Edinburgh tram extension 'at risk of becoming another fiasco' says council source

The quality of work on Edinburgh's tram extension is "appalling" and the project risks becoming "another fiasco" just like the original tram scheme, according to a council source.
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The new section of the tramline from York Place down Leith Walk and onto Newhaven is due to open in spring next year but could be "months late".

And the catalogue of alleged problems includes collapsed manholes, badly cracked concrete and concrete blocking drains.

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"The quality of the work has been appalling," said the source, adding that a 200-item list of snagging defects was probably "the tip of the iceberg".

Other problems were due to construction starting before the design was finished, which happened on the original project and led to many of the disputes and cost overruns.

The source said experienced council staff were being deliberately kept off the project and there was "no proper supervision".

"Even though the tram inquiry has yet to report its findings, the council already seems to have decided the fault for the debacle on the first project lies solely with its own staff, which is not fair at all.”

Artist's impression of a tram on Leith WalkArtist's impression of a tram on Leith Walk
Artist's impression of a tram on Leith Walk
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Only three full-time council staff were working on the project – the “Senior Responsible Officer”, who is a lawyer; the communications manager; and the “interface manager”.

"Unlike every other major engineering and construction project across the UK, there is no council chief engineer running the project at all."

The source also claimed severe pressure was put on council staff to turn a blind eye to issues that occur in order to avoid going over the budget, but warned that risked compromising the quality and safety of the route.

"Even allowing for this rush to get things done, the project is still well behind schedule. Leith Walk was supposed to completed entirely and reopened by June; even working through the Jubilee bank holiday and various weekends, they are still nowhere near ready. The tram was to be running for testing at the end of 2022 with fare paying passengers welcomed aboard by Easter 2023. It looks like this will be months late; and likely to slip even further as more problems come to light."

Collapsed manhole on Constitution Street at Baltic Street.Collapsed manhole on Constitution Street at Baltic Street.
Collapsed manhole on Constitution Street at Baltic Street.
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The council admitted earlier this month the some parts of the extension were taking longer than planned, but blamed shortage of labour and materials and insisted the overall work was on schedule for the new track to be opened by spring 2023.

But the source pointed to a catalogue of problems along the route:

– Leith Walk: After the west lane at Haddington Place had been open to traffic for six months, every new manhole was already collapsing. Scottish Water inspected one and found a layer of bricks was missing. Similar problem in Constitution Street.

– Constitution Street and Leith Walk/Brunswick Street junction: Cracks in the main concrete slab holding the rails in place, which could indicate problems beneath. Even with a small crack, water will get in, rust the steel re-enforcing bars and freeze during the winter, allowing the crack to grow.

Cycle lane on Leith Walk, full of twists and turns.Cycle lane on Leith Walk, full of twists and turns.
Cycle lane on Leith Walk, full of twists and turns.
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– Leith Walk (multiple places): Paving slabs not properly installed, many are cracked, others are loose and wobbling.

– Cycle Lane: Despite well-publicised problems and an intervention by previous transport convener Lesley Macinnes, contractors are still putting in cycle lanes with sharp bends rather than updating the design.

– Multiple sites: Drain openings in kerbs blocked by concrete, which will lead to flooding.

The source said: “How can other cities get this done right, while Edinburgh keeps on making the same mistakes? The Manchester network has been extended many times, with the quality of the work being fit for a city that’s really going places. Birmingham is currently extending its line, and again the work looks amazing.

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"But take a look at what’s happening on Leith Walk; the completed parts of the route look terrible. Even the basics are not right – like laying paving slabs properly. Surely this can’t be fit for a major European capital city, and one which is a showcase for Scotland. Edinburgh welcomes the highest number of tourists in the UK outside London; is this really how we want them to see our city?"

Transport convener Scott Arthur said: “I have been assured the Trams to Newhaven project remains within budget and on schedule to begin passenger services in spring 2023, despite a 13-week shutdown during the Covid pandemic and more recent changes to the programme due to global supply chain problems. All utility diversions are complete and the contractor has laid almost 4,300 metres of track slab, 93 per cent of the total. This is an amazing achievement.

Collapsing manhole on the west side of Haddington Place on Leith Walk.Collapsing manhole on the west side of Haddington Place on Leith Walk.
Collapsing manhole on the west side of Haddington Place on Leith Walk.

“As is the case with any construction project, snagging and defect works are part of the process, and I understand the project team is currently developing a detailed programme for contractors to complete before construction work is signed off, and ahead of maintenance falling to the council.

In terms of the project’s management, there is a robust governance process in place including All Party Oversight Group, Project Board and Project Finance Board, an independent adviser to the board to provide additional scrutiny and an ongoing internal audit process to ensure compliance with governance. In addition, engineers from all relevant parts of the council are heavily involved in delivering this project through the Technical Working Group.”

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And he said lessons learned from the first tram had been incorporated into the project.

“Of course, I do take any comments from the public seriously, and I would encourage this individual, and anyone else with concerns, to report these to the project via the established channels or to myself directly.”