A run of blown budgets has cast a cloud over UK tram schemes, but Dublin claims to be different.
Mark Hansford finds out how.
Too expensive and under-used. That was the damning verdict of the UK government's public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), when it reported earlier this year on six light rail schemes built since the 1980s.
And it got worse: 'Costs are rising. Proposed new schemes are on average £3M/km more expensive to build than those that have already been built, ' said the NAO in its report Improving Public Transport in England Through Light Rail (NCE 29 April).
There are 12 light rail lines under development across the country, including Portsmouth's South Hampshire Rapid Transit, Leeds' Supertram and Liverpool's Merseytram, all of which are scheduled to open in 2007.
In one blow the NAO could have sounded the death knell for them all.
As if to prove the point, last month Bristol City Council agreed to cease promoting plans for a light rail scheme between the city centre and Parkway station.
Yet just across the Irish Sea, line B of Dublin's Luas light rail scheme opened last week - broadly on time and, importantly, 'we will bring in the project under budget', says Michael Sheedy, project director for the client, Irish government agency the Railway Procurement Agency (RPA).
Sheedy's proud boast strikes many as hollow, as the original budget for two lines, set in the 1990s, was E 200M (£133M).
When contracts were signed in 1999 the budget was £300M.
The final cost is now expected to be £517M. Moreover, the opening was initially scheduled for 2003.
What the scheme's critics seldom factor in, however, are the sweeping changes in the project's scope since its inception (see box).
'We added line C. Line B is longer than originally planned. And overall capacity has been increased because of the economic boom, ' says Sheedy.
Change in scope added 10% to the contract value.
Rocketing land prices resulting from Ireland's 'Celtic tiger' economic surge have put on a further 43%.
Then many compulsory purchases were taken to arbitration, most of which the RPA lost, adding £67M.
Risk on the project was factored at 13%-14% of total cost. The actual chance of identified risks materialising was reckoned to be 75%.
Taking into account those factors, the project remains on track, argues construction manager Bryan Glass: 'The project is within provision.'
Construction has not been without its problems either. 'To some extent the engineering was easy. But we had phenomenal utility diversions, some the size of this room, ' says Sheedy, gesturing at RPA's conference room with its 20-seat table.
From the outset utility diversion works were recognised as potentially the most disruptive part of construction, carrying a major element of risk. A contractor was appointed to deal with them all in one go, and to minimise financial consequences for the rest of the project if things went wrong, diversions were parcelled into a separate contract.
Even so, costs soared as 18km-20km of the city's medieval streets needed to be cleared.
'We have a 6.2m envelope swept path and all utilities had to be cleared from this, ' says Glass. 'We were still diverting utilities last Christmas, even though the main contractor came on board two years before.'
In total four major contracts have been let - a £600,000 enabling works contract, the utility diversion contract, a fixed price design and build infrastructure contract and the contract to supply rolling stock. Infrastructure contractor is an Ansaldo, MVM Rail and Ballast Needham joint venture.
Cost rises on the design and build infrastructure contract have been largely of the contractor's own making - and he takes the hit, adds Glass. 'Most cases where the contractor has got himself hurt is where he's tried to change the design.'
All designs are subject to local authority approval and the scheme spans three authorities. The contractor has on numerous occasions underestimated the timescales involved in dealing with them, ' says Glass.
But RPA's close involvement has helped pull the contractor - and the project - through the difficulties. 'RPA is right in the middle. The reason we've done that is we've got a lot of technical experience with light rail and maybe some of our contractors haven't had that.
'The contractor here has lost a lot of money, but got a lot of support. He would have lost a lot more without it, ' says Glass. 'If we hadn't been involved we certainly wouldn't be on time and could well have had a broken contract.'
RPA's involvement put it on the line though. 'It is not easy on design and build to keep management control. If the contractor starts losing money he's going to attack you, because that's all he's got. If you, the client, take on more control you open yourself up to claims, ' Glass admits.
With only a week's worth of passenger journeys under its belt so far, the public jury on LUAS is still out. The UK NAO report criticised schemes for failing to provide better links with other forms of transport, particularly buses, while bus deregulation put trams into direct competition with cheaper buses.
Early indications are that a similar situation could be brewing in Ireland, with Dublin Bus complaining to the RPA that sequencing of traffic lights is holding up its buses.
How patronage levels will fare is too early to say. Operator Connex takes no ridership risk in the first five years, although after that this may change. Instead it is penalised on availability, reliability, fare collection and cleanliness, and is rewarded if revenue increases beyond certain thresholds.
Sheedy is confident that patronage will meet expectations. 'Line B is a route into town that doesn't exist currently and will at least halve journey times into the city, he says.
'Line A will take a bit more selling to get people out of their cars, ' adds Glass, 'but the segregation of tram and traffic will help. At the moment you can spend half an hour getting down some streets by car. The tram will be faster.'