EDINBURGH TRAMS BIRTHDAY – BUT NO HAPPY RETURN

KEN HOUSTON says the recent ‘celebrations’ show the City Council still divorced from reality with regard to its infamous transport project

When £500 million of Scottish Government money was made available for ‘transport improvements’, wiser heads at the City of Edinburgh Council might have said: “Look, in Lothian Buses we have arguably the best urban network in the UK, one which is popular with the public and operates at a profit. Therefore, let’s try and make a case for the money to go on installing a series of bus-priority transport management schemes at key pinch points across the city and by doing so, make the network the best in Europe.”

But no, the allure of trams was too much to resist, this detachment from reality evident from the word go when the council went on a fact-finding mission to study the huge tramway network (one of the largest in the world) in Melbourne, Australia. This despite the fact that a more appropriate location for study would have been Sheffield (England), where the modest 18-mile system was more similar in scale to the 11-mile main line and a two-mile spur, planned for Edinburgh.

With such a level of forward thinking it is hardly surprising that what was delivered was a truncated eight-mile line and no spur, with the scheme 50 per cent over-budget and at least four years late in completion.

But that was then and this is now. Like it or not, the trams are a reality. Let’s close the book on that chapter and look to the future. To use that local government mantra (and get out clause), “lessons have been learned”.

But have they?

If one first birthday needed to pass without celebration it was surely that, on 31 May, of the start of operation of Edinburgh Trams, given all that went before: the financial mismanagement, traffic upheaval, botched laying of track, desecration of the city centre, added debt burden and, to top it all, the ‘rewards for failure’ to some of those involved.

But no. At a “birthday party” event at the Gogar tram depot, Cllr Lesley Hinds, transport convenor at Edinburgh City Council, posed happily for the media along with Tom Norris, director and general manager of Edinburgh Trams, and were photographed cutting a giant tram-shaped cake

Staff also took part as the service celebrated its milestone ahead of the anniversary, with party hats, balloons and decorations dotted around the depot.

According to Mr Norris “the first birthday is a very exciting day for all of us because it rounds up a hugely significant year for everyone involved. We’ve beaten our targets and we’re on the right path.”

He was no doubt alluding to the fact that ticket revenue was three per cent higher than the £7.949m target but no mention was made of how much of this revenue came from motorists who had switched from commuting by car. After all, during the early days of the project it was consistently claimed by adherents that trams were essential to capture this market as motorists were not prepared to switch to buses.

I suspect, however, that most of the passengers travelling by tram in the first year of operation were people who would otherwise have used the bus and that the net increase in overall public transport usage is minimal.

Less publicity was given to the expectation of a loss of almost £1.3m this year, a figure which some might describe as optimistic.

It is said that Edinburgh Trams will begin to pay for its own day-to-day operation in 2017-18, but this will not take into account ongoing maintenance costs to vehicles, the track and the overhead.

Hmmm. Can you imagine a car-hire company not taking account of the cost of maintenance and repairs in future financial projections?

No, I thought not. And if such a company happened to be publicly quoted, the directors would risk imprisonment for fraudulently misleading shareholders.

In fact the half-line will not produce an overall return until after 2029 and even then the figures will not take account of debt interest on additional capital borrowed to complete (or, rather, half-complete) the scheme.

Until then, the shortfall will be made up by draining the profits made by Lothian Buses which, up to now, has paid a part of its dividend to Edinburgh City Council (and the minor shareholders, East, Mid and West Lothian councils) to be used on other services.

The other part of the bus company’s dividend has gone into paying for vehicle maintenance and renewal, which has given Edinburgh residents the benefit of a modern bus fleet almost unparalleled in Britain.

But for how much longer will this situation continue if money is transferred from upgrading the bus fleet to subsidising the trams?

Will Lothian Buses still exist in 2029?

Despite this misgiving, Ms Hinds and those of like mind are now dreaming about extensions to the tram line – to Leith, Newhaven, Newbridge, ERI and goodness knows where else.

Dream on, Lesley, I say. Dream on.

 

Twitter: @PropPRMan

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