Councillors grill city administrators over Metro Line LRT safety

Edmonton city councillors grilled administrators Tuesday about the safety of the Metro Line LRT in the wake of two weekend incidents, including one in which a southbound train ended up on the same track as a northbound train.

'How many system failures have we had?' Coun. Mike Nickel asks in Tuesday’s council meeting

Two trains sit beside the NAIT platform before they run south to downtown Edmonton Monday. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Edmonton city councillors grilled administrators Tuesday about the safety of the Metro Line LRT in the wake of two weekend incidents when a southbound train ended up on the same track as a northbound train.

"How many system failures have we had?" Coun. Mike Nickel asked in Tuesday's council meeting.

City manager Linda Cochrane said she didn't have an answer to that,  but administrators tried to assure council the line is safe.

"We've always put the safety of our passengers and our citizens first," Cochrane told the meeting.

They said the signalling system didn't work properly but that the safety system worked "perfectly."

Safety protocols prevent the trains from getting too close, they said. Automatic brakes come on when trains are within 25 metres of each other.

City operations manager Doug Jones said a number of components are in place to make sure trains don't collide — including the train operators, the control centre and a technical safety system.

On Monday, city spokesperson Katherine Sweet said another safety protocol has been added: LRT drivers are now expected to call the control centre to verify which track they should be on when pulling into NAIT station.

Sweet said she's not sure how long that measure will be in place.

"When you have two trains going on the same track heading towards each other, [it] begs the question of safety," Nickel said.

"If you want to ask very simple questions like how many safety-related incidents have we had to date and they couldn't even [answer] that question today, I got to admit I'm frustrated."

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson acknowledges problems with the new LRT but says the line is safe. 0:39

Mayor Don Iveson said he was convinced the LRT is safe.

​"I have no hesitation, I'll go ride it with you after the meeting," he told media on Tuesday. 

"Our city officials are not in the business of opening or running systems that are not safe."

At Tuesday's council meeting, Coun. Bev Esslinger said council was not told LRT drivers now have to call in.

Signal trouble since 2015

The Metro Line LRT has been plagued with signalling glitches since it came online in 2015.

On Saturday, a train had to back up after it ended up on the same track as one that was ready to head southbound near the NAIT LRT station. No one was hurt in the incident.

While the city worked with LRT software provider Thales to figure out what went wrong with the track switcher, there was another software system malfunction Saturday, said Eddie Robar, the city's transit service branch manager.

That one caused a service delay of six to seven minutes.

Thales issued a statement Monday saying the company "takes this issue very seriously" and stressed that passengers weren't at risk. 
Coun. Mike Nickel requested the report to clarify who's responsible for property damage from construction projects. (CBC)

"At no time was passenger safety compromised," the statement said. "We continue to work in close partnership with the City of Edmonton in resolving this issue."

The city is withholding payment to Thales until the signalling issues are solved.  

"They're a long way away from getting paid," said Iveson. 

He said the company's reputation is at risk if they don't come through with a solution. 

"This is as embarrassing for Thales as it is for the City of Edmonton," he said, adding that the city won't be looking again to use the same signalling system.

Before the weekend incidents, the signalling system failed on Oct. 30 when the crossing gate lifted as a train was about to cross the intersection of Princess Elizabeth Avenue near the main campus of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

CBC News has also confirmed an incident in July.

Time to scrap it?

Councillors are now asking whether it's time to move to another LRT system provider. 

"Is the system salvageable?" asked Coun. Michael Walters. "Will it ever run as it's designed?"

Walters said transit users are asking that question more and more. 

Cochrane said she didn't have an answer yet but options will be included in a written report due at the next council meeting Dec. 5.

"At what point do you say, 'Enough's enough,' and you move to another provider?" Esslinger asked. "Or how to do you get it on track?"

Iveson said switching providers could cost a lot more money but council will discuss the options at the next council meeting and seek legal advice on possible options.


About the Author

Natasha Riebe


Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.

With files from Roberta Bell