Completing the tram to Newhaven

Edinburgh City Council this week decides whether or not to complete the Edinburgh tram line to Newhaven. Transport spokesperson Cllr Chas Booth explains why Green councillors will support the project.

When I lived and worked in Augsburg, Bavaria, around 20 years ago, I took the tram system for granted. It was quick, easy and affordable to get around the city. And because it was so convenient and reliable it removed any need to own a car. Augsburg is a city around half the size of Edinburgh, and yet has a network of six tram lines extending for more than 25 miles.

And Augsburg is typical of modern, successful European cities which use trams to move large numbers of people very efficiently and with zero local air pollution. If Edinburgh counts itself among the ranks of modern European cities, and if we want to tackle the problems of congestion, air pollution and climate change emissions from transport, then it needs it to make it easy to do the right thing. That means safe walking and cycling, a modern efficient bus fleet, and tram or light rail options. That, in turn, will free up space for cars or vans where really needed, such as disabled citizens or essential trades and services, rapidly moving from diesel and petrol to electric.

For that reason, I and Green colleagues have recognised the case for completing the tram line to Newhaven. Our bus network in the city is fantastic but there comes a point where trams can move significantly more people than buses and have no tailpipe emissions to address air pollution.

But the general case is not enough. I want to ensure that any specific decision to complete the tram line is right for our city. And that’s why Green councillors set three questions to help determine whether the proposal put to councillors this week is indeed right for our city: firstly, does the business case add up? Secondly, has the council learned the lessons of the previous tram fiasco? And lastly, does the line go hand in hand with high quality walking and cycling provision?

Does the business case add up? Well, it’s clear the tram will bring economic benefit to Edinburgh. For every pound the city invests in completing the tram line, we gain £1.40 in additional benefits, mostly in the form of public transport journey time savings. Plus there are additional benefits not covered in this calculation, such as increased employment in the Leith area and in the wider city. Investing in completing the line will also bring additional revenue from fares, which will help pay for the line over the longer term. There is a short-term cash flow challenge up to 2027, which can be addressed by borrowing from reserves, which will be paid back when tram fare revenue rises.

The next question is whether the council has learned the lesson from the previous trams fiasco. Green councillors have been scathing about the mismanagement, chaos, cost over-runs and late delivery of the first Edinburgh tram half-line. But we should not let the sour taste of that episode cloud our judgement of light rail schemes as a whole. Rather, we should take a cold, hard look at what went wrong last time and ensure we don’t repeat it. And the council has made many changes in the current scheme: they are using industry-standard contracts instead of the bespoke contracts which caused so much trouble last time; they have introduced a ‘one-dig’ approach to reduce disruption during the works; and they have streamlined the project governance to ensure clear lines of accountability and robust decision making, to name just three changes.

And the final question is about the contribution the scheme makes to walking and cycling. A truly sustainable transport system must make walking and cycling easier, as well as investing in public transport. The initial designs published for consultation early in 2018 were widely criticised by cycling and walking groups. But thankfully there has been a lot of work to improve the designs, which now include segregated cycle routes along Leith Walk, together with wider pavements and pedestrian priority on side street crossings. These are all big improvements which I welcome. Yes, I’m disappointed that the scheme does not include segregated cycle routes all the way to Newhaven, but I recognise that the narrow street widths on Constitution Street and physical restrictions on Ocean Drive make that extremely difficult. I welcome the current Leith area active travel study, as well as the commitment to fund the outcome of that study.

So Green councillors have taken every opportunity to scrutinise the proposals to complete the line to Newhaven. We are acutely aware of the responsibility of all councillors to interrogate the case for completion. And after many hours of scrutiny, examination of the documents and searching questions to the tram team, we believe it is the right decision for our city.

I have also listened to those calling for a delay to the completion decision to allow the Hardie Inquiry to report. But we believe the risks of delaying are higher than the risk of proceeding. If we delay, many of the tram project team who have considerable experience of similar projects would be likely to leave. And there is a very real risk of cost escalation if we delay. So the time is right to proceed with completion.

I have also looked long and hard about the potential impact on Lothian Buses. We’re lucky to have the best bus company in the country serving our city. I want to see firm proposals, worked out in dialogue with Lothian Buses themselves, to make bus travel more attractive. Specifically, I have pushed for a swift implementation of the extension to bus lane hours which was agreed following a Green amendment at Transport Committee last year.

Finally, I am aware that there are some groups within the council who are publicly opposed to the completion of the tram project. The Tories, of course, supported the tram project which led to the half-line we have just now, but are now opposed to completing the job they backed originally. Privately, the more reflective Tories recognise the merits of the business case, but are, for now, seduced by short-term headlines. The Liberal Democrats were in charge of the council for the original phase of tram mis-management, and now appear to be against the project “because of Brexit” and potential impact on passengers from the airport. In fact, the completion of the line creates a buffer zone against future reduced airport fares so the logic of Brexit actually goes in favour of completing the line.

So Green councillors support high-quality public transport because of the benefits it brings to air quality, to cutting climate change emissions and in allowing people to move around the city quickly and easily. The time is right to finish the line to Newhaven. Greens will continue to scrutinise the project as it progresses. But it is the time to finish the job that previous council administrations have left incomplete.