Thursday, 13 October 2011

"Keeping on track"

Richard Kerley - Holyrood Magazine

There is an old, old expression used in discussing public policy and public projects: ‘success has many parents; failure is an orphan.’ Bear that in mind as you read ever more about the Edinburgh trams story/ saga/debacle and observe various parties (both political and otherwise) scattering from the back wash of blame.

What can we do about it? What can we learn from it? For the moment I’ll pass on the first question (and leave that to the people who get paid for it) but I shall try and offer some observations on what we might learn, or at the very least, what we might ask that will help us learn.

The first thing we might learn is that many major infrastructure projects run over time and over budget; regardless of country, regardless of whether they are public or private sector projects. There’s quite a lot of history to this: the Suez Canal (private, late and 1900 per cent over budget); the Humber Bridge (public, late, 175 per cent over budget).

Margaret Thatcher consciously and deliberately insisted that the Channel Tunnel should be a private concession to ensure economic and efficient completion. The result: 80 per cent over budget, late, traffic projections only 30 per cent achieved, and a shareholder wipe-out.

International studies cover 200 + projects in more than 20 developed countries and suggest that ‘fixed rail ‘links are the worst culprits for cost and timetable overruns and failures to achieve passenger forecasts.

So ‘hey ho‘ to the proposed Borders rail line; ‘fixed links‘ are another major category of project time and cost overrun – so don’t assume the second Forth road bridge is done and dusted.

The second aspect that will be a fascinating element of the promised public inquiry, and the management case studies that will surely be used for years to come, is the multiplicity of organisations involved in this – all with particular and often different interests.

This is not just about Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, created to deal with the proposed congestion charge and now being quietly disposed of by the council.

I happen to think there is a good case for councils creating such organisations but somehow it went badly wrong here. Ever longer articulation links in decision making have to be well handled and thought about in advance rather than patched mid-way.

There are also all the other organisations involved, starting with and including the governments pre- and post 2007. The pre-2007 coalition rushed through some tram decisions just before the election, and the new minority government failed to properly assess the case for the Edinburgh trams or the Edinburgh airport rail link against each other.

Same city label, but big difference; one was planned to serve the city; one to serve dozens of towns and communities throughout Scotland. The end result of failing to consider both together is that the now planned tram line (as I write) will go from the airport to a city station . . . but the wrong station, and I suspect not many people will get on and off at intermediate stops.

There is also a myriad of technical questions to be asked and answers to be sought, some of which, I suspect, are way beyond the comfort range and knowledge of lay people, unless they invest a vast amount of time and energy; and they usually do this because they are protagonists.

Roll on the promised public inquiry – though I suspect it will be here before my tram will be.

Professor Richard Kerley, CSPP Board Member & Professor of Management, Queen Margaret University

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