Ottawa·Analysis

Did the city move the goalposts for accepting LRT?

The Confederation Line has been an exciting, complicated, project. Given the political pressure to get it rolling, is it possible the city rushed it to the finish line?

Questions raised around 12-day trial run was not consecutive and that we don’t need 15 trains

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, centre, rides the Confederation Line with a number of other city officials and politicians on Aug. 23, 2019. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

It was a city-building moment almost seven years in the making.

On Friday afternoon — in the same council chambers where the $2.1-billion contract to build the Confederation Line was approved in December 2012 — Mayor Jim Watson revealed that as of Sept. 14,  the people of Ottawa would finally get to ride LRT.

The mayor hoisted a golden key, a symbol the city had taken control of the LRT from the system's builder, Rideau Transit Group (RTG). Political speeches were made, hands were shaken, and there was understandable good cheer all around.

But once Watson left council chambers and the technical briefing began, the afternoon took a more concerning turn, with a number of last-minute revelations now raising questions about whether the city moved the goalposts before accepting the line.

Handover hasn't happened

First of all, it turns out Watson's golden key is even more symbolic than we thought, because RTG has not handed over the Confederation Line to the city.

There's still paperwork RTG has to hand in, including some final documentation on safety, which the city's own independent safety auditor will have to sign off on.

The city has set Sept. 14 as the launch date for the Confederation Line? 1:12

Separately, an independent certifier will have to give the green light that RTG has met so-called revenue service availability — contract-speak for the moment LRT is completely ready to be handed over to the city.

That likely won't happen until the end of this week, meaning the Confederation Line is technically not finished.

However, city officials insist these last-minute tasks won't impede the public launch date, less than three weeks away.

No 12 consecutive days 

For months now, OC Transpo boss John Manconi has said that RTG would need to show the Confederation Line could offer 12 days in a row of quasi-flawless service before the city took it over.

At the March 5 finance and economic development committee meeting, where we discovered that RTG would miss its third official deadline, Manconi told councillors that the testing and commissioning of the Confederation Line included "a 12 consecutive-day trial running period [that] needs to be near-perfect."

Later in that same meeting, Manconi said that, once RTG substantially completed the line, "they can go into the 12 days of consecutive running and they have to be near-perfect on every single one of those — otherwise the clock resets."

Dozens of officials, politicians and members of the media disembark at Lyon station after a ceremonial ride on the Confederation Line on Aug. 23, 2019. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)
 

But that never happened. Since the trial run began on July 29, the LRT has not run nearly flawlessly for 12 straight days.

According to Michael Morgan, the city's director of rail construction, there were issues in the early going that required the testing to begin again from the start.

However, Manconi said RTG was allowed two "repeat days" during the trial run. So the line was ultimately operated for 12 days, non-consecutively, over a 14-day period.

What happened to the initial promise? Apparently, there are provisions for the RTG to get a do-over if the day didn't meet certain criteria, but Manconi told reporters Friday "they don't reset the clock" — the first time the public has ever heard this.

OC Transpo boss John Manconi on a ceremonial ride of the Confederation Line on Aug. 23, 2019. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

It's also worth noting the trial run may have been finished as late as Thursday, just one day before the mayor took dignitaries and the media on a ceremonial ride and subsequently announced the public launch date.

It seems that, despite being delayed for 459 days and counting, the city was quite confident the trial run would be completed just hours before a huge, feel-good announcement.

Down to 13 trains from 15

Also heard for the first time Friday was the surprise news that the city only needs 13 double-car trains during the morning and afternoon rush hours, instead of 15.

For months we've heard the city demand that 15 two-car trains be available for the weekday rush. Reliably running 15 trains on the LRT system day in, day out has been an issue for RTG as recently as July.

You know the numbers — it's 15 double trains, and four spare vehicles.- OC Transpo boss John Manconi, March 2019

At that same March 5 finance committee meeting, Manconi described the importance of "fleet availability" — that is, the number of trains that need to work.

"It's going to come down to the vehicles, and running those 15 vehicles back and forth," Manconi told council. "You know the numbers — it's 15 double trains, and four spare vehicles."

He went on to say that RTG was working its way up to getting "15 double-vehicles running from Tunney's to Blair."

But Friday, we heard the city will only be needing 13 trains to meet the rush-hour demand, which will see trains arrive and depart every three minutes.

That may well be true, although it's hard to imagine that ridership has fallen that much since March, when Manconi began talking about 15 double trains. As well, the city has always expected a jump in ridership once the LRT is up and running.

After months of insisting that 15 double-trains had to be available for city service, the city has suddenly reduced that requirement to just 13 trains. (City of Ottawa)

Maybe we only need 13 trains now, but at some point, ridership will increase to the point where we'll likely need 15. When that day comes, will the LRT system be able to handle that load?

The answer is far from clear.

Manconi confirmed that RTG ran 15 double-car trains on some trial run days, but couldn't say how many. And indeed, daily update reports viewed by CBC show that only 13 trains were launched from Monday to Thursday last week, instead of the 15 Manconi has spoken about so many times in the past six months.

A timelapse of Ottawa's new LRT system, which runs between Blair and Tunney's Pasture stations. 1:10

The Confederation Line is an exciting, complicated project. And there's been much disappointment that it's been delayed numerous times.

Given the political pressure to get it rolling, is it possible the city is rushing the massive project to the finish line?

Questions raised by revelations that 12-day trial run was not consecutive and that we don't need 15 trains. 9:11

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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