Edinburgh Council SNP group's tram extension plans come despite looming multi-billion-pound capital deficit – John McLellan

Only four months ago, Edinburgh Council’s finance director Hugh Dunn admitted the authority had borrowed up to its eyeballs, with a capital deficit running to “several billion” over the next ten years.
Edinburgh's tram lines would be extended with two new routes, according to the SNP council election manifesto (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)Edinburgh's tram lines would be extended with two new routes, according to the SNP council election manifesto (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)
Edinburgh's tram lines would be extended with two new routes, according to the SNP council election manifesto (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

“There is no point adding to the deficit”, Lord Provost Frank Ross told the finance committee. “But we make commitments to capital expenditure, but we know we can’t fulfil them.”

Indeed, but rather than calling a halt to grandiose designs, the SNP group of which Cllr Ross is a member has just announced it will “move forward” with two new tram lines if returned to power in May. So much for Cllr Ross’s influence.

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The basis of this commitment is the Newhaven tram completion project has gone so well, “on time and on budget”, that the SNP can be trusted to deliver a vast expansion of the system, with a link from Roseburn to Granton along the old railway track bed, and a new line down the Bridges to the Royal Infirmary.

Even those with short memories will recall the current line was supposed to go to Newhaven in the first place, and so “on budget” of £207m for three miles of track, represents over half the original £375m estimate for a fifth of the route.

It might be convenient to forget that significant work had already been done on Leith Walk, or that the hardware and rolling stock had already been bought, so the £207m, if that is accurate, is not the full cost of a short stretch.

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SNP pledge to push ahead with tram extensions if returned to power in Edinburgh

This service was meant to open in 2010 so will now be completed at least 13 years late, at a cost which is now well over £1bn. And even on the revised timetable, the completion project is a year later than expected when the go-ahead was given four years ago.

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So, on budget if you change the budget and on time if you change the deadline. That way everything is feasible. Simples.

As for proving that “tram works can be delivered well”, as claimed by the SNP’s press release, if the joke which is the zig-zag cycle chicane on Leith Walk is an example of excellence then God help the South Bridge. Part of a “complex construction process”, according to transport convener Lesley Macinnes.

Even if the cost is eye-watering, at least the Granton Spur can be built with minimal disruption to roads and will not drive businesses to the wall, but not so the line south through the Old Town where the engineering challenges are if anything greater than the first line.

Meanwhile in China and Australia, trackless “autonomous rail transit” systems are being developed, which look and feel like trams, but do not require digging up historic streets and can be delivered at a fraction of the cost. In the time taken to pull together Edinburgh’s latest vanity project, such schemes may well become commonplace, as more pragmatic authorities take a balanced approach to cost and benefit of local transport projects.

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Here, ask Roseburn shopkeepers whose livelihoods are currently being wrecked by the council’s cycleway project, or those Leith Walk businesses hammered by years of disruption, what it's like living with publicly funded narcissism.

Hard-working traders are just collateral damage as local politicians wet themselves with excitement at the prospect of playing with a bigger train set.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston

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