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How past failure led to future success on Edinburgh’s tram extension

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The construction of street-running trams in this country has had a chequered history since their UK renaissance began in Manchester in 1987.

For every quiet success there has been a high-profile argument, delay or cost overrun. Perhaps the best-known example is the Edinburgh tram network –the nine-year public inquiry into which took even longer than the much-delayed project itself. Its report was finally published in September.

So, it was welcome news when the latest addition to Auld Reekie’s tram network, the 4.6km stretch to Newhaven, near the port of Leith, opened in the summer.

Services on the £207m Edinburgh Tram Extension  delivered by City of Edinburgh Council, contractors SFN JV, Turner & Townsend and Morrison Utility Services — began running in June, on time and on budget. A sharp contrast to the original project which was famously five years late and whose true cost, the report states, was over £1bn — nearly double the initial £545m estimate.

It’s an almost phoenix-like project transformation that demonstrates how, given the right approach, past failures can be the root of future success. Looking at the results of the inquiry, some important lessons appear to have been learned and applied to the delivery of the extension.


A good plan doesn’t guarantee success, as the old saying goes, but a bad plan can guarantee failure. The original tram project suffered from several serious planning failures including in the design phase, resulting in design-related delays being baked into the construction phase.

The extension project accordingly featured an extended design and planning stage aimed at avoiding nasty surprises further down the line once works had begun.


The report identified lack of collaboration between the council and its partners as a fundamental problem. By contrast, the extension project employed a close knit-team with a ‘one team’ approach to maximise accountability and risk-sharing between partners.


The extension represents the completion of the original vision for the city’s tram network — to connect the airport to the west of Edinburgh to the port to the north east. And despite the huge controversy over the cost and schedule overruns of the initial phase, the council had the tenacity to learn the lessons needed to see that vision through to completion.


The tram extension connects the centre of Edinburgh to its historic port district, bringing a host of benefits, ranging from greater footfall for shops and restaurants to reduced traffic noise and pollution for residents. A focus on these long-term benefits — rather than the short-term pain of construction — helped shape a much more positive narrative around the extension project than was the case for the original tram project.

There was also evidence of what you might call the ‘Crossrail effect’ at work — excessively optimistic assumptions made early in the project with insufficient data to back them up. In the case of Crossrail, the inadequate assumptions were around the amount of time it would take to install the systems once the tunnels were dug. In the case of Edinburgh Trams, they were to do with diverting utilities.

Once the city’s historic streets began to be excavated, a great many more pipes and wires were unearthed than had been anticipated. The fact that utilities dating back to Victorian times were not well mapped or recorded was hardly an unforeseeable problem — indeed, it was foreseen — but the scale of the problem was wildly underestimated.

The solution — as an interview with Jim Crawford (former Chief Programme Officer of Crossrail and co-author of its learning legacy report), in the winter 2023 issue of Project, reveals — is to seek out the experience of others and take a more forensic approach to asking the question ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ before such assumptions are made.

The Edinburgh legacy

Overall, it's apparent that the problems with the initial Edinburgh project were more to do with poor planning, bad working practices and unrealistic assumptions than technical construction difficulties.

It’s hugely encouraging to see that these issues have been so successfully addressed by the extension project, which must surely bode well for the future of trams in Edinburgh. After all, there are still two more lines on the drawing board of the original three-line proposal, one east of Newhaven to Granton and one to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, south of the city centre.

But the lessons learned could also be of much wider benefit, as a potential blueprint to help bring affordable, convenient and low carbon mass transport to cities all over the UK. That really would be a legacy the city could be proud of. 


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