Who will pay for trams debacle? Calls for inquiry

Months of works that ripped up roads in the heart of the city during the construction of the tram lines tested the patience of traders and the public. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Months of works that ripped up roads in the heart of the city during the construction of the tram lines tested the patience of traders and the public. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT’S the £776 million question: what went wrong with Edinburgh’s tram project?

Frustrated members of the public and weary traders, whose businesses suffered because of the roadworks for the scheme, may feel they have a pretty good idea.

But now the trams are almost up and running, the way is clear for a public inquiry to quiz those at the heart of the controversial project and get to the bottom of why costs were allowed to soar so far over the original estimates and why trams are finally being delivered five years late.

First Minister Alex Salmond has previously said there should be a public inquiry once the project is completed. And the city council says it has all the necessary documents ready.

But some senior figures are privately sceptical about whether an inquiry will ever happen.

One said: “No-one is going to come out of it looking good. It’s not in anyone’s interests to have an inquiry.”

The Scottish Government has indicated it wants to meet the council, once trams have begun operating on Saturday, to discuss how an inquiry could be structured.

But it also pointed out potential legal action by the city council – against a law firm which gave advice at the time the contract was signed and against its own arms-length company TIE (Transport Initiative Edinburgh) which managed the project – could delay the inquiry or restrict its scope.

An inquiry – officially set up by the Scottish Government, possibly chaired by a High Court judge and almost certainly with the power to require witnesses to attend and give evidence under oath – will see key figures, including councillors and officials past and present, forced to account for their part in the long-running saga.

Starring roles may well go to former TIE bosses such as Willie Gallagher and David Mackay, ex-council leader Jenny Dawe and ex-transport convener Gordon Mackenzie, as well as representatives from contractors Bilfinger Berger/Siemens and perhaps former transport minister Stewart Stevenson.

One of the key issues which an inquiry would have to look at is the poor relationship between TIE and the contractor which led to a bitter, prolonged and costly dispute, delaying work at a crucial time.

TIE has been accused of taking an aggressive approach. One source said TIE’s mentality in its clashes with Bilfinger Berger had been “the opposite of the Bridge over the River Kwai”.

He explained: “In the Bridge over the River Kwai, they forgot they were there to defeat the [enemy] and not just to build a bridge. TIE forgot that their object was to build a tram line and not to defeat the Germans.” The source also claimed TIE – effectively wound up by the council in 2012 – had been more interested in self-preservation than delivering a good project.

“A lot of the work on the trams was being carried out at the lowest point in the economic recession and the people involved knew if they lost their job for any reason it would be difficult to find another.

“Their interest was not so much to complete the project as to keep it going.”

TIE was created in 2002 as an arms-length company to deliver transport projects in the city but questions have been asked about whether it was suited for such a major project. It saw a huge turnover of people in key positions during the lifetime of the tram project, raising further questions about the way it was run and the appointments that were made.

But the starting point for the inquiry could go back to the very early stages of planning the project, long before the contract was signed, when city council officials were asked to find out what lessons could be learned from problems which had arisen in Dublin during the building of its tram network, particularly with the street works.

The inquiry may conclude the digging up of several key stretches of road over and over again suggests any lessons were not well learned.

The contract for the project and the legal advice received by the council will inevitably be a major focus of attention. Differences in interpretation of what the contract said about the responsibilities of the different parties was at the centre of the dispute with the contractor and there are questions about the legal advice received by the council. But the council has also been criticised for failing to scrutinise and monitor what was going on with the project.

And the Scottish Government will face questions over its decision to withdraw Transport Scotland from the management of the project in 2007, when the SNP failed in its bid to scrap the trams. Despite £500m of government money being handed over to the project, ministers wanted to distance themselves from it and the agency’s vital expertise was no longer available.

Lothian Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale, who has campaigned for an inquiry, said people who suffered as a result of the project deserved answers.

She said: “What I suspect we will discover is systemic failure in a number of different ways over a number of different years, but where it got particularly costly was during the building and that links back to the tendering and contract.

“But it was so over budget and so over time it will go back to decisions taken well before any soil was broken.”

City Tory group leader Cameron Rose said an inquiry was crucial. He said: “It needs to be independent, it needs to be public and it needs to be soon.”

Council transport convener Lesley Hinds said: “It’s up to the Scottish Government to decide if there will be a public inquiry. The council is prepared and has all the information and background papers ready.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The current focus is rightly on ensuring that the people of Edinburgh receive an effective passenger service once it is up and running on May 31. We would then intend to meet with the council to discuss how any inquiry could be best structured.”

Taking a trip down memory lane

FOUR generations of one lucky family are celebrating after winning the chance to be ‘the first family to travel on a tram’.

Margaret Siegal, 59, of Greenbank, entered the Evening News competition last week after hearing her 85-year-old mum Jean Elder’s memories of the last time trams ran in the Capital.

She is also excited to take her daughter, Angela Charman, 33, and three-year-old granddaughter, Emily Charman, for the ride which will put them in the history books as the first family to ride in the new carriages during the official launch event tomorrow.

Mrs Siegel, whose father was a train driver, said she was particularly excited to take the ride as her family had always used public transport and never owned a car.

“We don’t have a car – we use public transport as well as our families before did,” she explained.

“The trams are another part of Edinburgh that’s grown – I’m really positive about them and I feel it’s happening so we should make it work.

“I felt the four generations was a good way of going with it – I was born just as the trams were finishing and Emily just loves them – every time she sees them she gets excited.

“I’m so excited I can hardly contain it!”

Mrs Charman, of Buckstone, said she was particularly looking forward to Emily having the experience because she has never been on a tram.

“I’m ecstatic – I did not think we would win it,” she said.

“We have seen them testing them and when I have Emily she says ‘tram! tram!’ she’s so excited and it’s quite exciting having seen all the works and now eventually it’s finally opening.”

The family will join city transport convener Lesley Hinds, Scottish Transport Minister Keith Brown, Edinburgh Trams general manager Tom Norris and other special guests for the first official journey from St Andrew Square to the airport and back as well as receiving a commemorative keepsake as a souvenir of their experience.