Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Edinburgh’s Folly

Posted in Great Britain, Infrastructure, Metro, Politics by Chairman Pip on 1 September 2011

Greetings mes amis. As you might be able to tell, I have returned from Edinburgh. However, there is not as much to impart as there was last year; I will go into that in a later post. But, there has been one thing going on recently affecting Scotland’s capital that I’m sure you’ve heard about, and that is the continuing farce over Edinburgh’s trams. We all know that the project has gone massively over-budget, and is horrendously late (the original estimate for it to open was February 2011; now it is looking like 2014), not to mention having been truncated from a true network to a single line intended to run from Edinburgh Airport to St Andrew’s Square in the city centre. However, events (dear boy) have moved on since the decision by Edinburgh City Council to continue with the project rather than cancel it. First of all there has been the attempt to get rid of somewhere in the region of half the fleet of trams, which would not be needed for the truncated service, which has been somewhat unsuccessful – although a number were offered to Tramlink, TfL instead decided to purchase new vehicles. There has been talk that some of these vehicles could be offered for one of the tram-train proposals being looked at (Rotherham-Sheffield or Watford-St Albans). However, the real biggie came last week, when the opposition groups on the city council managed to defeat the governing coalition in a motion to obtain further funding to complete the St Andrew’s Square-Airport line through loans, with instead the line to be truncated further by terminating at Haymarket. This has led to an outpouring of collective fury from the community in Edinburgh, who have been quick to point out the pointlessness of not having the tram route continue up Princes Street, given that that is where most people coming from the airport would likely want to go, causing them significant inconvenience if they are chucked off the tram at Haymarket and have to get on a bus to go the rest of the way, particularly when the Airlink express bus service does go from the airport to Princes Street. Some estimates have suggested that a Haymarket-Airport line would end up losing around £4m per year. But further to this is the anger from businesses in and around Princes Street, which is the city’s main thoroughfare, that they were forced to put up with it essentially being closed for a year in 2009 while the tramlines were installed, with all of the disruption that that entailed, only for there to be nothing at the end of it. Indeed, if this proposal does go ahead, it is likely to cause further disruption as the lines would have to be lifted. There have been calls for everyone on the council to resign – the opposition Conservative and Labour groups are accused of playing politics with the scheme; while the governing Liberal Democrat/SNP coalition are seen as weak and not fit to govern. All the while, the Scottish Government formed by the SNP, which has been against the project from the start, and has previous when it comes to being anti-rail) has steadfastly refused to get involved, with the First Minister promising a public enquiry in the fullness of time. Thus there is no opportunity for Transport Scotland to step in and take it by the scruff of the neck, and so Edinburgh increasingly looks a laughing stock.

Of course, in situations like this, events move at lightning pace, especially when political careers are potentially at stake. Having made their anti-tram stance clear by abstaining in the council vote last week (which was what led to the LibDem motion being defeated), the SNP group on the council have now backed the plan to carry on to St Andrew’s Square – no doubt this has been prompted by the threat of the Scottish Government withholding the last £70m of its £500m investment in the scheme (£500m and no more).

We have decided that abstaining is no longer an option. We abstained last week because of our long-standing opposition to the trams and our campaign for a public inquiry. But the Haymarket plan would lose millions of pounds a year, and we believe that if the people of Edinburgh are going to get a tram system, it should at very least run to St Andrew Square.
Steve Cardownie, SNP Group leader

A case of motivated self-preservation do you think? A quiet word in the ear from the First Minister’s political advisers, stating that making Edinburgh look foolish does not help the SNP’s overriding goals?  Whatever the case, it would appear that Edinburgh will get its tram line, and with it a rail link from the city to the airport. Who knows – perhaps once the line opens (whenever that may be) it will prove such a success that the whole network will be built. Just don’t leave it to Edinburgh Council to manage.

“SNP switch puts trams back on city centre track”
“SNP city group leader rejects claims he was told to perform U-turn”
“The Tram’s Going to St Andrew Square… No, Haymarket… No, St Andrew Square!”

The Edinburgh Evening News shows its opinion of how the tram project has gone

Whether it's genuine opposition, or mere frustration at the fiasco, I don't know

So, will the work go ahead or not? Given what has happened, I'd say a tentative "yes"

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