TRAM chiefs were today warned to brace themselves for a storm of protest over plans to spend £500,000 hiring tram drivers at least 18 months before the line opens.
Senior city councillors, business groups and taxpayer representatives reacted angrily after the Evening News revealed yesterday that as many as 11 drivers and controllers were to be recruited by the end of this year for “testing and commissioning”.
Deputy leader of the city council Steve Cardownie said he had been left stunned by the plans – which he only learned by reading the News.
He said: “Certainly I’ll be asking questions of the chief executive. No-one told me that this would be happening and it comes as an unpleasant surprise to hear it from the Evening News.
“At the end of the day there’s not even that much track for them to be trained on and given that the trams won’t begin running until summer 2014, it seems to be too early.
“It may be that the time period is justified, but no-one has given us information on how long it takes to train a driver.”
Two drivers and controllers are due to start work before the end of this month, with a further eight being employed and fully trained by December 9, earning around £25,000 a year.
A general manager is also set to be hired imminently on a salary of between £70,000 and £80,000.
Joanna Mowat, Conservative councillor for the city centre, said she wanted to know whether the cost was “reasonable, or a further liberty with the public purse”.
She added: “The difficulty with the tram project is that this is possibly completely normal and standard.
“But given the incompetence and ineptitude typical of the way the project has been managed so far it’s almost impossible to work out, for the public and for councillors, what is good practice and what is an outrageous liberty. We’re worn out wondering what bit of bad news will come next.”
Jeremy Balfour, the leader the city’s Tory group, said: “Ultimately, this is the responsibility of Lothian Buses and they do run a very efficient business.
“If they feel it’s time to hire drivers then that is their decision – but they will have to justify why this is being done so far in advance.”
But the move was slammed as a massive waste of money by taxpayers’ groups and businesses already affected by the disruption caused by the project.
Robert Oxley, of The Taxpayers’ Association, said: “Just when you thought they couldn’t waste any more money on this project, tram bosses find a way.
“It’s barmy to hire so many staff so far in advance of the line opening, it will only add to the bill if the project is delayed yet again. The tram line has been one expense after another.”
Grant McKeenan, who runs the Copymade shop in West Maitland Street and has already clashed with tram chiefs, said: “They need at least a year-and-a-half? You are kidding me. I feel like they’re taking the mickey.
“They’re also just ignoring complaints made by us traders now, who haven’t had a penny in compensation for the disruption they have caused.”
Lothian Buses was unavailable for comment.