Edinburgh Trams utilities project ‘hardest task ever’ for official

An Edinburgh tram
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DIVERTING utilities for the Capital’s tram project was like “building a ship in a bottle” due to limited space and the difficulty involved in segmenting off areas to be dug up, a senior official has claimed.

James McEwan also told the Edinburgh tram inquiry that the complexity of the MUDFA [utility diversion] programme had been “totally underestimated” by those involved.

The former TIE employee, who worked for the firm as business improvement director from May 2007 to November 2009, was tasked with carrying out a review of the MUDFA works in May 2008.

Mr McEwan said he discovered a number of problems, including a breakdown in communication between TIE on one side and contractor Carillion on the other.

He said Carillion found the contract for the works “onerous” and made “repeated” representations for extra money after inheriting it from Alfred McAlpine Infrastructure Services in October 2006.

Other problems which he said arose from the diversions included inaccurate utility records and unexpected finds during excavations such as a WW2 bomb shelter and human remains.

The “worst” discovery was that cellar walls on the business side of Princes Street were in fact faux walls and that underneath the road there was an empty space.

“I recall a Carillion executive observing that he was surprised buses had not fallen through the road,” he remarked in his written submission.

Giving evidence via video link from Florida, Mr McEwan was questioned on comments in his statement suggesting he was unhappy with Carillion’s performance.

Inquiry counsel Jonathan Lake QC asked if this view changed upon completion of his audit.

Mr McEwan responded: “My recollection of the time was that we carried out the audit and there was an immediate improvement from Carillion.

“They saw me, I think, as new person in town, and there was an upswing in their performance.”

However he said things took a turn for the worse when the firm’s requests for extra money were rebuffed.

He went on: “As that process continued, my perception was that their performance started to dip.

“I think there was enormous passive aggressiveness about them not doing their job, or not focusing all their energies in getting this job done.”

The inquiry heard Mr McEwan’s boss, Steven Bell, took a “very hard line” on Carillion’s claims that the contract they inherited was unfair because it held them to previously unforeseen issues.

“His view was that the contract may have been inherited, but it was a contract that was signed in good faith, and as an experienced practitioner, they should have been aware of its dimension when they were buying over McAlpine.”

Comparing the MUDFA works to other projects in his career, Mr McEwan said in his statement that he would rank it as “the most difficult task” he had ever worked on.

The inquiry, chaired by Lord Hardie, has now entered its seventh week of public hearings.

It also heard evidence from John Casserly, who was employed by TIE as commercial manager for MUDFA from April 2007 to August 2010.

Mr Casserly explained the basis of the MUDFA works was to have a single contractor working on behalf of all the utilities to divert services two years in advance of the tram to create a “swept path”.

However, he said a lack of accurate records – showing what utilities were actually present – and design work running late caused problems from the outset.

Documents submitted to the inquiry state a “significantly increased” number of utilities were found and required diversion, taking the anticipated 27,000m of diversions up to 59,000m.

Mr Casserly said it was a common theme in historical cities for there to be discrepancies between the actual location of utilities and where they are said to be in company records.

Asked what was the best way to tackle this, he responded: “The only practical solution I believe is doing a great level of site investigation.

“Digging trial holes, exposing what’s in the ground and having utilities and designers with you when you do that to then come to a solution depending on what you find.”

florence.snead@jpress.co.uk