Year-end Q&A: taking stock of LRT work in 2016 and beyond

There have been some bumps (and a sinkhole) along the way, but the engineers leading Ottawa's LRT construction say they're still on track to begin service in 2018. CBC Ottawa's Adrian Harewood spoke to Steve Cripps and Chris Swail about the year that was, and the year ahead.

Adrian Harewood speaks to the city engineers in charge of making light rail a reality for 2018

Adrian speaks to Chris Swail (left) and Steve Cripps about progress made in 2016 on LRT construction and what's ahead for 2017 and beyond.

Much of what's going on with Ottawa's LRT construction is still happening underground.

Because of that, you might not know just how much progress has been made so far, as crews work to meet a spring 2018 deadline.

CBC Ottawa's Adrian Harewood spoke to Steve Cripps, the man in charge of getting the Confederation Line completed, as well as Chris Swail, the Ottawa-born man tasked with leading Stage Two of the project.

Here's part of their conversation, in which they explain some of the challenges they've faced, how much of the work has been done and what's left.

Adrian: This year we've seen the first visible signs of what light rail is going to be. What stage are we at in the construction of Stage One?

Steve Cripps: Well, where we are now is, pretty well, the entire line is under construction. So all 13 stations right from Blair to Tunney's Pasture. Track work is well underway. About half the line has track work on it … The poles and the wires that deliver electricity to the vehicles, that's about halfway done. In terms of vehicles, you would have seen a vehicle running up and down on the lines starting in the last few weeks. Vehicle assembly is well underway, about five vehicles are actually complete and another five are currently in assembly. And so we're leading into a year where construction will just continue and the bulk of the actual heavy lifting will be done by the end of 2017.

Adrian: Where should we be by the end of 2017?

Steve Cripps: At the end of 2017 virtually all the heavy 'civil,' so all the actual construction work will virtually be done. A couple of the stations, at Rideau and Parliament, are a little bit behind the schedule compared to the other stations. But basically, by the end of 2017 all the track work will be done, all the overhead catenary systems (poles and wires) will be done, stations will be virtually complete. All 34 vehicles will be assembled. Most of them will be out on the test track, running up and down on the track. The remaining few will start testing in 2018, but 2017 is a real turning point for this project.

Adrian: The LRT was supposed to be ready to go in the spring of 2018. Will we meet that deadline?

The LRT tunnel under construction at Parliament station. (CBC)
Steve Cripps: Absolutely. RTG (Rideau Transit Group) is on track to meet revenue service for 2018. The sinkhole put them a little bit behind schedule in that particular area but remembering that was a very short section compared to a 12.5-km line. And RTG and the city have worked together to allow them to get in and work 24-7 on Rideau Street as you would have seen recently. They've done a great job in adding extra crews, extra equipment, extra sub contractors, and they've mitigated any impacts of that sinkhole and are back on schedule.

Adrian: (To Chris Swail) You are going to be responsible of the second phase. Of course, you've been intimately involved in the first phase. What lessons are you going to take from the first phase that you will implement in the second phase?

Chris Swail: Well there's a long list of lessons. We're constantly learning through the experiences that Steve's working through with his team on Confederation Line, and making sure that we absorb those, and structure a procurement and a design and an integration which is very important for the overall system in a way that's going to be even more effective than what happened on Confederation Line.

Adrian: There had been about $100-million set aside in a contingency fund. I understand that $89-million of that $100-million is gone. Is there going to be enough for cost overruns and other things that can't be predicted right now?

In 2014 media were invited into the LRT construction site. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)
Steve Cripps: The contingency fund you're referring to is part of the Stage One contingency. So the base budget is $2.13-billion … So currently about $86-million are earmarked for changes and any additional work that has to be done. Out of what's been earmarked only about $30-thousand has actually been spent to date. So we're confident that the $100-million contingency fund will get us through to the remaining portion of the project.

Adrian: Do you understand why the public might feel that there's been some poor planning involved with this project? People might consider the fact that there weren't bike lanes planned for the Booth Street bridge. Does there need to be better coordination between the city and RTG?

Steve Cripps: I think the city and RTG are well coordinated. Any additional work, like bike lanes that need to be done, we're working closely with RTG on those types of things. Any extras like that, we have a well-coordinated plan.

Adrian: (To Chris Swail) Can you map out Stage Two for us? What can we expect?

Chris Swail: We're going to have our designs finalized. We're going to be going to tender, searching for proponents to build the extensions on to Steve's lines. So next year as you see stations emerge from the ground, we're going to be making sure that by the middle of 2018 we're also going to be in the ground, extending those lines out to Bayshore and Baseline in the west, further east to hopefully Trim and then further south to Bowesville with a potential link to the airport.

Adrian: Does (tendering) pose a potential conflict or potential challenge for you in that the construction of the project is ongoing and yet you are still in the midst of trying to find new construction folks to do the work?

A replica of the LRT trains that will be used in Ottawa in 2018. (CBC)
Chris Swail: Sure, there are challenges. We've been working over the last six-to-eight months trying to work through those challenges to make sure we can get as much competitive tension and as good a price for the city and for the scope that we want to get for the $3-billion or so dollars that we're doing. We're confident that we're going to bring the world's best and brightest, just as the case that we did with Confederation Line. And I should mention that was an award-winning project.

Adrian: This is the biggest infrastructure project that the nation's capital has seen in almost 200 years. The only real project that would compare would be the Rideau Canal. You're a native of Ottawa, an engineer, what does it mean for you to be helping in the construction of this major project in your home town?

Chris Swail: It's an absolute privilege and thrill. Both Confederation Line and our extensions as part of Stage Two are going to fundamentally transform, not just the way people move throughout the city with transit becoming much more of a first-choice option for people getting around. It'll be more reliable. More comfortable. More convenient. It'll be climate controlled …but it's also going to transform the way the city grows. And it's going to be very interesting over the next little while to see the stations pop up here but also 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, how much our city is just going to be fundamentally transformed by having this first class, world class really, transit system.


  • In a previous version of this article, Chris Swail was incorrectly identified as an engineer.
    Dec 29, 2016 1:18 PM ET