Metro LRT line has become 'inside joke,' Edmonton mayor says

Edmonton city councillors got an update this afternoon on the troubled Metro LRT line.

Don Iveson says delays won't hurt ridership, but have raised doubts about the city's management of project

The Metro Line from Churchill to NAIT station was completed in time for its original April 2014 opening date. But problems with the signalling system have kept the city from opening it to passengers. (CBC)

Mayor Don Iveson admitted Monday the long-delayed Metro LRT line has become a joke in the city and said he still has many questions about delays to the project.

"It's unfortunately become kind of an inside joke in our community now," Iveson said after council got an update on the new line that will link the NAIT campus with the existing LRT system.

The mayor said he doesn't think the delays will hurt ridership, but allowed they have raised doubts about the city's management.

"I don't think we have a huge public-relations challenge here with desire to use the system," he said. "I think people's confidence is more in question about the city's ability to manage projects. And I don't think council is done asking tough questions about that."

Trains were originally supposed to start running from Churchill Station to NAIT in April 2014. But problems with the signalling system postponed the opening several times.

On Friday, the city announced the line would open Sept. 6, with operators relying initially on their eyes rather than the new signalling system. Trains will run slower than normal, at a maximum of 25 km/h, giving them enough distance to stop if they see something on the tracks.

During Monday's meeting, several councillors asked why senior city managers weren't notified sooner about the problems.

"At what level did we know that it wasn't going well, when it wasn't going well?" asked Coun. Michael Oshry

Dorian Wandzura, who was hired as transportation manager in September 2013, said he learned within a month or two after he took over the department that the NAIT project was "struggling." He and city manager Simon Farbrother talked about the problems and told council in December that the project would be "a little late."

In February 2014, he and Farbrother met with senior officials from Thales, the company responsible for the signal system. That's when they learned the project would be "substantially late," and they told council's transportation committee in March.

Since then, the project has been delayed several times.

"We have had multiple failed launches," Wandzura said. "Including one instance that had a significant system failure that almost brought down the (main) line, that required hardware rework by the contractor."

Farbrother admitted that when the problems first cropped up, the process for sharing information wasn't working the way it should have been. 

"When projects are working well, we want people to get on and do their job and finish the job," he said. "When things start to go off the tracks, sorry for the pun, then we need mechanisms where that's escalated. And if they're starting to get seriously off the tracks, then council should be aware of it. And you weren't notified in a timely fashion."

That process has changed now, so that senior managers will get better and more timely updates on future projects, he said.

Iveson said most of the problems can be blamed on the signalling contractor.

The issue stems from a dispute between the city and Thales. The company has claimed for months the system was ready to go and issued a security certificate in March. But Hatch Mott MacDonald, the city's engineering consultant, has repeatedly said there are gaps in the documentation provided by Thales.

"Some of the tests were quite vaguely written," said Gary Turner, principal project manager at Hatch Mott MacDonald. "So you'd get two test engineers who would go in, perform the tests slightly differently and get different answers. So, sometimes they would pass, sometimes they would fail. And we noticed that the ones that were passing tended to be recorded, but not necessarily the ones that had failed."

Iveson said the public should rest assured that the system is safe to open on Sept. 6, and by the time it is fully operational it will be the safest in the world.

"By the time this thing gets all of the engineers and lawyers to sign off on it, this is going to be the safest piece of railroad in the known universe."

While the system is on "line-of-sight" operation, two five-car trains will run from Century Park to Clareview during each 15-minute span of rush hour, and one three-car train will run from Century Park to NAIT.

The city has hired U.S. audit firm Rail Safety Consulting to find and address gaps in the documentation provided by Thales.

It's expected the review will be completed within six to eight weeks. Once the information gaps are closed, the city will begin the first stage of using the signalling system for the trains.

The report presented to council on Monday also made recommendations for ensuring these kinds of problems never happen again in major projects. It noted that a major project shouldn't be split into separate contracts and delivery models. 

"The contract for the Metro Line was split into two parts, using two different project delivery models," the report stated.

"The civil construction is being delivered under a construction manager contract, while the signalling system is being delivered under a design/build contract."


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