Friday, 2 September 2011

Tram network just needs a driver

Published in the Scotsman, 2/9/11

A directly elected leader in Edinburgh would have ensured that the capital's tram project was completed long ago.

ON MY return to Edinburgh from visiting a few other great European cities this summer, I struggled with my suitcase, once more, up the steep slope fromWaverley station to Waverley Bridge. Emerging from the gloom, blinking into the sunlight and looking straight ahead over the tops of the multi-coloured tourist buses, there it was, against a brilliantly steel-blue sky, that magnificent edifice, Edinburgh Castle perched atop its broodingly black volcanic plug. "I'm home."

As I turn to gather in a full 360ยบ view of this wonderful place, I am struck by the many contrasts that contribute to the complexity of this, and indeed, many other great cities. Contrasts between old and new, between tired and energetic, between functional and aesthetically pleasing, Edinburgh has them all. These physical, visual differences represent and indeed demonstrate the diversity that makes cities the great, active places that continue to attract people to live, work and play in them.

In Edinburgh the picture is constantly changing. Some elements, such as the Castle, are a constant feature. Others, for example, the grand old lady of Waverley station, are given an occasional facelift, rebalancing the internal contrast between featureless functionality and the need of any place to be attractive, comfortable and relaxing.

As the jewel in the crown of Network Rail's Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP), Waverley's refurbishment will reset this classic beauty in her proper context. The station's modernisation will remove what had become an unflattering contrast between journey and destination. The arrival and entrance to Edinburgh, following the installation of the long awaited escalator to effortlessly lift commuters, leisure travellers and tourists alike up to Princes Street, will be transformed. EGIP will result in the electrification and modernisation of much of central Scotland's rail network, bringing faster, more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly rail travel, between three of our six cities.

Improving the links between our capital city, our largest city and the original choice of many for the Scottish Parliament building, Stirling, this complex project is being undertaken with minimal political fuss, and even less public attention. In contrast, compare this to Edinburgh's trams.

How is it that Network Rail can be set to deliver this £1 billion project, along more than 200 miles of track, involving major refurbishment of both Haymarket and Waverley stations (and the Gogar interchange with the trams) on time and on budget? Equally, how can Transport Scotland deliver the M74 extension, with its own set of complexities and myriad engineering challenges, crossing a number of administrative, never mind physical boundaries, in a similarly efficient manner?

Then ask the same question of Edinburgh's trams. Exactly. What has gone wrong? Why? Who is responsible for this debacle? How can it be put right? Is there anything that could have been done differently? What lessons can be learned for the future? Is there an issue about democratic accountability, about power and responsibility? What is our capital city lacking?

Let's examine the evidence. There exists a political majority within the council chambers in support of the tram project. Labour commissioned it, the Tories supported it, the Lib Dems inherited it and the SNP are stuck with it. However, at every junction when a decision was required, when our elected representatives were called upon to demonstrate the vision, clarity of purpose and leadership that delivered previous improvements to infrastructure, such as Waverley station, they were found collectively wanting.

The Lib Dems led the localised campaign against the Southern line out to the new hospital, and effectively turned the trams into a singular replacement for the No 22 bus. The Tories sought last Friday to kill off the project entirely and with it Edinburgh's reputation. Labour's spoiling amendment to truncate the route at Haymarket not only caught their opponents on the hop, but took themselves by surprise, in the event.

The SNP, for their part, have rightly been forced to perform a hasty retreat and help to save the project, and our capital city, from international ignominy. All in all, this has been a pretty sorry spectacle, dominated and damned by democratically elected members, each seeking to squeeze maximum party political advantage from a project that the population effectively rejected when it said a resounding "no" to the introduction of a congestion charge, its principal funding source.

There are no winners in this. There is no political glory. There is only, presently, despair, anger and frustration. At least it would appear that the realisation is dawning on our councillors that they have managed, through the fog of political war, to steer the trams down a very expensive dead-end. For many, this could be their own political terminus, time when their grannies kick them off the electoral bus. May 2012 approaches.

