Shooting For the Moon – Thoughts on Taking the Trams to Newhaven in a Binary Political World

TRam Leith Walk

Shooting for the Moon – Trams have been on Leith Walk before.

Below are my current views, thoughts and concerns on the plan to complete the tramline to Newhaven – the “Newhaven Proposal”.  I am not expecting everyone to agree with me, but I hope people will respect the fact that I have thought about it before reaching a view. 


We apparently live in a binary world. People are Yes or No. They are Leave or Remain. In Edinburgh, they are either for or against completing the tramline to Newhaven.

The reality is different, however. Just like on many other binary arguments, most people are stuck in the middle between hardcore “extremists” on the tram debate. On one side we have people that want to extend the line at any cost, and on the other we have those that oppose it ideologically no matter what the benefits. For those groups, it’s an easy decision and those that oppose them just don’t get it. I actually envy their certainty.

That’s why it’s worth looking at the Final Business Case (FBC) prepared by the Council on extending the tram. It makes the case for the project, but it does so in a way that acknowledges the uncertainties and risks. It makes clear that what is needed is a considered judgment, not a knee-jerk decision.

The headline cost is £207.3m – this includes the Capital costs to completion (£156.7m), Support for business (£1.9m), Development costs (£5.5m), Risk (£31.9m) and Optimism Bias (£11.9m). It is acknowledged, however, that there is a 20% chance that the project costs will exceed £207.3m. Indeed, a more conservative approach to assessing the potential for the project to go over budget suggests there is 20% chance of the project costs exceeding £257.3m(!), and a 5% chance of it exceeding £334.8m(!!).

The Council Officers should be congratulated for presenting the costs in this way. They have chosen not to simply put a price ticket on it, but instead have sought to communicate the uncertainty in a responsible manner. The clear aim is to deliver the project for £207.3m, but their approach is clear that there is a 1 in 5 chance of a cost overrun.

Nonetheless, even if the project does hit £257.3m it is still estimated to deliver £1.25 of benefit for every £1 spent – i.e. a Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) of 1.25 . If the final cost is £207.3m, the BCR is 1.4. Whilst this is positive, a BCR of 1.25-1.4 is technically “low value for money“.


Sunk Cost – Work undertaken on Leith Walk 2007-14 should have reduced the cost of the Newhaven Proposal

Although it is hard to compare the proposal with other projects as a lot of work had already been undertaken on the extension route (2007-14), it is in line with other light rail/tram projects such as Nottingham Express Transit Extension (BCR = 2), Leeds Supertram (BCR = 2.0), Sydney Light Rail (BCR = 0.8),  Newcastle (Australia, BCR = 0.5), Forrestfield Airport Link (BCR = 1.4 ) and ACT Capital Metro (BCR = 0.5).

With all the focus on costs, it is important to remember that this project will deliver significant benefits. Leith is one of the most densely populated and deprived areas in Scotland and it is already congested. Making it easier to move people around is key to developing brownfield sites in northern Edinburgh. The tram will link these key development sites with key employment areas (City Centre, Edinburgh Park and the Airport). Let me be clear, developing these brownfield sites in north Edinburgh will take pressure off the greenbelt in my Ward (Colinton-Oxgangs-Fairmilehead).

Since 2016 the city has been planning for an additional 47,000 people by 2024, and an additional 102,000 by 2039, taking the total population from 492,610 to 594,712 over the 25-year period from 2014 to 2039.

This is a breath-taking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems and new dangers. So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But our city was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.

The question is how we accommodate this growth, and it can’t be done by expecting everyone to drive around our capital. We have one of the UK’s best bus services, but is needs to improve. In parallel, we need to improve safety for those that are able to travel by foot and bike – particularly for children going to school. We can and must do all these things, but the FBC makes the case for the tram being the best way to add capacity for the congested route to Newhaven.  Without it, the FBC is clear that congestion and pollution will constrain economic development.

Ed Tram 1950

Back to the Future – The Edinburgh Tram Network in 1950.

