Ex-chief says tram will destroy buses

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BUS services in Edinburgh risk being destroyed to provide extra cash for the trams, the former chief executive of Lothian Buses warned today.

Speaking publicly for the first time since retiring two years ago, Neil Renilson warned the proposals going to tomorrow’s council meeting would mean higher fares and cuts in services.

Mr Renilson, who was once in charge of plans to integrate trams and buses, claimed the trams would make a loss whether they went to Haymarket or St Andrew Square.

And he said Lothian Buses could be left to find an extra £14 million every year for the next 25 years to pay the interest on tram borrowings plus another £2m or £3m a year to cover operating losses.

It comes as Peter Sargent, a former employee director on Lothian Buses, today called for the trams to be scrapped in a letter to the Evening News, warning the project would not be financially viable and would have a “severe financial effect” on the bus company.

Councillors will be asked tomorrow to choose between cancelling the project at an estimated cost of £740m, completing the route from the airport as far as Haymarket for £700m or spending £773m to take the trams to St Andrew Square.

Mr Renilson said: “I have not spoken publicly about the tram scheme since I retired two years ago, but tomorrow’s council decision is so important, the misinformation being spread so great, and the consequences of getting it wrong so grave, I cannot continue to say nothing, when what is surreptitiously proposed, is that the city’s bus services be trashed to provide more funds for the tram.”

He said if the figures in the council report for tomorrow’s meeting were accurate – “and that is a big if” – the extra money to be found was between £182m and £255m, which would almost certainly have to be found from borrowing.

“This is where things go quiet – who is going to pay the interest charges on these huge borrowings? Buried in the report are five carefully chosen code words which give the answer: ‘funded from surpluses on operations’. These five words, translated into plain English, actually mean it is intended that Lothian Buses will pay the interest charges on tram borrowings of between £11m and £14m each and every year if the tram scheme is to proceed.

“There will, of course, be no surpluses from tram operation, despite the report’s wishful thinking to the contrary, so it will be down to the buses and their passengers to cough up.

“If Lothian Buses has to find an extra £14m every year for the next 25 years to pay the interest on tram borrowings then the standard of bus service Edinburgh has enjoyed over the past 15 or so years will be destroyed – fares will have to increase dramatically, and lightly used lifeline services, socially necessary but unprofitable routes, and buses at the quieter times of day will be drastically cut back or withdrawn, and there will be no funds available to replace older buses.

“This will be made worse by the requirement on Lothian Buses and their passengers to pay for the operating losses of running the trams, likely to be £2m or £3m per year irrespective of whether it goes to Haymarket or St Andrew Square.”

He said what was being proposed was to sacrifice the city’s bus services in order to continue with the tram. “The reality is that tomorrow councillors will not only be voting on the future of the tram scheme, they will also be voting on the future of the city’s bus services. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the tram scheme, spending public money on it was one thing, but wrecking the city’s bus services is a step too far.”

He said whatever decision is made, a requirement should be included to ensure Lothian Buses and their passengers do not pick up the cost.

Mr Renilson said if the curtailed airport to St Andrew Square route was approved, it would mean less than one per cent of the city’s population would live within walking distance of a tram stop, while 92 per cent were within walking distance of a bus stop.

A spokesman for Edinburgh Trams said: “There are a range of funding options to be considered for the tram project which, once fully investigated, will be reported back to the council in the autumn.”

Meanwhile, Labour today dismissed SNP calls for a trams referendum. Labour transport spokeswoman Lesley Hinds said the SNP could not make up its mind. “People are looking for political leadership.”

Ron Hewitt, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, also rejected a referendum, saying: “Further delay will only increase costs even more.”

iswanson@edinburghnews.com

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