So what's to be done? How can our capital turn around this looming disaster and save the nation from yet another embarrassing episode, like the Holyrood building project? Well, it has already started.

The citizens are revolting. Not quite riots on the streets, or setting up the gallows in the Grassmarket, but across the blogosphere a sound akin to the screeching of a tram wheel on metal track is approaching. The populace, whatever viewpoint it had before last Thursday's vote, is united in its vocal condemnation, determined that a better solution is found.

Now a few basics. The trams must travel along Princes Street and link to Edinburgh's main rail and bus stations. It simply cannot be other than this. Wall-to-wall double-deck buses detract terribly from the world-renowned attractiveness of Princes Street, choking it to economic death and environmental destruction. Most buses don't need to travel its length, and could easily turn around at either end; think of the 31, the 26 or even the 22 itself. Trams will transform this thoroughfare, at last affording an opportunity for us all to take maximum advantage of its truly spectacular natural assets.

A well-designed interchange at Haymarket could also shift commuters from packed rush-hour trains with limited capacity, onto regular running, hassle-free, mass transit, modern trams. This particular modal switch, with integrated, all-through ticketing, on the level where the tram line sweeps down to the station platforms, would transform the travel experience.

This movement of people across a platform onto frequent, fast and environmentally efficient trams would exponentially add to their peak-period revenue flow, whilst benefiting the ScotRail franchise, by increasing its effectiveness with the removal of its biggest blockage. The same could happen at Waverley now that we are seeing the modernisation of that station, with a little bit of integration and imagination.

Another obvious benefit from this type of integrated thinking would be the removal of many of the remaining diesel trains from the rails below beautiful Princes Street Gardens, leaving space aplenty for the intercity fleet. A double benefit then, clearing Princes Street of double-deck diesels and clearing the gardens of diesel trains. Edinburgh could breathe more easily. Where has this joined-up thinking been? Other European cities manage to integrate their different modes of transport. What's different from Edinburgh?

A mayor. In the great European cities I visited this summer, from Barcelona to Venice, from Dubrovnik to London, an elected mayor, call them provosts in Scotland if you please, drives the development and regeneration of their cities.

They lead them in times of trouble and they set out their stall to deliver growth. If Edinburgh had a directly-elected provost, with executive power akin to counterparts all over the world, we would have had a tram network in place long ago, linking the entire travel to work area that provides the fuel for this engine of our economy. Come on, let's get on board!

Ross is CSPP Policy Director


  1. I have been a staunch defender of local government for as long as I can remember. However, the world is changing dramatically without our democratic system keeping apace. A representative system intended to ensure democratic accountability is still essential and non negotiable but what form that should take now has to be up for debate. An elected Provost with a cabinet of people dedicated to public service held to account by elected Councillors whose role is to challenge and scrutinise must be preferable to the stagnating, bureaucratic, committee driven,cabal led Local Authority system currently in place. It is also essential that a replacement representative system involving an elected Provost has a recall mechanism if the majority of the local electorate require to trigger it.The Edinburgh tram fiasco would be a case in question.Along with political reform there also has to be a Community Empowerment Act and an end to the vast waste of duplication arising from quangos such as regeneration agencies, enterprise bodies and local planning partnerships.Their unelected un accountable empires could be dispensed with .The Provost and cabinet system would be expected to carry out their functions .The savings to the public purse could be re invested in local initiatives rather than poured down the great black hole of discredited policies and practices which promise much but deliver little . We are not a poor country we just manage our resources poorly .

  2. Entirely agree with your comments. Critics of the mayoral system often point to the concentration of executive power and the lack of checks and balances. Certainly, these issues occupied my thoughts for a while.

    But, can't Scotland learn from the experiences down south (in particular) and create a system that empowers a central figure but simultaneously provides accountability and transparency? Of course it can.