Tram engineers pressured to go for cheaper track option

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TRAM project bosses put pressure on design engineers to agree a cheaper “unsafe” option for building Edinburgh’s tram tracks, the inquiry into the fiasco has heard.

Steve Reynolds, who was project director with design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, said his company argued for a more robust design, but main contractors Bilfinger Berger Siemens (BBS) went ahead with a lower-spec alternative in Princes Street, which then had to be dug up and replaced.

Princes Street, closed for nine months in 2009 for the original construction, was closed for another ten months from September 2011 after cracks and holes appeared in the road surface.

Mr Reynolds told the tram inquiry chaired by Lord Hardie there had been a “significant difference of opinion” between Parsons and BBS over how the tracks should be built.

He said: “We had designed full-depth reconstruction, which is excavation of the base, putting in place a sub-base underneath the immediate foundation for the trackform, so you are going down a significant way into the roadway.

“BBS had come up with an offer that was using prefabricated trackform which would only require planing off of the immediate surface and the insertion of that prefab trackform.

“Later on we were being pressured by [council tram firm] TIE to accept a much cheaper, much simpler 
trackform design and we pointed out the risks inherent in doing that. Subsequently when Princes Street was excavated we were proved to be right. The need for a more robust track form was proven then.”

In his written evidence, Mr Reynolds said he recalled a discussion with TIE executive chairman Willie Gallagher who said trackform had been a key issue in the choice of BBS over Tramlines for the contract.

Asked why it was not possible to build the BBS trackform, he said: “In our view it would not have been safe.

“A characteristic of the trackform design necessary for inner city circumstances like Princes Street, you need what’s called void spanning, because you’ve got to anticipate there will be cavities under the roadway, and subsequently when Princes Street was excavated, that’s exactly what we found.”

Mr Reynolds was also asked about an e-mail which showed TIE had asked Parsons Brinckerhoff not to finalise a £2 million claim for extra work until after spending watchdog Audit Scotland had completed a crucial review of the project.

The review was requested by Finance Secretary John Swinney after the SNP came to power in 2007 proposing to scrap the tram project.

An e-mail to Mr Reynolds from Parsons UK managing director Greg Ayres, summarising a meeting to discuss the company’s claim for extra cash because of work over a longer period.

It said: “The prolongation was acknowledged as well presented and worthy of consideration. We were asked not to run the final through doc control until after the Audit Scotland report is submitted to Cabinet mid next week.”

Inquiry counsel Ewan Mackenzie said: “It may be suggested that that request by TIE was an attempt to conceal the claim from Audit Scotland while they were carrying out their review.

Mr Reynolds replied: “That would be one possible interpretation.”

A settlement was reached in September which saw Parsons accept a payment of £2.5m for a series of claims.