from Sunday Herald, 14 September 2008
Plans to build a new rail link from Edinburgh to the Borders have been damned as deeply flawed in a secret government report passed to the Sunday Herald.
An expert analysis for ministers concluded that the business case for the proposed £295 million Waverley line was “very poor”. It was riddled with “significant mathematical and methodological errors” and was founded on “inappropriate application of economic techniques”.
The 35-mile Waverley line was proposed by the former Labour and Liberal Democrat government, but has been endorsed by the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Nationalist government. A half-hourly service is scheduled to run from the centre of Edinburgh to Tweedbank, near Galashiels, from 2013.
The report was written by Cyril Sweett, a leading international construction and property consultancy headquartered in London. Sections of an analysis it conducted for the government agency, Transport Scotland, in August 2007 have been released in response to a request under freedom of information legislation.
The report warned that the costs of the project had been underestimated, the management had been inadequate and that much vital information was missing. “The technical and financial elements of the business case are not considered as robust as they should have been,” it said.
“The progress that would normally have been expected to be made in the implementation and delivery of the Border project has not been achieved, leading to evident frustration in Transport Scotland.”
The logic of the rail plan contained “a number of potentially significant flaws”, according to the report. “The programme is overly optimistic and not robust in its structure.”
Amongst the problems identified were underestimates of the cost of acquiring land and of the impact of inflation. No provision seemed to have been made for buying some of the land necessary for connecting the Borders line with existing rail tracks, the report said.
Plans for the rail link rested on “significant unexplained growth” in the demand for new homes in the Borders, the report argued. The assumptions underlying the business case implied that rush hour trains would become overcrowded, with some expected to be carrying double their maximum capacity by 2035.
The report has been seized on by opponents of the rail link as justifying their position. “Nearly every MSP has been hoodwinked by a poor business case,” argued Peter Smaill, an equity project specialist from Midlothian who requested the report from Transport Scotland.
“In UK terms this is not a viable railway project”, he said. “The economics were all over the place before but they are now even more questionable. There is an aroma of figures being made to fit a political agenda.”
Smaill complained that most of the detailed finances of the scheme had been kept under wraps. The only way Transport Scotland could now make it look viable was to “suppress” data as commercial in confidence, he claimed.
Others agreed that the project had been flawed, but hoped that it would now go ahead in an improved form. “Many of the criticisms in this report are valid,” said David Spaven, a member of the Waverley Route Trust, set up to encourage debate about how best to reopen the line.
“We’ve long had doubts about the way this scheme has been managed. To survive and prosper the Borders rail link needs to be rethought, and we’re hopeful that under the new management of Transport Scotland that will happen.”
Last month Transport Scotland officially took over the management of the project from the Waverley Rail Partnership, set up by local authorities. The Sweett report was part of a “due diligence” review conducted by the agency before it took control.
The review found that the business case “did not reflect the most up-to-date information, for example on patronage levels, train timetabling and expected housing developments,” said a Transport Scotland spokeswoman.
The government agency therefore overhauled the business case, which improved the project’s cost benefit ratio. “Market testing is currently underway which will shape the procurement process by understanding private sector capability and gauge market interest,” added the spokesman.
The Green Party argued that the rail line should be extended all the way to Carlisle, instead of ending at Tweedbank. Even with its problems, though, the current plan was “a step in the right direction”, said the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie.
The report by Cyril Sweett as released by Transport Scotland can be downloaded here (7.3MB pdf).