Whilst these arguments hold water, the Edinburgh Tram has a troubled history. We once had an excellent network (many buses cover the same routes today), but the most recent incarnation has been a national embarrassment. A mixture of schoolboy errors and poor governance structures led to Edinburgh getting a fraction of the expected line at a much higher cost (from £375 million to the final £776m) than was ever feared.  As a result, in 2014 the SNP Government set up the Hardie Inquiry in to the shambles, with Alex Salmond claiming with his customary bravado it would be “swift and thorough and would cost an estimated £1m. Almost 5 years later it has still to report, and the costs look likely to exceed the £10.2m the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War cost. All this may well be legitimate, but it feels like insult is being added to injury.


The 2007-14 Edinburgh Tram fiasco means the public are very wary of spending more money on the line. If the Newhaven  Proposal is approved, it will have to succeed if we are ever to have more lines.

The monumental disaster we witnessed on our streets between July 2007 and May 2014 has three direct impacts on the proposal to complete the line to Newhaven:

  1. The public lost trust in the Council. This means that the Newhaven Proposal has come under significant scrutiny by a sceptical public and a new intake of Councillors. Whilst the Tram Team has welcomed the feedback, it is notable that other larger items of expenditure are subject to a far lower level of scrutiny (e.g. I have seen no questions about the £874.112m planned spend on Council Housing in Edinburgh over the next 5 years, or the £200m the Council plans to invest in schools).
  2. Lesson were learned by the Council. Unlike the 2007 project, the Newhaven Proposal will use standard contracts, the project team will have light rail experience, roads will only be closed once, robust quantitative risk analysis has been undertaken and there has been significant community engagement. It is important to note that Turner & Townsend was appointed by Edinburgh City Council to manage the project after Transport Initiatives Edinburgh was disbanded in August 2011, and after the 2012 Council elections a Labour led Council replaced the SNP/LibDem Coalition – this meant political control of the project fell to Councillor Lesley Hinds (not a passive character). Not only did she demand that the Scottish Government allow concessionary tram travel for Edinburgh’s older citizens, she had oversight of the project whilst it continued mostly on schedule and budget. Although Lesley Hinds has retired, the core Tram Team she worked with 2012-14 is behind the Newhaven Proposal and the FBC.
  3. Safety issues for pedestrians and cyclists are now better understood. There has been a great deal of focus on improving safety along the existing line, and those lessons have been reflected in the Newhaven Proposal. It is notable that there has been significant constructive engagement with Community Councils, Ward Councillors, Living Streets Edinburgh and SPOKES about the detailed design of the public areas around the route. Whilst I don’t expect any of these groups are absolutely happy, I think all will agree there have been significant improvements over the original proposals (I was clear that I could not support these).

Although the case for backing the Newhaven Proposal does, on balance, have some merit I do still have concerns, and these are detailed below.

  1. Optimism Bias – Although the people behind big projects are highly rational and logical, it is recognised that the human brain is sometimes too optimistic for its own good – something we all suffer from at times! To counter this, a 6% “Optimism Bias” has been added to the project. Although this equates to £11.9m, it is at the very bottom of the 6%-66% range recommended for “Non-standard Civil Engineering” projects. It is argued that this is because the project is at an advanced stage and many lessons have been learned from the 2007-14 debacle. However, there are two significant unknowns that could have real impact on the project: the “swift and thorough” Hardie Inquiry recommendations; and, the ongoing Brexit shambles.
    Although the Hardie Inquiry  are recommendations considered in the FBC as an unknown cost, there is no mention of Brexit. An earlier version of the FBC (AKA the Outline Business Case) made this comment: “…there is a risk that uncontrollable economic and market factors adversely affect the type, structure and overall cost of borrowing the Council is able to gain access to. Two significant events that are likely to be a factor in this are the impact of Brexit and the announcement and timing of any potential second Scottish Independence Referendum.” In a review of the FBC for the Council, Scott-Moncreiff say the Tram Team “has excluded uncertainty surrounding Brexit from its Quantitative Risk Analysis over the construction costs and the potential impact of Brexit has not specifically been referred to within the FBC or financial model.”.
  2. Sensitivity Analysis – The FBC considers the “sensitivity” of the project finances, by varying key parameters (such as travel time and economic development) and assessing the impact on the BCR. The analysis, as presented, only varies these parameters one at a time in simple “what if” scenarios and does not consider outcomes where two or more parameters vary. Scott-Moncreiff  made this comment: “We note that the FBC analyses the sensitivity of each of these components individually, and does not consider the cumulative impact of more than one of these components.
  3. Environmental Impact Statement – This apparently has not been updated since 2003 and the FBC makes the point that earlier work “implicitly suggests” that there were no “unacceptable” environmental impacts. This is hardly reassuring.
  4. Strategic Support – The project is of strategic importance to Scotland’s capital and the wider region, yet the Council is expected to fund it with no support from the Scottish Government. Additionally, Transport Scotland have made no comment on the FBC (nor has comment been sought). I find this highly questionable, particularly when this is seen within the context of the £125m the Scottish Government gave the Council (without it even asking) in the City Deal to upgrade Sheriffhall Roundabout.
  5. Lothian Buses – The £207.3m for the project will be funded by ticket income from the new/existing line and a £20m (£2m per year for 10 years) exceptional dividend from Lothian Buses. There is concern that the impact of paying the exceptional dividend combined with losing passenger income along the Newhaven line will place undue pressure on Lothian Buses.
  6. Alternative Projects – Although it should be noted that the Newhaven Proposal should put no demand on existing council budgets, it is true that the ticket income and exceptional dividend could be spent in other ways with the aim of delivering similar benefits, perhaps on a wider scale. The aim of this project appears to  have been focused on extending the line, rather than delivering the benefits associated with it.

