By Alisdair Suttie 08 August 2012
Wednesday 8 August 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
While choosing ever more efficient cars and engines, company car drivers are also being told we need to use our cars less. By lowering the number of miles we cover, we’ll be doing our bit to save the planet.
Sounds great and we’d all like to play our part. However, as has been pointed out in this column before, there are few practical alternative options for most company car drivers, so it makes it rather difficult to abandon the car.
Not the rickety trams that were done away with in the 1950s, but sleek modern trams that would run from the docks in Leith to the airport at the other side of the city.
A fine idea, even a grand projet in the mould of French civil engineering. Not only would new trams for Edinburgh provide a clean and congestion-free alternative to using the car, there’s even a park and ride already there at the airport.
So many commuters and business drivers could take the stress out of their day and enjoy quick, efficient transport into the city centre and beyond. It would even encourage people to walk in the centre of Edinburgh as their car would be parked a few miles away.
A great idea, but one unfortunately managed by some of the most incompetent and shameless individuals ever to come into contact with public finances. Since its inception, against the wishes of the Scottish Parliament, in 2003, the Edinburgh tram project has swallowed hundreds of millions of pounds and is now set to top the magic £1 billion mark before we see the first tram in service.
There are already trams in action because they have to be run every week to prevent them seizing up. The only problem is they are stranded at a depot to the west of the city and cannot even be used on a limited section of the track. If the remaining Monty Python guys are looking for inspiration for another film, this tram project would provide unlimited material for a script.
It’s not so funny, however, when you look at the spiralling time scale and costs involved in the Edinburgh tram debacle. Originally, we were told we would be ditching the car and hitching a tram ride in 2009. After a messy dispute between the failed tram company Tie and German contractor Bilfinger Berger, which lasted a year in which no work was done and Edinburgh residents were subjected to further inconvenience, the projected cost rose to £776 million.
This is galling enough for those living in Edinburgh, but even more insulting is the rest of Scotland’s 5.25 million residents are stumping up £500 million of this money. If this were a privately owned or operated company, the scandal would be headline news around the world, but Edinburgh Council continues to brazen it out.
The City of Edinburgh Chief Executive is Sue Bruce and she had the audacity to say at a recent Holyrood conference that trams will ‘make a sea change in people’s attitudes to car travel’ and there will be ‘a modal shift, particularly from private car drivers to public transport including the tram.’
Given that we have not seen any such shift while Edinburgh has been ripped up during the construction of this engineering white elephant, Sue Bruce’s naïve hope that there will be a great wave of tram use when it’s finished borders on the infantile rather than mere politicking.
To throw Bruce’s comments into the harsh light of reality, the environmental impact of installing the tram lines and building the trams themselves will take years to offset. Then we have to consider where the electricity needed to run the trams will come from. It will not appear magically and cleanly, it needs to be produced and the nearest power station to Edinburgh is a coal-fired monolith called Longannet just over the Forth in Fife.
When we do finally see a tram turn a wheel in the way it was intended for public transport, rather than the glorified child’s train set it resembles at the moment, it will be 2014. Five years later than planned, which is not just missing a deadline but trampling all over its grave.
The craziest part is that now all of this money has been committed to the project and it’s gone so far, we might as well have the trams. Even if the lunatics running this asylum decided to pack it in and walk away, the Scottish people would be £776 million worse off and have nothing to show for it, so it seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. A true politician’s choice.
The answer is about eight miles of track and a few trams providing transport along an identical route to an existing, and very efficient, bus service.
This begs a further question: instead of spending £1 billion on a white elephant, why didn’t Edinburgh Council look to leave a lasting legacy and genuinely change the lives of a great many people?
The answer to this is they were too short-sighted, narrow-minded and too full of their own self-importance to stop and think of alternatives. Trams were the one true mantra, to be chanted at every opportunity in the hope of convincing the public, as probably many of those involved in this mess from the start.
Sadly, the money is now spent, gone and wasted, but here’s an idea for any councils thinking of going down the tram route in a similar fashion to Edinburgh. For the £1 billion squandered on the Edinburgh tram project, the council could have developed a completely new, environmentally friendly bus.
The new London bus, or Boris Bus as it’s been christened by the popular press, is reckoned to cost about £1.4 million per bus. Without taking shoes and socks off to work out the exact number, that means Edinburgh Council could have bought 700 of these buses and still had change.
Or, more pertinently, Edinburgh Council could have worked with local Scottish bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis Ltd to create a bus designed specifically for Edinburgh. There is no doubt the cost would have been massively lower than the ruinous tram project and it would have secured the jobs of many and created hundreds more as there would be opportunity of exporting a new clean, green bus to cities all over the world.
In the scale of missed opportunities, Edinburgh Council’s tram project ranks up there with Decca Records’ Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles.
So, next time someone suggests you leave the company car behind in favour of public transport, tell them you’re saving the country money by taking your car and doing your bit for the environment at the same time.
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