Monday, 5 September 2011

The Great Edinburgh Tram Robbery

Forty-eight years after the original Great Train Robbery, Edinburgh City Council are mugging the residents of Scotland’s capital for about £1bn to pay for the most expensive train set any child could ever wish for.

The Edinburgh Trams project started construction in 2008 and after many contractual and political delays is now scheduled for completion in 2014. What was originally costed at under £400m is now going to cost three times as much and deliver less than a third of what was originally promised in terms of route and capacity.

Hopefully a public enquiry, which itself is about 18 months overdue, will name and shame the culprits within local and central government as well as the contractors who are probably less than golden.

But what really irks me about the whole scheme is that it shouldn’t be built at all. Why does Edinburgh need yet another service for carrying commuters from the West of the city to the centre? There are already several buses that operate from the airport and its environs that work perfectly well. Adding trams to the mix is an expensive and unjustified option.

One of the Scottish Nationalist Party’s many mistakes was the cancelling of a rail link from Edinburgh airport to the centre. Although they were correct to cancel the particular Edinburgh Airport Rail Link with its expensive tunnels and additional trains, they were wrong to discount train travel entirely. Indeed the main reason for canning the Rail Link was that it duplicated existing bus routes… which is exactly what the tram link is also doing. But for some reason it is alright to spend £1bn on trams because it’s green.

But there is a better, faster and cheaper alternative: don’t spend £1bn on any trams and invest in the existing transport infrastructure.

The main line carrying trains in and out of Edinburgh from the north of Scotland, connecting to the central hubs at Haymarket and Waverley, passes 300m from the end of the runway at Edinburgh airport and about 1000m from the main terminal building. Compared to spending £1bn on trams or £650m on a dedicated link, it would cost low tens of millions to build a new station at the end of the runway and connect it to the terminal via a shuttle bus. There is already a road infrastructure in the vicinity and existing trains could carry passengers to/from the station. It should also appease the carbon counters, since this service will be quicker than road travel and would encourage less people to use cars and buses to get to the airport.

Which begs the obvious question: why has no-one suggested this to the councillors in Edinburgh? Are the residents of City Chambers so blindly devoted to their shiny trams that they are willing to throw £1bn of our money at a project that at best will duplicate an existing bus service. Of the £560m still to be spent on the trams project, a new station, signalling and associated services will leave about £500m to be spent on more worthy projects for the capital, or better still not spent at all.