Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Edinburgh tram project may yield less network for more money

with 10 comments

The Guardian has a story to-day about the latest developments in the saga of the Edinburgh trams. The project is already late and over budget but abandoning  now would cost more than a partial completion.

Workmen on the Edinburgh tram project. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Workmen on the Edinburgh tram project. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

What attracted my attention was the picture accompanying the story which shows the construction site – which looks even more horrendous than Cambie Street at its worst. There is also a link within the Guardian’s story to the 35 page Council Report, for those who want chapter and verse. This, it seems to me, would be a very good example that could be copied by our local media, which so often only provide links within their own web empire but not to external sources.

Every case is unique and different, of course. But Edinburgh is going to get cited by opponents of trams (or streetcars or whatever you want to call them) so even the proponents of this technology need to be aware of what went wrong there. And also, of course, what lessons that has for future projects in other places.

UPDATE September 14, 2011

The Scottish government has now stepped in and taken over the project


Written by Stephen Rees

June 23, 2011 at 11:41 am

Posted in Light Rail, transit

Tagged with ,

10 Responses

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  1. I’m going to leave a comment before I read the full report.
    The photo certainly makes it look like they opted for complete renewal of the route including underground services, vehicle lanes, sidewalks, etc. It’s one of the ways for engineers to hide routine maintenance in another project. The claim is that it’s more efficient to dig up the road only once. Whether that actually works out in practice is a whole different matter of course.
    That’s one of the things I fear about estimates made for Vancouver. With nothing more than a rough design concept and no schedule whatsoever TransLink gave the public estimated costs for a range of options on Broadway. What was included and what wasn’t isn’t public knowledge so the figures cannot be debated and it’s easy for them to change in the future.
    Looking at the photo I’m also left wondering what the time frame is. Wouldn’t it be better to completely close a 3 block stretch, for 8-10 weeks and then move to the next 3 block stretch than to repeat the Cambie method of essentially closing the entire street for 3 years while pretending that it’s open?
    I have heard that the tram in Nottingham was installed very quickly and that merchants were guaranteed compensation if their business was disrupted for longer than 3 weeks.


    June 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm

  2. @ David: “With nothing more than a rough design concept and no schedule whatsoever TransLink gave the public estimated costs for a range of options on Broadway.”

    How on Earth can you provide detailed construction cost estimates and a construction schedule when a concept option hasn’t even been chosen and approved?

    Detailed engineering studies, design and the preparation of hundreds of pages of tender documents does not happen until a decision has been made as to which option will move forward. Until then, the figures will remain conceptual and rough and will always come with qualifications.

    Further, even with fat contingencies there are big surprises and associated extra costs once the ground is opened up. I can’t recall one project in my 28 years in project design and management where this wasn’t the case. People who advocate surface light rail often have exceedingly naive cost assumptions and have obviously never managed a construction project.

    I see a great number of manhole covers in the centre of Broadway (and almost every other arterial), and this is indicative of the location of underground services. Moving these services to accommodate surface LRT will result in astronomical additional costs. Large diameter trunk sewer lines and water mains usually run in straight lines; ducking / weaving / shifting an LRT track and station alignment back and forth within a road allowance to avoid having to absorb the costs of moving underground utilities just doesn’t make sense on a major spine in the regional rapid transit system.

    Still further, I will always question not only the lower-cost assumptions made by some people about surface rail on Broadway-UBC (my loonie is on topping $1.5 billion with all factors in, especially dealing with underground utilities), but also the cost-benefit ratios with such spending to achieve only marginal gains over the existing B-Line service, and the calculatable permanent disruption to pedestrian cross traffic as well, which will impact Broadway businesses.

    This doesn’t mean that LRT isn’t viable on other arterials and corridors in the region where the potential for greater service and ridership gains justifies the cost, and where high-capacity express buses are not currently doing the job.

    Thank you Stephen for bringing up this topic. I support ALL modes of passenger
    rail development in Canadian cities and believe that the choice should be made in accordance with future need and quality of service, not philisophical bias.

    The photo clearly illustrates that there is measureable large-scale disruption with any rapid transit construction project anywhere, regardless of mode, and that construction reality must be planned for in great detail.


    June 24, 2011 at 10:32 am

  3. In looking at the numbers in the report I have a few observations.

    The original bid was to build an 18.5 km line for about $C820 million, which works out to about $C44 million / km. That’s quite high compared to some of the per km costs of LRT tossed around by some commentators here on this blog.

    Now one of the project options is to build 13.5 km for $C1.16 billion, or $C85 million / km.

    The Guardian: “The conflicts have been blamed largely on utility companies failing to keep accurate records of underground pipes and a badly drafted original contract.”

    In Vancouver the engineering records after 1960 are pretty good. And there are such methods as video scoping and utilizing ground-penetrating radar to locate underground utilities in places where their location records may be sketchy. But using these methods for every metre in an 18+ kilometre route is really not feasible because it is very time consuming and expensive.

    I also note that the contractor was the German firm Bilfinger Berger. This is the same company that was let go by Metro Vancouver for, in some reports, grossly underestimating the costs of boring a water tunnel under Grouse Mountain (600+ vertical metres of highly pressurized solid granite), then stopping work using “unsafe conditions” as an excuse. However, they had access to the same test bores that the other companies had, yet their bid was very low compared to theirs. Generally, red flags should go up as quickly on un-naturally low bids as they do on the highest bids. These are the types of firms that bid very low then ding you with a slew of very expensive change orders. One of their competitors has now finished the job at a price that more accurately reflects the actual conditions.

