Just when it appeared the Edinburgh trams fiasco couldn’t become more farcical, the project finds itself once again running the gauntlet of public ridicule.
There was uproar over the city council’s rejection of a proposal to borrow an additional £231m to extend the route from the airport to St Andrew Square, meaning the line would stop at Haymarket in the west end. The Liberal Democrat group on the council lost the vote after their SNP coalition partners abstained, allowing a Labour amendment to put the brakes on the scheme, backed by the Conservatives, to win the day.
Now, after the intervention of the Scottish Government, which threatened to withdraw funding for the truncated line, SNP councillors in the capital are set to back a plan to extend the line to the city centre.
There’s no doubt that the pressure on councillors to think again was immense. The plan to stop the line at Haymarket, condemned as “bonkers” by Edinburgh Chambers of Commerce chief executive Graham Birse, ran counter to advice from council officials that a truncated line would run at a permanent annual £4m loss.
Council leader Jenny Dawe described the decision as “heartbreaking” and warned it would jeopardise the city’s financial vibrancy. “I am really angry that Labour and Tory councillors have rejected the professional advice of our chief executive and officers and some of the most highly regarded legal, technical, financial and engineering experts in the country,” she said.
Edinburgh chief executive Sue Bruce added that there had been “a significant amount of time and effort” committed to the post mediation work.
“The recommendations reflected the considered professional advice of officers and advisers,” she said. But: “The council has made its decision and every effort will now be made to implement it.” You could almost hear the grinding of teeth.
However, trams sceptics had argued that extending the line in the face of uncertainty over the eventual cost would amount to throwing good money after bad. Local Labour MP and former chancellor Alistair Darling was one of those who opposed the extension, pointing out that trams only work in cities where a high density of residents lived on either side of the tracks: in Edinburgh, much of the route to the airport is off-street.
First Minister Alex Salmond has promised a public inquiry into the trams debacle once there is “greater clarity” about its direction. At the moment, though, it seems the only direction the project is taking is straight into the annals of costly disasters.