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After eight years of chaos, city’s £700m trams project is stopped in its tracks

IT WAS envisaged as a network of tram lines that would transform public transport in Edinburgh, allowing residents a realistic alternative to the car and cutting congestion and pollution.

By yesterday, they were left with a shuttle service from Haymarket, on the western edge of the city centre, to the airport six miles away -- which official estimates suggest will be largely shunned by passengers and run at an operating loss of £4 million a year.

For opponents, most notably the SNP, the writing has been on the wall for the project long before they lost an attempt to ditch it in 2007, when they were outvoted in the Scottish Parliament.

They point to a series of delays and cost increases that appeared to always be ahead of the approved funding for the project, establishing a modus operandi that has arguably continued to this day.

However, that narrative was again disputed by Labour councillors, who -- in heated exchanges during yesterday’s crucial City of Edinburgh Council meeting to decide the project’s fate -- repeated their claim the project had been given a clean bill of health by Audit Scotland in 2007. They said cost overruns were down to mismanagement by the current LibDem/SNP coalition.

The LibDems insisted they were left with a project that had been badly set up by Labour, who signed off on a programme of preparatory utility diversion works that has led to delays and ballooning construction costs.

Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (Tie), the council-owned firm responsible for delivering the project, has seen its narrative of blaming the contractors for deliberately escalating costs gradually lose traction as the council has sought a closer working relationship with their former enemies.

It is a squalid end for the vision which emerged in the early part of the century for reinstating the capital’s tramway, which was closed down in 1956, using revenue from toll charging to help pay for it.

In March 2003, a circular route from the city centre to Granton, on the waterfront, then via Leith and back to the city centre was proposed. A second branch line would connect this loop to Haymarket and the west to Edinburgh Airport, with both due to open by 2009. A third tram line was also proposed for later development, to Gilmerton, serving the New Royal Infirmary, to open two years later.

But the subsequent months and years were to see that vision gradually eroded as costs increased, the timescales slipped and sections of the line were axed, along with vague ambitions to return to them when funding allowed.

By December 2003, the costs for lines one and two were £473m -- £98m above that approved earlier by Iain Gray, the Labour minister who approved the project.

The rejection of congestion charging in Edinburgh by a public referendum in 2005 sapped the scheme of a major source of fundraising. But despite line three being formally dropped, lines one and two proceeded.

The project’s total budget had reached £714m, or £179m over budget, by November 2005,

The resulting shortfall led to a truncated route being approved by the Scottish Parliament in 2006, comprising an 11.5-mile route from the airport via the city centre to Leith and Newhaven and a spur line from Haymarket to Granton. It was shelved in April 2009.

The council last year conceded it would have to “phase” construction to prioritise an eight-mile section from the airport to St Andrew Square, due to funding difficulties. Yesterday’s vote lopped two miles off that, taking it only to Haymarket.

One of the continuing ironies of the project is that the key personnel who took the pivotal decisions on Scotland’s biggest transport infrastructure project did so with little scrutiny of their actions or understanding of their consequences by elected members.

They have now all left, having reached amiable parting terms with the discredited Tie, which is to be wound up.

Councillors now appear to have woken up to their responsibility for the project and the capital’s finances, rejecting, for the first time, the proposals put to them by council officials and project mangers.

It was a decision made too late to rescue any degree of dignity for what has become a blight on Edinburgh and a burden for future generations to bear.

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