Special report: Transport 2011

Special report: Transport 2011

Edinburgh is bringing back the tram, thanks in part to North East engineering expertise. Brian Nicholls explains.

Edinburgh’s journey towards its new and, it has to be said, controversial tram network is long and difficult, but come 2011 (assuming the completion deadline is met) this nine year project will end, offering the world yet another example of the engineering expertise of the North East and Tyneside’s own Parsons Brinckerhoff.

The network will revolutionise the city and bring, the publicity material says, reliable, frequent transport to the population and boosting the city’s standing in international tourism and business. There has been much controversy, however, not least because of the road delays caused by the works and the £512m outlay.

But the network is an inevitability, despite its detractors’ vociferous opposition, and, thanks in part to the expertise of Parsons Brinckerhoff, visitors, rugby fans and business travellers from the North East will ride the trams to Murrayfield, Princes Street, Edinburgh Airport and some 33 other stops besides within a couple of years now.

The North East’s involvement dates from 2005, when Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) was appointed for its engineering consultancy expertise alongside the sub-contractor Halcrow.

The road to the final contracts was long and complex and PB’s legal advisors from Newcastle law firm Watson Burton were led by construction partner Roddy Gordon, who says: “There were some very lively and boisterous exchanges between us and other legal representatives, as you might imagine on so complicated a project.

In the end, all the matters were resolved amicably.” The construction contract was signed last May, and PB transferred from the employ of Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE – the project manager) to that of the contractor, Belfinger Berger Siemens; an international consortium that has worked on 30 transport schemes around the world.

“We were delighted when negotiations to start construction closed successfully, and novation of PB to Belfinger Berger Siemens was also successful, enabling work to go ahead,” Roddy says.

PB, founded in 1885, is one of the world’s oldest continuously operating engineering consultancies, responsible for designing the New York Subway early last century and a 285-mile high-speed railway in China some 100 years later.

The group’s many light railways litter the globe. It also provides programme management, planning, engineering construction consultancy and management services for transport, power stations, and environmental projects.

PB director Steve Reynolds said: “Our main challenge has been to design a system in keeping with Edinburgh’s status as a World Heritage Site, which respects fully the surrounding environment and how the tram interacts within it, and also provides a first class transport solution for Edinburgh.” He summarised Watson Burton’s advice and experience as invaluable.

“Roddy’s commitment underpinned our success in reaching financial close after eight months of negotiations,” he added. PB’s history is a proud one, enriched in 1995 with the acquisition of Tyneside engineering consultancy Merz and McLellan, creator of the world’s first electrified suburban railway in 1904.

That was a 20-mile loop linking Newcastle Central Station with Tynemouth and now embraced within Tyne and Wear’s Metro system.

PB’s contracts of recent years have included a Manchester light railway extension and the firm’s 13,000 staff work from 150 offices worldwide, including Newcastle.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, the work to lay the tram tracks continues to cause controversy.

Property owners who refused to allow wiring on their buildings have been threatened with legal action and traders who threw an irony-heavy street party on Leith Walk to mark the first anniversary of a crater there accused officials sent to intervene of ‘thuggery’. More restrained critics doubt tramtravel will be much faster than the existing 25-minute bus journey between the city and its airport. Others suggest costs will equate to running every bus in Edinburgh fare-free 24/7 for seven years.

Roddy Gordon points out that there was lengthy research, extensive public consultation and two Acts of Parliament behind the plan. In addition, research in other UK cities with trams indicates 20% of peak hour passengers and 50% of weekend passengers previously travelled by car.

In addition, with zero emissions, the trams present a very pleasing environmental alternative. Trams, they say, will encourage people to visit the city centre, providing a boost it badly needs.

Dublin saw a rise of 20% - 35% in pedestrian footfall on its main shopping parade, Grafton Street, and some retailers there have reported a 25% jump in trade. House and commercial property values beside tram routes are also expected to rise.

In some cities with trams, house prices have risen by up to 15% and rents by up to 7%. If all these advantages do exist, then some may wonder why Chancellor Alistair Darling, when Transport Secretary, vetoed similar schemes for Liverpool and South Hampshire, whereas trams have been approved on what many would regard as his home patch.

In the North East, we can note that Nexus, aware of Tyne and Wear Metro’s absence from the west side of Newcastle and Washington, has already looked at the possibility of connecting these areas to the Metro with trains which, as in some other places, run both on road and rail.

Just 27 trams will run in Edinburgh initially, though at more than 40 metres long, they will be the biggest in the UK, capable of carrying 250 passengers at a time. Time will tell how eager the population is to travel this way.