Edinburgh Tram at the platform in St Andrew Square with sun shining in a clear blue sky

Edinburgh tram inquiry is scathing in its criticism

Report casts a shadow over Edinburgh Trams, with this one at the platform in St Andrew Square Edinburgh Trams

It may be a popular public transport corridor now, but there were failures every step of the way with Edinburgh’s rebirth of a tram service. Scrapped in the 1950s and partly rebuilt in the 2010s, Scotland’s tram project has been pilloried as a chaotic chimera of cost overruns, back-biting and incompetence. A nine-year inquiry has concluded with the publication of nearly one thousand pages of grim reading for anyone involved in the project.

The inquiry report has been so critical of the management of the Edinburgh Trams project, that there have already been calls for legislative reform. This would allow individuals to be brought before courts to account for themselves and face prosecution. After nearly a decade of investigations and at a staggering cost of 13 million pounds (15.1 million euros), the findings and recommendations shed light on a litany of failures that led to the project’s 400 million pound (465 million euros) overspend and a five-year delay.

Litany of avoidable failures

The four-volume report, released by chair of the inquiry, Lord Hardie, points fingers at various entities. This includes the specially formed project company ‘Tie’, originally known as ‘Transport Initiatives Edinburgh’. The much-maligned City of Edinburgh Council comes in for significant blame, as well as Scottish ministers, agencies of the Scottish government, and contractors. The report cites substantial oversights, mismanagement, and strategic blunders as the prime contributors to the debacle that threatened to make Edinburgh and the trams project a global laughing stock.

Close up of the nose of an Edinburgh Tram standing at Murrayfield stop in the west of Edinburgh
Close up scrutiny of the Edinburgh Trams project has revealed “a litany of avoidable failures”

The chair of the inquiry, Lord Hardie, minced no words in his assessment, stating: “What is clear from the inquiry’s work is that there was a litany of avoidable failures on the parts of several parties whose role it was to ensure that public funding was spent effectively and to the benefit of Scotland’s taxpayers, and that the Edinburgh Trams Project was delivered efficiently.” Then again, Lord Hardie could afford to be candid. His fees for his efforts are reportedly one million pounds.

Wait five years to pay twice as much

The report lays out 24 recommendations for Scottish ministers, with a crucial proposal for potential legislative amendments. These changes would empower authorities to impose civil and criminal sanctions against individuals or companies found guilty of knowingly presenting reports containing false information to councillors – one of the more damning findings of the inquiry process. Edinburgh’s civic authority – the city council – says it has already learned lessons. It was able to deliver the recent extension to the tram more economically – although it has been pointed out that the cost/length ratio is broadly the same as the original line.

Edinburgh Tram on Princes Street with the Sir Walter Scott Monument and the North British clock in the background
Stop right there. Only two pounds to ride, but almost a billion pounds to build. Edinburgh has the most expensive trams in the world. The Disgrace of Edinburgh … is the monument in the background.

The Edinburgh Tram Project was projected to cost 545 million pounds (632 million euros) and to be operational by the summer of 2011. It was planned to have three lines, serving most of the city. However, the project soon fell seriously behind schedule and was significantly cut back. A single truncated line, connecting the Airport to York Place in the city centre, finally opened for service in May 2014, carrying a reported cost of 776.7 million pounds (900 million euros), a staggering 231.7 million pounds (269 million euros) over budget for the line. Cynical citizens of Edinburgh fairly accurately claimed they had waited five years to pay twice as much for one half of one third of the intended network. Their arithmetic stacks up.

Most expensive trams in the world

Upon review, Lord Hardie discovered that the reported cost was an underestimation, as the City of Edinburgh Council had allocated costs to other budgets unrelated to the project. Additionally, the net present value of borrowing a further 231 million pounds (270 million euros) to complete the restricted line was omitted. The estimated cost of the restricted line now stands at 835.7 million pounds (nearly one billion euros). Edinburgh has the unwanted mantle of the most expensive trams in the world.

The inquiry report, running to 961 pages, highlighted several pivotal factors contributing to the project’s budgetary failure, including tie’s deviation from the original procurement strategy, inadequate collaboration with key stakeholders, and failure to accurately report progress. It also underscored governance issues, as roles and responsibilities were unclear, leading to vastly expensive inefficiencies. Moreover, Lord Hardie pointed to the Scottish ministerial decision in 2007 to withdraw the government agency Transport Scotland from the project.

The lack of oversight, resulting in a loss of expertise, was a missed opportunity for contract review, says the report. In effect, there was no financial brake on an out of control project. In response to the scathing revelations, calls for legislative reform are gaining momentum, as the public grapple with the billion-pound magnitude of the Edinburgh Tram project mismanagement.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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