17 stops

• 45 million estimated passengers journeys in first five years

• Capacity per tram: 250 people, 78 seats, 2 wheelchair spaces, 170 standing and ample luggage space

• Airport to Newhaven track originally set to be completed by April 2011

• Trams travel at 30mph on-street and up to 45mph on off-street sections

• Revenue services expected from summer 2014

• It is expected that eight trams will run per hour

• The tram project will begin to turn a profit in year four – estimated at £100,000