Ottawa·Analysis

5 LRT questions we need answered now

With news that issues with the $2.1-billion LRT project are more serious than the public was led to believe, it is clear that we must ask much more pointed questions if we are to get an accurate picture of what's going on.

An update at this morning's finance committee offers the chance for accountability

The Confederation Line is neither on time, nor on budget. What are the problems facing the delayed project? (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

With this week's news that Ottawa's $2.1-billion Stage 1 LRT project is facing more serious challenges than the public was led to believe — including the startling tidbit that light rail cars are "currently unreliable" — it's clear we must make louder demands for more accurate accounting of this massive project.

We can't count on Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the consortium building the Confederation Line.

RTG's CEO, Peter Lauch, has told the city three times it would be able to meet its deadline when, in retrospect, he should have known it could not. 

That leaves us looking to senior city staff for answers.

Sure, OC Transpo boss John Manconi said last month he was "highly skeptical" that RTG would meet its March 31 deadline, but only after Coun. Diane Deans asked him a pointed question about 90 minutes after the meeting started.

Evidently, it's vital to ask as precisely as possible. 

Here are five key questions we need answered at Tuesday's LRT update.

1. How many light rail cars are actually being tested?

Our light rail system is supposed to include 34 individual rail cars; two cars are to be put together into a single train set.

Ultimately, up to 15 train sets will be operating on the track at a time, with two trains in reserve.

On Friday, the city's rail director, Michael Morgan, said 24 cars have been signed off as ready to go, up from just 14 last month.

But there have never been more than 12 cars on the track at once. Why? If 24 are supposed to work, why can't the testers get them all on the track?

A light rail car sits in the Belfast maintenance and storage facility. How many trains are actually being tested? (Mathieu Fleury/Twitter)

Remember, we're supposed to be able to run 30 cars, or 15 train sets, at any one time.

And what's the holdup with the 10 cars that haven't even been allowed on the track? 

2. How well do they work?

It's still not clear how well the trains are working.

How long — as in, for how many minutes — can each one run?

Michael Morgan, Ottawa's director of rail operations, said 24 cars are operational. So why are only 12 being tested at one time? (CBC)

There is no evidence that cars have been running from one end of the track at Blair station to the other end, 12.5-kilometres away, at Tunney's Pasture.

Is there something wrong with the cars? Or is the problem with the track? Or the overhead electrical system? Or perhaps the tunnel is the issue?

Maybe it's all of the above.

Another concern: not a single train set — that's two cars linked together — has run along the track. Why not?

3. What's the problem with snow?

CBC has reported issues with the cars operating in the snow, including an internal report that says the light rail vehicles are "currently unreliable to the point that it has not been demonstrated that operations can be sustained during a winter weather event."

Reports obtained by CBC describe how snow gets packed into the bogie, the underframe of the rail car that holds the wheels, preventing it from moving.

One daily incident report recommended that cars not drive in more than 35 millimetres of snow.

Are these cars — a new design by France-based Alstom called the Citadis Spirit, which has never been tested before — appropriate for Ottawa winters? Are they in need of major modifications?

A recent internal report from the city's rail operations says that light rail cars are "currently unreliable." (CBC)

And how's the rest of the system standing up to Old Man Winter? Reports show that switch heaters aren't always working, and there are issues with snow plowing, which appears to take too long.

Finally, what guarantee do we have that when RTG does finally hand over the light rail system, it will actually work next winter?

As the weather warms, perhaps the light rail cars and the rail system begin to work more reliably, and RTG hands over the keys in the summer or fall.

How will we know that it fixed all the winter kinks?

4. What's a realistic end date?

Not one that RTG gives us. One that the city's own staff provides.

The city's rail staff, which includes engineers and technicians, are working on the project.

There are daily incident reports and weekly to-do lists that are compiled and distributed to those in charge.

The public should be able to count instead on senior city staff, like OC Transpo boss John Manconi, left, since the CEO of Rideau Transit Group, Peter Lauch, right, has been wrong about deadlines in the past. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Surely when senior transportation staff — not to mention the independent experts we've hired — consider what still needs doing, they can come up with an estimate on how much longer it will take?

Is it weeks, months, or many months?

No one expects city managers to name a specific date, but it is not too much to ask that the people charged with overseeing the Confederation Line construction give us a range for when we can expect the project to be completed?

5. Who knew what, when?

Which brings us to our final question: who is accountable for this lack of transparency?

That a massive project like the LRT is a year late may be a disappointment, but it's not a huge surprise. 

Many of us are taken aback, however, by the suppression of comprehensive information provided to both the councillors and the public.

Manconi volunteered little on the sorts of issues documented in reports revealed this week, even though he must have been aware of the problems.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said as recently as November he had 'great confidence' the LRT would be ready by March. What led him to make that claim? (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Why does he seem to believe his responsibility is only to answer questions that are posed, and even then, in the most narrow manner conceivable?

Why, when last month Lauch said RTG could finish the project by the end of March, did Manconi not explain in detail for councillors why that wasn't going to happen?

Mayor Jim Watson said as recently as November that he had "great confidence" that the city could take control of the LRT by the end of March. On what basis did he make that claim?

Was Watson simply taking RTG at its word? Or was it wishful thinking on his part? Or was the mayor not being told the truth by those reporting to him?

None of the possible answers are acceptable.

Which is why we'll ask these questions again — in hopes of this time, getting more straightforward answers.

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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