TRAM chiefs have admitted the project would be hit by further delays and rising costs if Scotland experiences another severe winter this year.
Freezing temperatures and snowfall would reverse recent progress and eat into the £34 million contingency fund set up to soak up delays and faults.
Nearly half of this fund – £15.1m – has already been spent in recent months to deal with more unexpected utility works, which have dogged the project to date.
New figures also revealed just over £100m of the £776m revised budget remains, with nearly two years to go before the summer 2014 deadline.
Transport chiefs today insisted the project remained on target, and attributed the disconnect between expenditure and actual work completed on the fact that most of the materials and labour costs have been paid already.
Sue Bruce, chief executive of Edinburgh City Council, wrote in a progress report that “there still remain a number of events, including weather and further utility challenges” that could require more cash to be taken from the overrun budget.
She said: “It should be noted that certain weather dependent activities are still to be completed. As a result, all targets within the Client Target Programme remain subject to weather conditions.”
Meteorologist have warned of a severe winter for Scotland and northern Europe, linked to record losses of Arctic Ocean ice this summer.
“We can’t make predictions yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see wild extremes this winter,” said Jennifer Francis, a leading weather researcher.
Forecasters are warning that the current mild autumnal weather is set to come to an abrupt end as soon as this weekend, with plunging temperatures, freezing fog and the first heavy snow of the winter forecast.
Insiders at the local authority, however, sought to play down references to the risk posed by severe weather, insisting that, at worst, recent timetable gains may be reversed, but that the final deadline will remain unchanged.
One insider said: “This is talking about a worst case scenario and the worst that would happen is we would lose some gains made in recent months, but the ultimate deadline would remain.”
Meanwhile, all work on Princes Street should be lifted by late November, including barriers and traffic diversions at the east end, according to the report.
It is also intended that pedestrian access to Shandwick Place and the West End be improved by December, with a limited eastbound bus route through the area by next summer.
Despite the assurances, Michael Apter, chairman of the West End Association and owner of the Paper Tiger stores, said business owners had been given vague promises and no dates to work to because council chiefs and contractors were afraid of falling behind again.
He said: “We have shops taking on Christmas stock, bars trying to arrange festive events, and it’s very difficult for them to make these decisions because they don’t know if people are going to be able to access this area or not.”
Work in the West End was originally to be completed by spring 2013 but was pushed back to the autumn.
Mr Apter added: “We’re all grown-ups here, we understand if it snows and it lies on the ground for three weeks work will stop, but the reluctance to give us any firm dates on when work will finish is unacceptable.”
Earlier this month, the Federation of Small Business said it had been told by tram officials that the project is running as much as six months ahead of schedule. Although city leaders are understood to be reluctant to flaunt the progress, the report stated that test runs between the airport and York Place may be under way by January 2014.
However, John Carson, left, a former head of maintenance at Network Rail and long-standing critic of the tram project, who has claimed the final tram bill will top £1 billion, said councillors have failed to understand the finances.
Off-street works – which broadly include Edinburgh Airport to Haymarket and measures 11.2km – have cost £32m for every kilometre, while on-street works – Haymarket to York Place and measuring 2.5km – have cost £15.6m per kilometre, figures Mr Carson claimed were “impossible”.
He said: “Nobody would believe the on-street sections of the Edinburgh tram could be half off-street sections. We’re talking about digging up city streets, and all the disruption associated, costing more than turning a disused rail line in west Edinburgh into a new line. It’s inconceivable – it won’t be long before the trams people come looking for more cash.”
Lesley Hinds, the city’s transport leader, said: “I’m very pleased that we are continuing to move in the right direction. It’s vital that we build on this progress and, where we can, aim to complete works early.
“We’ll continue to listen to local businesses and residents and we’ll use their feedback to minimise disruption wherever possible.”
TIMETABLE OF WORK
Late November: Open remainder of Princes Street, left, with removal of all traffic management and barriers currently in place at the East End.
Greater pedestrian access for the work site in St Andrew Street up to Multrees Walk.
Re-positioned and renewed all major utility works.
December: Improve pedestrian access around Shandwick Place in the West End, including reducing the size of the work site area.
Delivery of final three trams from Basque firm CAF, of a total of 27.
January 2013: Edinburgh Trams and Lothian Buses to progress work on terms for future passenger running operations, such as ticket purchase and routes division.
February/March 2013: Main road/track works largely completed on Shandwick Place. Further improvements to pedestrian access.
Summer 2013: Limited eastbound bus route through West End, Shandwick Place and Coates Crescent.
Early 2014: Testing runs between Edinburgh Airport and York Place scheduled to get under way (subject to weather conditions).
July 2014: The contractual completion date for the project.