Ottawa·Analysis

3 things that could have foreshadowed our current LRT woes

We may still be in the dark about the root causes of many of the Confederation Line's most serious problems, but these things we did know.

We may be in the dark about the root causes of many of the most serious problems, but these things we did know

Should we have seen it coming? A sign shows no trains arriving on Oct. 10, 2019. (Christian Milette/Radio-Canada)

Every week, the Confederation Line seems plagued by a new problem.

Just as the door and computer issues appear to be under control, along came flat wheels, sparking wires and loud booms.

In one alarming instance this month, an 80-metre electrical cable was pulled down from the St. Laurent station ceiling, stalling service for hours.

There are stuck elevators, broken escalators and "disturbed" switches. It's a worrisome list for a four-month-old system, especially as the root causes of many of these hitches — even the ones that are improving — remain unknown, at least to the public.

But as we await for British consultants JBA Corporation to get a handle on what ails the Confederation Line, and as OC Transpo continues to run supplementary buses to prop up the subpar train service, three factors we've always known about seem to underlie many of those myriad separate problems.

The electrical problems plaguing the Confederation Line are exacerbated by 'wet and inclement weather,' councillors learned earlier this week. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

1. Winter performance was always a question

Earlier this week, OC Transpo general manager John Manconi sent a memo to council explaining that problems with the electrical equipment atop the trains appear to be exacerbated "during wet and inclement weather."

CBC reported as far back as March 2019 that during winter testing, trains were getting stuck in snow and their doors were frequently freezing shut.

At the time, the stories were significant because Rideau Transit Group (RTG) — the consortium that built the line — was claiming the system could be ready by March 31. It wasn't.

The CEO of Rideau Transit Group, Peter Lauch, right, told councillors in February 2019 that the consortium could meet a March 31 handover deadline. It didn't. (Kate Porter/CBC)

In early March 2019, the city's director of rail construction, Michael Morgan, told CBC only 12 cars — the equivalent of six trains — had been tested on the track, barely one-third of the city's fleet. 

When asked how the city could have any confidence the LRT would perform well in winter, Morgan said at the time RTG would "need to demonstrate that the system works to our satisfaction in winter."

It remains unclear how RTG was able to do that.

2. Citadis Spirit making debut in Ottawa

The vehicles on the Confederation Line are made by France-based Alstom, a major train builder. The general model of electric train, called the Citadis, is used in more than 50 cities around the world, but this specific version — the Citadis Spirit — is new.

The company said the Citadis Spirit was designed specifically for the North American market, and that Ottawa would be the first city where it would operate.

Ottawa bought 34 of these light rail vehicles for the first stage of the Confederation Line, and has already purchased an additional 38 for Stage 2 at a cost of $300 million.

Given the questions about winter testing, combined with the fact that we're dealing with a brand new model, is it any wonder the trains are experiencing unexpected problems this winter?

Only six trains were being tested as of early March 2019. How much winter testing did all the trains undergo? (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

3. 15 trains only ran 7.5 hours during 12-day trial

With as few as eight trains in service on the Confederation Line this week, it's worth remembering that we were supposed to have 15 running during rush hours, with two backups in reserve. 

That has never happened.

"It's going to come down to the vehicles, and running those 15 vehicles back and forth," Manconi told council members during a Confederation Line update in March 2019.

As of early July, RTG had yet to run 15 coupled trains at once. Nevertheless, by the end of the month, the city had accepted RTG's submission that the Confederation Line was "substantially complete."

 

The last big hurdle for RTG was a 12-day trial that was supposed to mimic regular transit service. 

During that crucial trial, which was marred by false starts and do-overs, RTG successfully operated 15 trains between 6:30 to 9 a.m. on only three days, according to Morgan.

During the entire 12-day trial, 15 trains ran for a mere 7.5 hours, total.

All 17 Citadis Spirit trains are supposed to be available for service, but from day one, at least three have consistently been pulled for maintenance. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

At the end of August, when the consortium handed the Confederation Line over to the city, Manconi suddenly announced only 13 trains would be used during peak periods — the first time he'd ever said that.

Surely, at least some of those crowded platforms we're now seeing at LRT stations can be blamed on the fact that there aren't as many trains in service as originally promised.

OC Transpo has had to run supplemental bus service all week to make up for the missing trains. (Jean-Sébastien Marier/Radio-Canada)

When the city accepted the Confederation Line, all 17 trains were supposed to be ready for service. But from day one, at least three trains have consistently been out of commission for maintenance. On a good day, that leaves 13 trains available for service, with one spare.

We deserve a straight answer on why there was an about-face on the promise of 15 trains during rush hour — even though these days, most of us would be grateful just to have 13 trains back on the track.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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