Experts commissioned by contractors carrying out Scotland’s biggest transport infrastructure project are studying fractures that have emerged under the road surface to determine whether the foundations supporting the tracks will need to be replaced, according to a senior source.
If confirmed, remedial work is expected to require further closures on Edinburgh’s busiest shopping street, causing further misery to traders who suffered a 10-month shutdown last year.
It would also represent a huge blow for the tram developer, which admitted three months ago that it would have to pay up to £9 million more than expected in order to complete work on Princes Street on time. It is facing a severe budget shortfall.
A source said: “We’re waiting for the results of a study into the defects on Princes Street which will tell us what level of remedial work is necessary. If the foundations won’t support the load placed on them by traffic on the road then the likely course of action is the tram tracks will have to be dug up and re-laid.”
The problems have sparked one of the sharpest exchanges in the bitter row that has blazed between Tie, the council-owned company overseeing the project, and the BSC consortium led by construction giant Bilfinger Berger, prompting formal moves to rip up the contract to build the 11.5-mile route.
Tie has insisted that key personnel employed by Bilfinger who are responsible for the mistakes are dismissed. Princes Street re-opened to traffic in December last year following weeks of frenetic activity and 24-hour working in frequently atrocious weather conditions. It is the only on-street section where track laying has been completed due to a refusal by Bilfinger to commence work at other locations. Engineers have already returned on three occasions to repair cracks to the road surface previously – blamed, by Susan Clark, deputy project director for the trams at Tie, on a “poor standard of work” by Bilfinger.
But The Herald has learned of more serious concerns relating to cracks detected in the foundations supporting the tram tracks,suspected to have been caused by the wrong type of material being used by Bilfinger engineers.
The faults are being studied by academics for Bilfinger to determine what level of remedial work is necessary and whether the road will have to be dug up again.
The problems have prompted a furious response from Tie, which issued a “remedial termination notice” to BSC on August 9, insisting that defects are repaired and engineering superintendence staff replaced to avoid the contract being torn up.
In separate correspondence seen by The Herald, the company has also demanded that a senior member of staff employed by Bilfinger to examine its legal case against Tie is dismissed on the grounds of incompetence.
It is understood that both claims have been dismissed as “unenforceable” by Bilfinger. Although conceding responsibility for some of the faults, the company claimed it was forced to undertake work despite formally warning Tie that poor weather would lead to problems as road surfacing would have to be laid at below the recommended temperature.
Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Lothians MSP, said: “It sounds like a major cock-up which, if true, would be disastrous for the project and cause serious problems for the people of Edinburgh who have already put up with prolonged disruption to such a major thoroughfare.
“There’s always been faults on both sides of this dispute but, if we find out the contractors are to blame for such a serious mistake, they will have a lot to answer for.”
In June, it was revealed that Bilfinger had submitted claims for £11m for Princes Street, originally expected to cost around £2m, due to additional work and “programme acceleration”. In a report to City of Edinburgh Council, Tie reported it had already settled £8m of the bill.
An Edinburgh Trams spokesman said: “Our concerns regarding this matter have been brought to the attention of the consortium and to comment further would be inappropriate, as we have made clear in the past that we will not discuss matters of a contractual nature through the media.”