Why the Trillium Line keeps chugging along while the Confederation Line keeps breaking down

As service disruptions on the new Confederation Line delay riders almost daily, several Ottawa city councillors have asked what the city is doing right with its 20-year-old Trillium Line, which keeps chugging along dependably.

Different switch heaters, straighter rails could be keys to older line's relative success

City councillors have noticed the Trillium Line rarely experiences catastrophic problems like the newer Confederation Line. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

As service disruptions on the new Confederation Line delay riders almost daily, several Ottawa city councillors have asked what the city is doing right with its 20-year-old Trillium Line, which keeps chugging along dependably.

Most of that north-south line runs through River ward. Its councillor, Riley Brockington, rode the Trillium Line from the day it opened in 2001 to his old job at Tunney's Pasture, and said he could always count on it.

"It always ran during freezing rain, heavy snow, which was great, which made it so dependable," he said, remembering only a single major interruption that followed upgrades in 2015.

At recent meetings, councillors have asked about differences between the two lines, beyond the fact the Trillium Line runs on diesel and the Confederation Line is powered by overhead electric wires.

Who does the maintenance?

Maintenance of the 12.5-kilometre Confederation Line and its 34 Alstom Citadis Spirit vehicles has been dissected publicly in recent months, given the long list of problems they've had.

Rideau Transit Group, a consortium made up of ACS Infrastructure, SNC-Lavalin and EllisDon, has the maintenance contract for the next three decades.

Employees of RTG and French train maker Alstom, which RTG has subcontracted to maintain trains, switches and tracks, carry out that work at the new Belfast maintenance garage.

SNC-Lavalin is already busy building the Trillium Line extension to Riverside South, scheduled to open in 2022. (City of Ottawa)

The Trillium Line currently has just five stations and eight kilometres of track, with Alstom Coradia Lint diesel trains.

Currently, the city has contracts with RailTerm to maintain the track and Bombardier to maintain the vehicles at a garage on Walkley Road.

When the expanded Trillium Line reopens, SNC-Lavalin will take over maintenance until 2048.

Switches in winter

Ice and snow sometimes build up on the track switches of the new Confederation Line, preventing them from moving to their proper positions.

"When was the last time the compaction of ice and snow stopped the switches on the Trillium Line from providing service?" asked Coun. Stephen Blais at the transit commission meeting Jan. 23. 

"I'm racking my memory.... I can't recall the last switch issue we've had," answered OC Transpo's Troy Charter.

Trillium's switch heaters are fuelled by propane and natural gas, councillors were told, whereas Conderation Line heaters are electric, but RTG hoped outside consultants would help get to the root cause.

Flat wheels rare

At that same meeting, Coun. Catherine McKenney wanted to know how often wheels on the Trillium Line trains develop flat spots.

Charter said they're inspected and evened with a lathe, but couldn't remember the last time a train was pulled from service for that reason.

The new Confederation Line trains, on the other hand, saw a rash of "wheel flats" in January, leaving the system short of trains for rush hour service.

On Jan. 23, transit boss John Manconi suggested the Confederation Line's "intrusion detection system" — a feature that doesn't exist on the Trillium Line — could be set off by blowing snow, triggering emergency brakes and causing trains to skid to a halt, flattening the wheels. 

The Trillium Line will close on May 3 for more than two years, during which time bus detours will be in place. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Cracks in the rail

Welds on the Confederation Line rail cracked in two places in November

By contrast, "there have been no weld breaks on the Trillium Line in the last five years," Charter wrote to CBC News that same month.

Both rail lines are continuous welded track, but Charter said the Trillium Line is "largely a straight piece of track," so it experiences fewer weld breaks.

The Trillium Line is set to close on May 3, however, so SNC-Lavalin can extend it to Riverside South, the Ottawa International Airport and extra stations at Walkley and Gladstone.

Buses will provide detours until September 2022.

"In the south end, we've been blessed with good, dependable, reliable service, and we certainly want to see that continue when Phase 2 opens," Brockington said.


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