As the trams report opens up old wounds, TERRY MURDEN asks if they are transforming the city
As a regular user of Edinburgh’s trams I am delighted to say that I find them efficient and convenient, and particularly enjoy the fact that being of a certain age I can travel on them as often as I like without having to pay. At times that makes me feel a little guilty, but you take what little benefits are on offer from this cruel world.
Those who lived through the nightmare first phase of the project, notably the stalling of work as the various parties engaged in contractual arguments, perhaps feel that a free ride is the best compensation they could hope for, as there seems little hope that the long-inquiry that has just reported its findings and recommendations will result in any meaningful retribution beyond a slap on the wrists for those who cocked up and cost the taxpayer a lot of money.
It’s taken nine years to produce a report that basically tells us what we already knew, bar a few details such as evidence that project management seemed to be built around a make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach rather than any proven strategy.
The recommendations include “new legislation to allow for civil and criminal sanctions against relevant individuals or companies who knowingly submit reports that include false statements to councillors”. Proving that reports were ‘knowingly’ false looks like another shedload of work for the lawyers who are the only ones to have benefited financially from this process.
As an exercise in future planning, at least lessons have already been learned and the team involved in the tram extension from Picardy Place to Newhaven sat in on the inquiry to ensure the earlier mistakes were not repeated. To that extent, it’s been a nine-year course in how to build a tram on time and on budget. And it succeeded.
Beyond seeking out what when wrong and how to ensure further projects are better managed, there are still questions around the actual benefits of the Edinburgh Tram. As I said at the beginning of this column, the tram is a generally welcome addition to the transport infrastructure. For those heading somewhere close to a tram stop then it’s the best way of getting about. No traffic jams or roadworks or problems with parking, and more punctual than some of the buses. Yes, I’d recommend it.
However, claims that it has brought billions in investment to the city or that it has transformed Leith are questionable, and more than that sum has been spent on its construction. There were hopes that the route would act as a corridor for attracting new businesses, an ambition that is yet to be realised, and it is going some to expect the required returns on this scale.
It threads through Edinburgh Business Park which is a ghost town of empty offices and car parks, while all further work on expansion south to Edinburgh Park station has come to an abrupt halt. Bankhead and Saughton are still dismal areas with no obvious hints at improvement.
The tram has only just begun operating to Newhaven so it is too early to judge the impact of the second phase. What is clearly visible is the graffiti blighting Leith Walk, while the refurbished and rebranded Red Sandstone building is a gap-toothed mess and Ocean Terminal is desolate. It’s difficult to think of a reason why anyone would want to go there except to get vaccinated against Covid and the flu. Oh, and gain access to the Royal Yacht, which is hidden behind this huge white elephant.
The journey to Leith means passing empty shops in Princes Street which are also covered in graffiti while in-fill stores are of the discount variety which only adds to this once-noble street’s growing air of decline. When I spoke to the council leader about all this he seemed disinterested and preferred to peddle messages about ‘inclusiveness’ and the benefits of cycling.
As a frequent user it would appear the trams have become busier, particularly since the opening of the Newhaven extension, though road traffic seems just as heavy, and the buses (at least the ones I use) have become less reliable.
Has the tram encouraged Investment? It’s a good bet that the fintech firms arrived because of the ample supply of talent at the universities, not necessarily because there was a quick journey to and from the airport. It will help sell the city as a location, but most of the university campuses, along with Quartermile and the Bioquarter are not on the tram route.
These are now on the council’s tram radar with a route connecting the BioQuarter and Royal Infirmary with Granton on the shoreline. So much better if it takes in some of those areas with high car ownership. After all, one of the other key objectives of the tram was to persuade commuters to abandon their cars. Logic therefore dictates that it should serve areas such as Trinity, Morningside, Duddingston and Barnton to ease pressure on Morningside Road, Ferry Road, Queensferry Road and other busy arteries.
That, of course, would mean trams for the wealthy, a slogan that might not play out well with Labour and SNP councillors whose mantra is ‘fairness and equality’. They may need persuading that building routes through more prosperous areas could achieve their twin ambitions of removing car traffic and raising economic activity.
Maybe we should have an inquiry.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business