Ian Swanson: How did our trams go so far off the rails?

Have your say

As the tram fiasco rumbles on and calls for a public inquiry grow, Political Editor Ian Swanson looks at some of the the key questions the team will need to answer

IT has meant massive disruption, been blamed for business closures, gone way over budget, fallen years behind schedule and become a huge embarrassment for the Capital.

A public inquiry has been promised to get to the bottom of what went wrong with Edinburgh’s tram project.

But no details have yet been agreed on exactly what the inquiry will look at, how far back it will go, who will be called to give evidence – or even when it will be held.

Lothians Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale is one of those leading calls for the inquiry to get under way immediately so lessons can be learned as soon as possible. It’s 100 days since she raised the issue at First Minister’s Questions, and Alex Salmond said a public inquiry would be an “excellent” move – though he wanted the future of the £776 million project to be clearer before launching it.

Now Ms Dugdale has published a consultation document, setting out how an inquiry could go about its task, listing some of the key questions it could ask and inviting the public to add their suggestions.

She says: “I want to take party politics out of the trams fiasco and get to the heart of the real issues.”

Based on the 2005 Inquiries Act, she says the inquiry chairman would have power to require the production of evidence, the attendance of witnesses and the taking of evidence under oath.

But she wants to make sure lessons are learned. “In 2004, we set up an inquiry into the Holyrood building, a public infrastructure project which ran over time and over budget. Here we are, in 2011, with another public infrastructure project which is over time and over budget. One of the first things the inquiry has to do is ask why we didn’t learn from the last inquiry.”

The tram inquiry will almost certainly have to go back to before March 4, 2003, the day the then Transport Minister Iain Gray announced funding of £375m for the council to bring back trams to the streets of Edinburgh after a gap of almost 50 years.

At that time, of course, there were two tram lines planned. Mr Gray said the money would pay for “at least” the first tram route, the North Edinburgh Loop, then costed at £190m and designed to link the city centre with Leith, Newhaven and the Waterfront. The council claimed the cash would also pay for the second line – from Haymarket to the airport, costed at £165m. If all went according to plan, the first trams would be running by 2009.

The inquiry will have lots of questions to ask about the council’s decision to appoint arms-length company Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) to manage the project, whether it was up to the job and how it handled the relationship with the contractors, which was a constant source of tension. When David Mackay quit as TIE chairman last year he called Bilfinger Berger a “delinquent contractor”. TIE is now being wound up and one senior council source recently branded it “toxic”.

Another key focus for the inquiry will be the original contract for the project, now routinely described by the current council administration as “flawed”. There are also questions about the business case and Transport Scotland’s removal from the project after the SNP came to power in 2007.

But Alison Bourne, one of the original objectors to the tram scheme, says the inquiry must not cherry-pick which issues to probe. She raised concerns right at the beginning about the costs being wildly under-estimated.

“If the inquiry doesn’t cover everything it’s a waste of time and money and could even do more damage because it will come out with some bland conclusion and give the impression lessons have been learned when they haven’t.”

Just some of those who might be called to give evidence

Iain Gray

Transport Minister who announced Scottish Government tram funding in March 2003. He thought the £375m would fund “at least” from the city centre to the Waterfront.

Andrew Burns

City council transport leader from 2000 – when trams were first discussed – until 2006, by which time the plan for two lines had been dropped after costs reached £714m.

Michael Howell

Chief executive of arms-length company TIE until leaving for a job in London in 2006. By then the completion date had slipped from 2009 to 2010 with further delays feared.

Willie Gallagher

TIE chairman from June 2006 until his resignation in November 2008. He was criticised over mishandling of roadworks which led to city-centre gridlock.

Richard Jeffrey

Chief executive of TIE from May 2009 until June 2011. He was seen as leading a more aggressive stance against the contractors in the many disputes they had.

Gordon Mackenzie

City transport leader since May 2009. Increasing costs led to indefinite postponement of the line from the city centre to Newhaven under his leadership.

Steve Cardownie

Leader of city’s SNP group, in a ruling coalition with the Lib Dems since 2007 but opposed to the trams until stepping in to make sure the line was not halted at Haymarket.