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How Edinburgh’s trams took longer than the world’s greatest engineering feats

John McGurk

Stand back in amazement:  those ugly overhead power cables in Edinburgh go live this week.

Apparently, we can expect the first city centre tram trial in December before the show starts for real in May 2014 - only seven years after the project was started.

Is there anyone, apart from the city's transport convener Lesley Hinds, who thinks the £776 million has been money well spent?

The tram will take a full eight minutes more to reach Edinburgh Airport compared to the bus it's due to replace.  Neither will the majority of capital citizens find the tram useful because it won't be going in their direction.

The seven year construction time, along with the economic chaos caused to retailers, must rank as one of the poorest management projects in building history.

Yet most of the world's greatest engineering feats were started and finished within incredibly short time scales without today's technology. Those responsible for Edinburgh's trams should hang their heads in shame.

The Empire State Building, the 103 storey Manhattan skyscraper, was the tallest building in the world when it was opened on May 31 1931.  Incredibly, it took just 13 months to complete. Building drawings were produced in two weeks. Its height overtook the Chrysler Building, that other iconic New York skyscraper, which opened in 1930 having taken two years to construct.

The Eiffel Tower, the landmark iron lattice structure built in time to celebrate the 1889 World Fair in Paris was started in 1887.  That's another of the world's greatest building projects completed in under three years. Hitler made a beeline for it in1940 but the French had cut the cables to the lift so that he would have to climb the steps to the top.

The Golden Gate Bridge, the longest suspension span in the world when it was opened in May 1937, took a little longer but was built in less than four years. It was started in January 1933 to connect San Francisco with Marin County.  The bridge has six lanes of traffic but cars only began to move after President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a button in Washington DC.

The Shard was begun in March 2009 and topped off in March 2012.  That's three years to erect the glass-clad building which is now the tallest in London. It has 87 floors and cost £435 million. That's some £341 million cheaper than the trams.

The Channel Tunnel or Eurotunnel, hailed as one of the world's greatest modern-day engineering feats, was started in 1988 and completed in May1994.  That's just six years. Okay, the idea had been around since 1802 but the 31 miles from Folkestone to Calais  is four times the length of the Edinburgh tram line. And 23.5 miles of it is underwater.

Speaking of underwater, the Titanic was laid down on March 31 1909 and launched in 1912.  The largest ship afloat at the time was 52,000 tonnes and 882 feet long.  Harland and Wolff in Belfast managed it inside three years without even a pocket calculator (though admittedly, maybe that's where it all went wrong)

Supporters of Edinburgh trams will no doubt claim that much of the delay was down to the contractual problems and that the project was immensely complicated what with all those underground cables and pipes to move.

But even the stretch from Haymarket to Shandwick Place took 20 months and that was started after all the rows were settled. Those 1930 daredevils could have built one and a half Empire State Buildings in that time.

But there is some comfort for those living or working close to the tram lines.Letters from the tram people have gone out to “stakeholders” warning that the live power cables could have lethal consequences.

John McGurk is a former editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday and managing editor of the Daily Telegraph.

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