Learning costly lessons

Until a week or so ago I had never managed to work out in my own mind the reason for my instinctive scepticism about the plans for the return of trains to Galashiels.

But a light finally came on for me last week as I watched the country’s transport minister tell us that political resolve to build 30 or so miles of track and a few stations would itself be enough to deliver trains again to our area.

Asking myself why I shouldn’t believe this plausible-looking tribune, suddenly the spectre of Donald Dewar appeared in my mind uttering the infamous words: “There shall be a Scottish Parliament”.

He said it and we got it – but when the dust settled on that debacle, were we not told that lessons had been learned?

Let me acknowledge that not everything our ancestors did in the way of building public infrastructure was faultless, but no one who has travelled about this country can have missed that for our recent ancestors, laying a few miles of track and building some attractive and distinctive railway infrastructure along the way is something they would have managed with some ease. I offer the Leaderfoot viaduct in evidence.

But I guess I will not be alone if I suggest that confidence has largely been lost in those empowered to deliver public projects in modern Scotland. There is a Scottish Parliament building, but it was to cost £45million and ended up costing well north of £400million.

It was no surprise to anyone that the inquiry that followed found that mismanagement by government and it’s so-called arm’s-length agencies were at fault? Lessons, we were told, had been learned, but if lessons were learned, who were they learned by?

Not those responsible for the shameful Edinburgh tram fiasco?

And before the present parliament’s members jump in to say “that wasnae them”, my point is that both branches of the public sector have form for losing control of major contracts and paying for their mistakes with other people’s money.

I’ve heard the SNP crowing that the recently-completed M74 extension into the centre of Glasgow is an example of a major project coming in on time and on budget – but such should be the norm and not the exception. Are we not entitled to expect competence from those we elect and hand the public purse to?

Moreover, the distinction to be drawn between the Glasgow motorway and the Borders railway is that some of the risk of overspend was taken in the former case by the private sector, while we now know that if the railway is to be built, it is just the taxpayer that is on the hook.

I find it impossible not to extrapolate from events that the reason private contractors pulled out of the Borders railway tendering process is because not enough is known about the true condition of what is still there to be brought back into use. If those given privileged access to what must be limited information won’t tender for a publicly-funded customer in times when such work is scarce, this is not an insignificant factor.

A pointer in just this direction was revealed to me some time ago by an official associated with the project who told me that the assumption about the cost of reinstating the massive viaduct near Newtongrange on the A7 was based on not much more than a best-estimate provisional sum (that’s a guess to you and me), plus or minus five per cent. The figure was provisional because no budget had ever been allocated to fully investigate the state of the viaduct.

How many times have we been told after failures to spend wisely the contents of the public purse that lessons have been learned? Too often for my liking.

So the unquestioning enthusiasts for the return of the railway really need to see past the notion that those with questions about the project are just malcontents lacking in ambition. Because there are some who are not cheerleaders for a flawed plan to return the railway does not mean that your fellow citizens are against having a railway to Tweedbank.

Who, after all, wouldn’t want to have the option of travelling to the heart of the capital, cheaply and quickly, by rail?

So I say to those about to open the public purse, knowing that there is so much that you do not know, can you really have any true confidence that things won’t quickly get out of control? The clues are there for even amateurs like me to see.

Please go back and pay more than lip service to the mantra of lessons being learned. All the signs point to there being a huge black hole waiting to collect our money.

Don’t let the thought of losing face stop you from pausing to see what lessons there are to learn from the very recent past.

Colin Shaughnessy