Madness?

Is Edinburgh’s tram system going to look a bit like the National Monument on Calton Hill in the heart of the city unless the project gets past its first phase? Well, that’s how things appear following a recent council decision to limit the extent of the first phase to between Haymarket and Edinburgh Airport. To make sense, it really needs to be extended into Princes Street and, even better, Edinburgh’s East End. Money seems to be at the heart of the matter with Labour and Conservative councillors outvoting Liberal Democrats and the SNP abstaining. For Labour, this looks especially odd given all the discussion of the subject that went on during the 2007 election for the Scottish Parliament; the SNP opposed the idea.

Of course, the whole project has been beset by problems for a good while now and there is a council comment about the project unravelling too, one that sounds all too apt. Rows with contractors regarding the quality of their work and questions surrounding the effectiveness of the project’s management have been among these. The result seems to be a botched execution that has the misfortune of an economic downturn overtaking it. Edinburgh City Council may not have to borrow money for this now but it doesn’t look good when you realise what has been achieved in places such as Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Dublin. After all the work that has been done to prepare streets, it would be a shame to see the project stop at its first phase.

The first phase that now is planned does look like a comedown for an attractive city like Edinburgh. If I still live up there (and I left the city more than ten years ago, though I still return from time to time), I am not sure that I’d be considering the idea of using trams instead of buses for getting to the city’s airport for flights to my home country, Ireland, and other destinations. From a shopping point of view, it falls short too. As the plans stand, it almost feels as if it is a shuttle for anyone coming to Haymarket train station instead of being something for the locals. Unless the project continues into future phases, there is a risk that the system becomes a white elephant rather than being a real asset to public transport in a city that enjoys a very good bus network that also is very well used. All in all, it looks like yet another faltering step that surely could not happen elsewhere. For folk wanting to get there or though it, the sound of more work on Princes Street doesn’t sound too promising and it really stings that isn’t for restoring trams to the thoroughfare either, especially with it’s extending from next week until next summer.

Update (2011-08-30): The plot thickens on this story. Scottish Government now threatening to withhold £72m of funding if there is no extension as far as St. Andrew’s Square. Only time will tell if that more sensible course is the one taken. Now, why did SNP councillors abstain in the relevant vote at all?

Update (2011-09-02): The Scottish Government’s threat has done the trick. The tram line is getting extended to St. Andrew’s Square after all. Council borrowing may be needed but I hope that things go better from here on than they have done before now. The last thing that Edinburgh needs is the extension of what has become like a farce.

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