    Bilfinger Berger also built BC Ferries last three large commisions in Germany, basically outcompeting local shipbuilding yards on list price. The ferry corporation and the provincial government under Campbell obviously did not care to consider the economic multipliers of spending the money locally, as well as the increase in local skills that would have better prepared Seaspan for the upcoming massive tender on ships by the federal government. The two Spirit boats on the southern run are the biggest in the BC Ferries fleet and they were designed and built locally in the 90s. It’s not like we’re incapable.


    June 24, 2011 at 11:19 am

  4. The new ferries were built by Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft shipyard in Flensburg, Germany – I don’t think it’s related to Bilfinger Berger.


    June 24, 2011 at 9:23 pm

  5. sorry to see edinburgh having a lot of difficulties.

    Still, to cast perspective, there are some interesting contrasts with the tram and the canada line:

    1) What was the project definition? IIRC, it was supposed to take over an existing busway which itself was a success in reducing travel times. the busway incorporated a bus-only guideway and on-street bus-priority measures [1]. how would replacing that with a tram help, aside from capacity constraints (was the busway at capacity?)

    Canada/RAV set ridership targets and travel time criteria from YVR to downtown, but left a lot of other things open for modification, like technology and grade separation, as long as they met spec. [2]

    2) the tram project did not use a PFI (P3) for capital construction and was expected to make a profit on operations, yet they are running into immense problems with the project/contractor [3]. was there scope-creep as suggested by david? or did they have a poor contract/contractor? how did we do things different with are p3? Have we encountered any hidden traps yet with the P3?

    Hindsight is 20/20, but we are now reaping benefit from the C-line in spite of all its bumps. I hope we aren’t gun-shy about more transit infrastructure, be it metro, LRT or tram in the GVRD.


    June 24, 2011 at 9:49 pm

  6. WRT re-reading my post, i think RAVco set up passenger capacity targets. I don’t think RAVco set ridership targets as that risk was borne by translink.


    June 24, 2011 at 10:30 pm

  7. “The photo certainly makes it look like they opted for complete renewal of the route including underground services, vehicle lanes, sidewalks, etc.” This is what they do in France every time a tram is built and this makes sense. Most of the utilities (sewers, gas, hydro etc.) MUST be kept away from under the tramway tracks..

    I have paid special attention to the work done when they were building 3 tram lines AT ONCE in downtown Bordeaux (late 2000 to early 2004). Building the tram lines meant reducing the number of lanes available for cars and trucks in many streets, so whole streets were closed off. While the excavations weren’t as deep as the Cambie st tunnel they still were perhaps up to 10 ft deep in some areas. As Bordeaux has been continuously inhabited for at least 2300 years (longer than was found) they discovered valuable archeological stuff in many areas and had to stop everything to study it.

    Have a look at the photos in the link below (click on each photo to enlarge them):

    Quite a mess isn’t it?

    Red frog

    June 24, 2011 at 10:52 pm

  8. “… the proponents of this technology need to be aware of what went wrong there. And also, of course, what lessons that has for future projects in other places.”

    Stephen Rees

    What did the upgrade of the track from Olympic Village Station to Granville Island look like? It’s single track except for one lay-by as we all found out. That looks like a whole lot of activity taking place on the ground in the photo. If that is Princess Street, then being a historic place adds to the difficulty. However, the services upgrade would appear as the possible suspect.

    For Broadway (and Hastings) is not part of the problem that we are planning transit—sorry about this backhanded accusation—in the same manner that we are planning our city? That is one project at a time.

    Before we build the system on ‘9th Avenue’, shouldn’t we implement BRT on 12th avenue—removing private trip capacity—and possibly matching or exceeding the 100,000 trips/day on Broadway today? If LRT were being built on Hastings, then the same approach might put BRT on Venables/Prior to provide replacement capacity during the construction phase. Then, once LRT is running, the option can be visited about whether the BRT should stay.

    Finally, what does a “compete transportation plan” for Vancouver look like?

    Lewis N. Villegas

    June 26, 2011 at 12:16 pm

  9. @ Ron re: ferries, my mistake. But decision to go offshore was still very controversial and ignored local benefits. It was a strictly lowest-bid-is-the-most-important-criteria decision.


    June 27, 2011 at 1:28 pm

  10. This may not be the most appropriate place for the following and it is likely that quite a few posters on this blog already know what I am about to write but…?!

    1-In the magazine Spacing, the first national issue (summer 2011) there is an article that I found quite interesting:
    “TICKET TO RIDE: Spacing senior editor John Lorinc examines why Canada has yet to form a national public transit strategy. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi weighs in on the topic as does former Toronto mayor David Miller”.

    2- “To celebrate this special issue, Spacing is hitting the road and hosting a series of events in 10 cities across the country — called the Spacing Road Show — in June and July. Hopefully you can catch us in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax”

    VANCOUVER When: Tuesday, June 28, 7-10pm
    Where: Wosk Centre for Dialogue, 580 West Hastings St.
    Cost: $5 (gets you copy of magazine)
    PARTNER: City of Vancouver
    Panelists: Erick Villagomez (Spacing Vancouver), Gordon Price (SFU City Centre), Erin O’Melinn (Vancouver Public Space Network)

    PLEASE note that I have no links whatsoever to Spacing, besides the fact that I like reading it–and its blogs– as it deal with public transit, urban planning etc.

    Red frog

    June 27, 2011 at 11:21 pm

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