MILLIONS of pounds could have been saved on the cost of Edinburgh’s tramline if a one-year pause had been ordered on the project, the inquiry into the fiasco has been told.
The inquiry, chaired by Lord Hardie, is looking into why the tram project escalated in cost from an initial £375 million to the final £776m for just over half the planned length and was delivered three years late.
It has heard how progress on building the line was dogged by incomplete designs and late-running utility diversion works, both of which should have been completed by the time the construction contract was signed in May 2008.
In written evidence to the inquiry, Dr Keysberg said: “On several occasions I seriously recommended the works be suspended to allow the utilities to be finally diverted and the design completed. We would need to be paid for demobilising and mobilising again, but I believed that overall this would save money and would be a much better way of working than in fully disruptive mode.”
But Dr Keysberg said David Mackay, chair of the council’s tram firm TIE, was not interested. “Mr Mackay would have seen this as a personal failure if the project was abandoned for six months to a year,” he said. “He thought he could continue to push us and get his own way. However, I felt we were almost obliged to make this suggestion, which I still believe would have been in the best interests of the project.”
Asked how much money a pause could have saved, he said it would not have made sense for £100,000. “We’re talking certainly about millions,” he said. Dr Keysberg said soon afterwards Bilfinger had told TIE the cost of the project was likely to increase by up to £80m because of all the delays and problems.
That coincided with the dispute over Princes Street, which led to work being halted almost as soon as the street had been closed for construction.
Under the contract, any change to the plans, which included the discovery of unexpected utilities underground, could mean a claim for extra cost and these had to be settled before work proceeded.
Dr Keysberg said the actual cause of the Princes Street dispute was a minor change to a bus lane. “However, we also knew that we would find a substantial amount of utilities when we started to dig up the road and that it would be a complete mess if we had to progress this under the contract regime by raising a notified departure for each and every change,” he said.
“TIE thought that they could put us under such pressure that we would just proceed with the works. We could not proceed in this way as we would have lost a lot of money.” Lord Hardie suggested it could also be argued that Bilfinger had taken advantage of the significance of Princes Street by halting work.
But Dr Keysberg said Bilfinger had suggested Princes Street should not be closed until agreement had been reached on how to proceed.
“It wasn’t us saying we won’t work there once the street is blocked,” he said. “We said ‘let’s find an agreement how we work in there and don’t do the road blockage beforehand’.
“They still did it and there were a few weeks of road blockage with no physical works in there.”
Dr Keysberg said TIE had wrongly linked the Princes Street dispute to Bilfinger’s estimate of up to £80m for the increased costs of the project overall, adding: “There was never any link between these, but we were prevented by the contract from making any public statement to correct this.”
Jim Donaldson, construction manager for Bilfinger from 2008 until 2014, described the project as “a disaster”.
“I’ve worked in construction for 40 years and I’ve never experienced such a project,” he said. “When I first arrived and walked down Leith Walk I thought I was in Beirut, the amount of utility excavations that were open from London Road all the way down to the Foot of the Walk, with nothing happening in some of them. There were bomb craters everywhere.
“The amount of disruption to the streetscape was just incredible.”