In summation, I hope I have shown the project does have significant benefits and a degree of uncertainty associated with it, but how those are balanced is tainted by the 2007-11 segment of the 2007-14 project. What is clear, however, is that there is a need to cut congestion and stimulate development in the north of Edinburgh, and right now completing the tramline to Newhaven appears to be the best way of doing that.  I say that accepting that the £207.3m target price (BCR = 1.4)  has a 1 in 5 chance of being exceeded, but in the knowledge that the Council has a £50m contingency in place if needed (BCR = 1.25).

The full set of CEC papers on the Newhaven Proposal are here.


5 thoughts on “Shooting For the Moon – Thoughts on Taking the Trams to Newhaven in a Binary Political World

  1. Councillor, as usual a well thought out and thoughtful piece from yourself. However, I would point out that the key to this may not be the finances but the environmental impact. No other project of this scale would get past Planning or the Scottish Government without an environmental impact, so why would you contemplate letting it go through without one?
    The current tram has caused more congestion, therefore increasing pollution not lowering it as it was put forward to do. I spoke out at the initial proposal to this effect and was vilified for not supporting the Council as I flat out refused to publicly say it would reduce pollution, I have been proven to be correct. There is no EIA for the proposed line because it would show that pollution will increase with its implementation.
    Pollution in Edinburgh has reduced dramatically from its peak in the 60s with the introduction of smokeless zones. The peak for vehicles happened in the 80/90s but with the introduction of lead free petrol and catalytic convention this has declined and will continue to decline with restrictions on diesel cars and the use of electric. The pollution myth is continued by the cycling lobby but is not based on facts. The key to good science is good data and the council has systematically cut its monitoring programme and has no advanced plans for monitoring any of the effects of it proposed interventions, closing selected roads etc.
    I on balance would support a well thought out mass transportation scheme such as the trams if it was comprehensive and covered the city. However it at present duplicates a very good bus service and I fail to see its future benefit, and I fear for the future of our bus service. However I will support you as always at the ballot box as you do still represent us as one of the few Councillors who does it as a belief rather than a career choice.
    Keep up the good work, you put in a lot of effort and it is appreciated.
    Kind regards


