Ottawa

It was city officials who suggested making LRT trial run testing easier, inquiry hears

It was city officials — led by former transportation head John Manconi — who suggested lowering criteria for the LRT trial testing so the Confederation Line performance could get a passing grade, the Ottawa light rail public inquiry heard Friday. But the city's lawyer suggests it was the other way around.

Longer trial might have avoided some early issues, witnesses testified this week

Trains pictured in 2019 while still in storage, before they were operational. (Mathieu Fleury/Twitter)

It was city officials — led by former transportation head John Manconi — who suggested lowering criteria for the LRT trial testing so the Confederation Line performance could get a passing grade, the Ottawa light rail public inquiry heard Friday.

For two days, the commission running the inquiry has heard how the goal posts for accepting the Confederation Line may have been moved by the city. It accepted known problems with the system and agreed to lower the criteria through the trial, when it became apparent the Confederation Line wasn't going to meet those standards.

Now, the project director for RTG's construction arm — called OLRT Constructors, or OLRT-C —  says it was Manconi and other rail and OC Transpo officials who recommended lowering the bar for the trial run.

Matthew Slade of OLRT-C told the inquiry that at the start of a daily meeting in August 2019 to discuss how the LRT was performing during the trial run, he and RTG CEO Peter Lauch were asked to step out of the room.

"Mr. Charter said that Mr. Manconi wanted to have a conversation with us regarding the criteria for trial running," Slade told the commission.

Slade testified they met with Manconi and other city officials within 24 hours, and were shown an earlier — and easier — version of the trial run requirements from 2017.

It was suggested if OLRT-C presented that 2017 version back to the city, the city would accept and change the criteria.

However, the city's external lawyer, Peter Wardle, suggested that it was Lauch of RTG who approached Manconi about lowering the bar for success in the trial run.

"You'd have to ask Mr. Lauch, but that's not my recollection," Slade responded. "That's not what I experienced."

Wardle referenced a WhatsApp message from Aug. 14, 2019 that describes "meeting to discuss Peter's suggestion," but it was unclear who the message was from. The city lawyer did not produce the message Friday, but it may be entered into evidence next week when a number of high-ranking city officials and politicians are set to testify.

Political pressure to reach handover: Slade

It was Slade and a colleague who devised the metrics for the trial run that began on July 29, 2019 and was ultimately successful by Aug. 22, 2019.

In sworn testimony to the commission before the public hearings, Slade — who was named assistant director of the project in April 2018 before becoming project director in July 2019 — said he felt the earlier criteria had errors. 

A number of people have testified that the 2019 criteria was probably higher-than-normal, but Slade said he wanted to protect the companies involved because they'd incur serious financial penalties if the system under-performed after it was open to the public.

The LRT public inquiry co-lead counsel Christine Mainville questions Matthew Slade of OLRT Constructors about, among other things, the 2019 trial running of the Confederation Line. (Ottawa LRT Public Inquiry webcast)

"Obviously we didn't necessarily want to go into service knowingly with something that was going to fall short of the reliability targets," he told a commission lawyer.

Slade said OLRT-C was under intense financial pressure to complete the project that, by summer of 2019, was more than a year late. But he also said the project companies were also under extreme pressure from politicians and the media.

"I've not experienced anything like that before, where the city has been so involved and the project has been so politically driven," Slade testified. " I've worked on some big jobs, which are political, but this was to another level."

A June 24, 2019 memo from RTG's Lauch to his colleagues, made public in the inquiry Friday, shows that he and Slade had talked to Manconi and city manager Steve Kanellokos "to map out some key dates," including that substantial completion be achieved on July 9, and that handover will be on Aug. 16.

The email says the city will "publicize" the handover date at council's finance and economic development committee — which is chaired by Mayor Jim Watson — on July 10.

Mayor Watson confident LRT will be ready this fall

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But substantial completion wasn't achieved until the end of July, and came with a long list of significant problems, including a system-wide failure to meet train fleet availability due to ongoing problems. Trains were experiencing brake, door and auxiliary power supply issues.

Slade testified that in July 2019, the trains had "a huge amount of retrofits that were required" and that the assembly on a few trains hadn't even been finished yet.

Nevertheless, on July 10, 2019, the mayor announced that the city would get the keys to the Confederation Line on Aug. 16, and that passengers would be riding it by mid-September.

Slade testified that the 12 consecutive days of testing wasn't supposed to be done within a specific timeline, but the city and RTG are banking on getting it done within a month.

But it soon becomes apparent the Confederation Line isn't going to pass the running test trials any time soon. 

Slade said it was clear they were "going to blow" the August handover date, which would have resulted in further financial hardship for OLRT-C and would "obviously, not look particularly good for them...to have missed another date."

That's when city staff approached him about changing the criteria, so the handover date could be achieved more quickly, according to Slade.

A number of witnesses have testified this week that a longer trial period might have avoided a number of issues riders experienced in the early days of the Confederation Line.

But the city's lawyer Wardle pointed out that a long list of problems that have plagued the LRT — from overhead wire issues, to switch heater failures, to cracked wheels, to the two derailments — would not have been detected with more trial running.

Slade agreed.

The LRT public inquiry continues Monday, when a number of high-profile officials are set to testify. Ottawa's rail director, Michael Morgan, will appear on Monday morning, followed by super-consultant Brian Guest.

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