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Will Edinburgh tram ever be on track?

The news that trams will run in Edinburgh this year could be seen as a positive sign for the project, with a 804m section between Gogarburn and the Gogar depot in the west of the city becoming the portion of track to be tested as early as the summer.

However, the announcement serves only to illustrate the difficulties that the project has faced, and will continue to face in the year ahead.

Initial advertisements in the city said the trams, promoted to run from Edinburgh Airport in the west to Newhaven in the north as “taking you to work in 2011”, but the project has run into many problems: it has no confirmed opening date, no final cost, or even a confirmed route for the first stage.

The company charged with delivering the project for City of Edinburgh Council, an arms-length body called Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (Tie), has confirmed that work on the project has “essentially ceased” due to disputes between it and main contractor Bilfinger Berger.

A report provided to the council last year said that the budget for tram infrastructure represented 46% of the project’s overall £545M budget, delivering an 18.5km line. However, an updated business case states that a partial opening of the 14.5km stretch of line from the airport to St Andrew Square in central Edinburgh “is believed to be capable of being delivered” for £545M.

An incremental opening was first discussed in August, and now seems like the most likely outcome, initially truncating the line more than one-third short of its intended destination in Newhaven.

Contract problems

So, what has caused the dispute? Fingers are now being pointed at the two contracts for the project, which covered the moving of the utilities and the civil engineering works.

John Carson, an Edinburgh resident and a former infrastructure director at Amey who has examined the project, says that the two contracts were “fundamentally flawed”.

Tie says that it “completely agrees” that there have been changes in the utilities programme - it says that it started with 27km of pipes to be moved to clear the way for the track, and that this grew to 50km as Edinburgh’s utility system was examined for the first time in decades, and records found to be incorrect or non-existent. This led to a nine month delay to finishing the work, it admits.

However, sources close to the construction consortium, which as well as Bilfinger Berger includes signalling and communications provider Siemens and tram builder CAF , say that the original contract stated that Bilfinger Berger would get a “free run” at track laying. Nowhere on the project has this happened, the source states.

The type of contract used has also been the cause of confusion on the scheme.

A source close to the consortium says that despite the pledge from Tie that the project would be delivered for a “final” price of £512M “there were some design gaps that required real time pricing”, which meant it couldn’t be described as such - a concern which NCE understands Bilfinger had raised early on.

Wider issues regarding the construction contract have also been raised.

At the time of signing the contract with the consortium, the contract was described as a “final price” contract costing £512M. This figure amounted only to a “reasonable estimate” of the price, said the source.

Design changes

Due to more detailed ground investigation the design has changed, and it is believed that it is still not complete.

The consortium has been in dispute with Tie over the costs of these changes. The highest profile of these, over increased costs for civils works in Princes Street was resolved, but it delayed work for almost a month. There have been around 16 so far – separate from conflict schedules on the project that can show hundreds of issues still to be resolved.  

Carson is “as convinced as I can be” that £700M would be needed to complete to St Andrew Square. Other sources have told NCE that this price is realistic.

A report into the project by national auditor Audit Scotland will be published on 3 February. Sources close to the consortium say this will be crucial in establishing how much has been spent on the project in total – important information as Edinburgh council prepares to borrow £55M to fund the project going over budget, taking its contribution to £100M and the total budget to £600M. Government agency Transport Scotland provides the other £500M.

However, Carson says that even to complete the truncated route will require more cash. He is “as convinced as I can be” that £700M would be needed to complete to St Andrew Square. Other sources have told NCE that this price is realistic.

Tie says an opening date for any route will be confirmed in mediation with the consortium that will start in March, but had previously said that running could start in 2012. Carson estimates that the truncated route could see trams running in 2015. In the year they were to open, Edinburgh still waits to find when the trams will take them to work.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Records Records Records .... what more to be said .... may be "lack of".

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  • Aside from all the party politics that have bedevilled this project from the start I find it ironic that it was Audit Scotland itself which gave it the thumbs up when the incoming minority Scottish Executive tried to have it cancelled. "QUIS CUSTODIET IPSOS CUSTODES?" Audit Scotland's report should make interesting reading. (I have no connection with the SNP.)

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