  2. I pose not tram extension against no tram extension but priority needs spend and investment now for constituents benefits this year against less pressing tax payer spend now for questionable local constituents benefits in a future five or so years time. The loan: What is the annual interest rate? What business set up is the lender background? The contractors cost: Private? Council contractors means an immediate reduction in city unemployment and a flow of revenue into Edinburgh. Electric buses: A fraction of the cost with better mobility access for the local population. Has this been even considered? Council housing built now in Leith benefits people in Leith now 2019, More contractors in-house council tenders only, means more local quality jobs needed and deserved for local people.
    You may have been at the CEC budget day deliberations last month. The delegations gave us all a reality check. And no kit kits for councillors this time. Local people existing, not living, on Universal Credit, unemployment, zero hour contracts, food kitchens, homelessness, despair. £207 million minimum could go a long way to turn that around.Even local people on better protected Substantive contracts have to claim U.C., and use food banks to survive. Do you know what the current spend is on Leith Street, York Place? You will notice the overhead tram line has been extended beyond York Place already. The ‘proposal’ is live,past the start line before consultation with local employers of Councillors, the electorate that is, have been consulted. Tourism, now that is a biggy for some who should know better priorities are to local people for now 2019. The Tram Enquiry, the collapse of Carillon, the misuse of taxpayers millions. When it is public we will know more. The proposal should not be enacted by legislation or building works at least until after Enquiry findings. In the meantime if CEC must borrow till the pips squeak. Invest in the people of Leith and Newhaven now. Let us see a positive turn around in family lives before year end. Democracy: The EU and Scotland independence Referenda results stand. Who would have the women of the Irish Republic retake the recent historic Referendum result on abortion rights and birth control access?
    I respect your honest analysis although I disagree with it. I will continue to campaign for a Socialist future and vote Socialist Labour Party.


  3. Dear Councillor Arthur

    Like Mr Greenhill, I have found your article to be a considered one.

    I have been pleased to note that the Council is following advice from Oxford Global Projects regarding the reliability of the cost estimate and the need to set aside additional funding over and above the 6% optimism bias uplift.

    If you accept that Professor Flyvbjerg is the leading expert in the field of megaprojects and risk then you should also follow his advice and consider the reliability of the benefits part of the BCR. Whilst some councillors have quite rightly considered the possibility of cost over-run,in the 16 years I have followed the tram project, I have yet to hear a councillor question the stated “benefits” figure which forms the basis of the BCR.

    The benefits part of the BCR in the 2007 tram business case was made up of anticipated journey time savings to all modes of transport within the city. Evidence given by TIE’s consultants to the Parliamentary Committees gave an example of around £32 million of benefits which were anticipated to “saving a few seconds of journey time at Haymarket alone” to all modes of transport. No traffic management scheme was available against which to test the figure and there has been little evidence of journey time savings in reality now that the first phase of tram is in place – quite the contrary.

    Here we are in 2019 and we see that nearly £500m of stated benefits, again primary down to anticipated journey time savings, are used in the BCR with no traffic management plan and no shred of substantive evidence to support that figure. Based on actual experience, I doubt that the £500m of benefits would bear close scrutiny.

    BCRs are so easily manipulated that one is forced to agree with Flyvbjerg’s conclusion that: “The policy implications are clear: legislators, administrators, investors, media representatives, and members of the public who value honest numbers should not trust cost estimates and cost-benefit analyses produced by project promoters and their analysts.”

    The original tram proposal was argued on the grounds of economic development but, despite the promise of the tram, the developments on which it relied for patronage failed to materialise, largely due to economic downturn and a lack of public interest in the properties which were built. Here we are, possibly facing another economic downturn after 29 March 2019 which will bring no certainty that those developments will be built.

    And then there is Lothian Buses – a company which reported a £7.4m profit in the last available accounts and paid a £6.8m dividend. Now it is expected to pay £2m more for the next 10 years and lose an estimated 8.1 million more passenger journeys to the tram. How will it remain profitable and, if it does not, then what will happen to fares, subsidised routes, renewal of its fleet, or bus frequencies? I would have liked to hear the views of Lothian Buses’ Director of Finance but, unfortunately, that post has been left vacant following the departure of the last DoF after only a few months in the job. Apparently, he was asking “too many awkward questions”, which may explain why no successor is yet at the post whilst the tram projects slides through Council again.

    The original tram proposal was based on very dodgy assumptions and an equally dodgy BCR. The only thing that is different is that, despite the experience of the first phase of tram, councillors are taking the same optimistic view. Like you, they question some of the data, but they don’t really want to scrutinise it too closely lest reality bites. The BCR is a sham, the anticipated environmental impacts (which are unchanged since 2003) are awful in terms of air quality, the development assumptions are questionable and outwith the Council’s control and the implications for Lothian Buses are serious. Nevertheless most councillors simply want the tram and will vote for it regardless. “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.


    Alison Bourne


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