Tram Inquiry: Timing of Princes St delay ‘surprise to everybody’

Tram works on Princes Street in 2011. Picture; Greg Macvean
Tram works on Princes Street in 2011. Picture; Greg Macvean
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A bitter dispute which resulted in tram works grinding to a halt on Princes Street was a “smack in the face” for all involved in the project, the ­inquiry has heard.

And the speed with which the contract deteriorated – with workmen on the street downing tools for months in 2009 – was a “surprise to everybody”.

According to former Transport Scotland official John Ramsay, who worked on the venture as a project manager from 2005 to 2013, the dispute itself was no particular surprise.

However, he said the fact it happened so quickly was a shock to many, not least government ministers.

The inquiry previously heard how work on Princes Street came to a standstill as a result of an ongoing dispute between tram firm TIE and main contractors Bilfinger.

Asked about what happened, Mr Ramsay said: “It didn’t come as a complete surprise, but the timing came as a surprise to everybody.

“It certainly shocked ministers that the contract would deteriorate as quickly and as openly as it did.

“It was so public, it was so immediate. It was a smack in the face for everybody that the contract which had been so new and so fresh had deteriorated in such a dramatic way.”

READ MORE: Edinburgh Tram Inquiry: How did Edinburgh’s trams become a fiasco?

The dispute came after Transport Scotland’s withdrawal from the project’s governance in 2007.

However, the transport agency remained the project’s key funder having committed a sum of £500 million. Mr Ramsay said he remained as Transport Scotland’s main point of contact with the TIE and the council until his retirement.

The inquiry was read an email sent by Mr Ramsay to fellow Transport Scotland official William Reeve, dated March 23, 2009, and providing a summary of the Princes Street agreement.

In it, Mr Ramsay says he had been advised that “no ­additional money will be paid and that the Princes Street agreement does not affect the Infraco contract”.

He told the inquiry this advice had been provided by then TIE chief executive Stewart McGarrity.

However, Mr Ramsay said Transport Scotland did not agree with this standpoint.

He said: “We couldn’t understand, given the nature of the dispute that had flared up so quickly, why TIE were so insistent that this would not mean additional cost would be incurred by them.

READ MORE: Tram auditors not told of project delays, inquiry hears

“They tended to confuse their advice to us accordingly. As it turned out, I think we were quite right to sustain that scepticism, because it was the basis on which future agreements would be made, with the contractor.”

In his written submission, he said they felt this “was an example where TIE was being either over-optimistic or putting a brave face on things”.

The inquiry, chaired by Lord Hardie, has now finished its fourth week of oral evidence.

Former TIE official Alex Macauley will be the first witness to give evidence when proceedings resume next Tuesday.

florence.snead@jpress.co.uk