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Trams scheme ‘took wrong route’

As the row about the Edinburgh trams fiasco rumbles, one of the few critics with the expertise required to pass judgment on what went wrong makes it pretty clear that he thinks attempts to pin the blame on private sector contractors will not wash.

“The mismanagement of the Edinburgh tram project is something that will be dealt with at a public enquiry in due course,” says Neil Renilson.

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The withering understatement comes from someone who as a former head of the Edinburgh bus system and director of the Stagecoach bus giant probably knows more about public transport than most people in Scotland.

As chief executive of council owned Lothian Buses between 1998 and 2008, Renilson was involved in debates about the proposal to reinstate trams in the capital, which started in 2001. It was the council, however, that decided to have trams and where they should run.

A project originally expected to cost £250m is now expected to come in at £650m. The massive disruption that the work has entailed for businesses and consumers may continue until 2014.

The 55-year-old is too discreet to say exactly what has been mismanaged and by whom.

“I’m not going to get into the tram thing.”

But the carefully chosen words that Renilson offers speak volumes.

“The tram scheme was developed by city council development officers, not by public transport professionals, and then backed by politicians.”

Later he adds: “The project was driven by political and regeneration reasons rather than sound transport economics.

“Rather than going to where people are, it was designed to go to where they wanted to encourage them to go.”

Renilson gave his professional opinion to councillors and senior officers on a number of occasions.

“But it was not what they wanted to hear.”

He implies that the furious spat between Edinburgh council and the German construction involved in the project is a side issue.

“There’s nothing wrong in principle with trams in places where they make sense.”

Asked if they can still be part of the mix in other places, such as Glasgow, he says: “In those places where it makes economic and operational sense to do so, yes ... but only where the passenger volumes are sufficient for revenues to contribute to the very high costs of construction and subsequent operations.”

He will not say where that might be the case.

In his time at the wheel of Lothian Buses, Renilson was no stranger to controversy.

He attracted fierce criticism in some quarters for his decision to introduce a flat fare for all journeys, regardless of their length.

This resulted in big fare increases for passengers who only made short journeys. However, those who travelled into Edinburgh from surrounding areas were quids in, notes Renilson.

He is proud of the fact that passenger numbers increased by three or four per cent annually on his watch, even after some unprofitable routes were axed.

While the prospect of deep cuts in public spending might lead some to argue that Lothian Buses should be sold, Renilson sees no reason why it should not remain in public hands.

“It works very well as it is.”

Renilson cut his teeth in transport in the public sector at the old National Bus Company after studying transport management and planning at Loughborough University - where he shared a flat with a “very driven” athlete called Sebastian Coe.

However, as the son of a former finance director of the old National Commercial Bank - which merged with Royal Bank of Scotland - Renilson has the private sector in his blood.

He is full of admiration for transport entrepreneur Brian Souter, who head-hunted him in 1989 to play a key role at the Stagecoach transport business.

This aggressively exploited the opportunities that were created by de-regulation.

Renilson was one of a team of senior managers who led on the acquisition of firms across the UK and diversification into countries like Kenya. He ended up chairing the African operation while running the Scottish business.

“It was probably best described as the most enjoyable, exciting and fast moving and challenging part of my career .. it was a once in a lifetime rollercoaster ride.”

Souter, and his sister Ann Gloag, were “wonderful” people to work for, says Renilson.

“Brian was very astute, very sharp financially and he knows his buses as well. Ann is very astute and a really lovely person.”

But it was not all good. Renilson says his decision to jump ship for Lothian Buses in 1998, was basically due to a clash with Mike Kinski.

The former engineer who ran Stagecoach from April 1998 to February 2000 acquired the nickname “Killer Kinski” after cutting 2000 jobs while he was at ScottishPower.

“I did not care for Mr Kinski’s style ,” observes Renilson. “I got the impression ... when he opened up his tool box there was only one tool and it was a scalpel. Stagecoach had already taken out the inefficiencies.”

Kinski subsequently became a successful private equity specialist with Terra Firma.

Two years after leaving Lothian Buses, Renilson is not pining for the 60-hour weeks that went with work for that firm and for Stagecoach.

He now has time to pursue interests like golf and work as a non executive director for transport-related ventures in Scotland.

The latest addition to the portfolio is a seat on the board of Jacobite Cruises.

The Highland tourist firm, which runs cruises on Loch Ness and tours in the surrounding area, is headed by Freda Newton, whom Renilson has known for 20 years. There will be an opportunity at Jacobite to pursue a long-standing interest in public transport as a tourism business, which he developed at Lothian.

Noting that Jacobite has trebled annual passenger numbers, to 130,000, in the seven years since Newton bought the business, Renilson sees plenty of potential for further growth.

He expects a planned £3m investment in developing a new visitor attraction and harbour at Loch Ness will help attract more people to the area and encourage them to use Jacobite.

But he does not shy away from potential controversy.

“We are very committed to trying to up the quality of the visitor experience on Loch Ness. We need to be offering more of what the visitor expects and less of the fluffy monster, made in Taiwan, “See You Jimmy” hats and burgers and chips.”

Curriculum vitae

Born 1955 Edinburgh Educated at George Heriot’s School and Loughborough University

1979-1987 National Bus Company

1987-89 Ran Strathtay Buses in Dundee

1989-1998 Manager at Stagecoach, ending up as chairman of operations in Scotland and Africa.

1998-2008 Chief executive of Lothian Buses. Currently a director of four transport-related ventures in Scotland, including Jacobite Cruises

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