Monday, 2 June 2014

Trains, planes and automobiles ....

So the usual media suspects - Carrell in the Gurniad, Cochrane in the Torygaff - have had a rant about Edinburgh's quarter of a tram system and it being over budget by £300 million. Of course this over run is Alex Salmond's personal fault and a disaster for the SNP.

Sadly for Carrell and Cochrane there are a few Scots who can remember back beyond what they had for breakfast and do things like recite the Twa Corbies learnt in P7 in 1967 or the distribution of the Trigeminal nerve from its origin in the 5th branchial arch passing upwards, alongside the spinal column, into the skull to emerge from Foramen Ovale and pass forward, providing sensation to the face and neck ....

So to the trams. Back in 2001 Edinburgh University's transport guru and adviser to Edinburgh's Labour run council, having reduced car travel in the centre of Edinburgh to a nightmare of terrifying twists, bends and irrational jumps in space and time, suddenly did some sums and said Edinburgh should have trams to reduce the number of car journeys into the city even further. This in a city which already has one of the most effective public bus services in Europe and an airport bus service linking central Edinburgh with the airport which remains faster than the trams. To be a real European city, the pundits told us, Edinburgh had to have a Tram set. The Labour, Libdem and Tory politicians all went along with the 'Trams bill' at Holyrood, not because it was right or necessary but on the basis it would be someone else's problem by the time the bill trundled its way through Holyrood. The SNP opposed the bill but then found themselves, as the minority government, with the responsibility for a transport project they did not want and capital deflected from the Aberdeen Bypass and the 'dualling' of the A9 which they had 'promised' to make a priority.

It was pretty obvious to anyone with knowledge of Transport Initiatives Edinburgh that it neither had the management capability nor the experience required to run and manage such a major project - packed as it was with ex-council bureaucrats and Labour 'hingers oan'. Further it was clear the proposed budget for what was originally to be three lines, turned out to be the classic Labour Party back of a fag packet guestimate, a cost which was expected, by Labour and their new found pals, to have over runs of the level of the Holyrood build they were responsible for and in turn this would allow them to berate the SNP for poor use of Scotland's finances and help ensure a return of Labour's fiefdom of Scotland in 2011 for them and their Libdem chums to play 'top of the dung heap' with.

Except it did not work out like that. The new SNP Government took the back of the fag packet sum worked out by Labour and their pals at TIE and only guaranteed two thirds of that total (£475 million); the difference and any over runs would have to be found by TIE and the Edinburgh City Council from their transport 'budget'. Further the Scottish Government, via Transport Scotland, would only release tranches of the government funding to TIE when defined markers in the progress of the project were passed and signed off as complete. As the fiscal reality hit TIE and Edinburgh City Council, the three routes became two and rapidly ended up as one - Newhaven to Edinburgh Airport via Leith Walk and Princes Street.

As engineering work commenced on Leith Walk the number of services (electricity, gas, water, sewers, phones) which had to be upgraded so trams could run over them expanded exponentially. TIE blamed their surveyors. Their surveyors pointed out they had not asked them to do exhaustive checks and their report had been merely advisory for initial estimate purposes only.  The main tram contractor then pointed out until a couple of rather major sewers were shifted they could forget the tram set and so the Leith Walk disaster snowballed on, un-costed groundwork eating up tram set finance for no visible outcome while sending a number of businesses on Leith Walk to the wall.

Scottish government money was about to be used up, TIE and Edinburgh City Council's attempts to raise their share of the capital was less than impressive - TIE was looking down both barrels of a classic Edinburgh White Elephant (remember the hole in the ground behind the Usher Hall anyone?) to end all Edinburgh White Elephants. A mess in Leith Walk, a similar mess at Haymarket and the major contractor threatening to walk off the project because of the amateurness of TIE and the weak, near non-existent oversight of TIE by Edinburgh Council who in turn never questioned what TIE told them  - the shit was now hitting the fan big style.

It was at this point that John Swinney and Transport Scotland started knocking heads together, forcing fixed price contracts on the main contractor, setting deadlines, targets, contractor responsibility for overuns and decided it was only feasible to complete one half of the tram line for the money available. At the same time Swinney kicked TIE off the project and left that particular baby with Edinburgh City Council to sort out, it being their ALEO corporate body.

On 0500 on Sunday 1st of June 2014 the first tram made a fare paying journey from the airport to St Andrews Square. The project which, in part, was designed to create the maximum political embarrassment and trouble for Alex Salmond and the SNP had at least some measurable outcome. The irony is not lost that a SNP Government, who never wanted  the Tram Project, ended up plucking a partial success, from a Labour created farce, by managing in two years what four previous years of TIE's failures and farce had not - to at least get some trams running.

Today Edinburgh City Council announced, having taken QA's advice, they are seeking to commence a court action against TIE and its directors. This being the case, Labour's Edinburgh councillor's past and present are about to further embarrass a Scottish Labour region which many believed beyond embarrassment as the allegations fly and old internal Labour wounds are re-opened. As for TIE's defence - there is going to be a lot of finger pointing back at the same Labour councillor's and possibly some Labour MSPs. If they are going down they will take as many as they can with them.

I believe this is what politicians call the 'Coriolanus Effect' where they seek to eat their own, in revenge.

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