Notes from the underground: lessons from Ottawa's LRT flop

Is your city flirting with a mass-transit upgrade? Then we should probably talk.

What your city can glean from the capital's public transit breakdown

Users of Ottawa's new Confederation Line are having a hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel as the light rail system, launched just five months ago, continues to be plagued by serious problems. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Is your city flirting with a mass-transit upgrade? Then we should probably talk.

You've probably heard about Ottawa's new light rail line by now, even if you don't live here. And not because it's been a blinding success.

The 12.5-kilometre Confederation Line crosses the city centre from east to west, linking near its western terminus to the north-south Trillium Line, which has been chugging along for nearly two decades now with fewer issues. Both lines will soon be extended to Ottawa's far-flung suburbs in another massive infrastructure project imaginatively dubbed Stage 2. In fact, the groundwork is already being laid with the razing of trees and the lowering of expectations.

Passengers crowd the platform at one of the Confederation Line's 13 stations on Nov. 12, 2019. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Long list of problems

Though most have been riding the rails for only a few months, transit riders in Ottawa are already a battle-weary lot. They have seen the elephant.

The problems with the Confederation Line began immediately after its launch in September, and are almost too numerous to count. But let's try.

The train doors keep getting jammed, and that somehow causes the whole system to grind to a halt. There have been computer failures, both onboard the trains and system-wide, forcing humans to run things with their hands and eyes. Switches have frozen, requiring more manual manipulation. There have been "brake issues" and something called "wheel flats," which turns out to be exactly what it sounds like — the wheels on some trains are suddenly less round than they're supposed to be.

Sticky switches are among the litany of technical faults plaguing the Confederation Line since its launch last fall. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

There was a crack in the track. Terrifying booms and showers of sparks have sent passengers scurrying for the nearest exit. In one case, the electrical apparatus atop a train became snagged as it entered the station, snapping an overhead power cable. In another, "debris" on the track that damaged a train turned out to be a piece of the same train that had just fallen off. 

Did we mention two of our downtown stations literally stink? One smells like sewage, the other like rotten eggs, just for a little variety.

Train shortages

Debilitated trains are regularly hauled away for maintenance, like wounded soldiers being carried off to the field hospital. At least once in the past week there were more trains in the garage than there were on the tracks. Service slows, and frequently stops altogether. When that happens, a fleet of buses that stands at the ready is called in to take stranded passengers more or less where they need to go.

To say this has all added up to an inconvenience for the riding public is like saying the Hindenburg hit a bit of turbulence. These are not the kinds of delays that make commuters a few minutes late for work. They're the kind that make them seriously consider chopping up their Presto cards and driving, cycling or walking downtown instead. 

For commuters, the system's unreliability has been difficult. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

And that is the greatest inadequacy of Ottawa's new LRT system: its many faults are slowly but surely rendering it unreliable. When people consistently can't get where they need to go when they need to be there, they will eventually choose another mode of transportation.

So where did it all fall off the rails?

1. Buyer beware

It's possible the Confederation Line's problems began before the first passenger stepped aboard, during what was supposed to be its rigorous final testing phase. Or perhaps even earlier.

As CBC Ottawa's municipal affairs analyst Joanne Chianello has repeatedly pointed out, the 12-day trial, completed last summer before builder Rideau Transit Group handed the keys over to the city, was marred by false starts and do-overs. Throughout testing, the full complement of 15 trains ran for just a few hours before the system was declared ready for prime time.

It clearly wasn't. In late January, the man in charge of OC Transpo, Ottawa's public transit agency, broke the news to city councillors that the trains themselves appear to struggle in "wet and inclement weather," of which the capital surely has its fair share.

OC Transpo boss John Manconi recently informed Ottawa city councillors the city's new LRT trains don't perform well 'during wet and inclement weather.' (Stu Mills/CBC)

That's despite assurances from French train maker Alstom that its Citadis Spirit model, which is making its debut in Ottawa, is specifically built for the North American market.

In fact, CBC reported as far back as February 2019 that the trains were having trouble during winter testing. Nevertheless, the city has gone ahead and more than doubled its order of the same trains for Stage 2, to the tune of another $300 million.

2. The thing about P3s

Early on in the Confederation Line saga, reporters covering the unprecedented construction job encountered a problem: there was no one to call to ask how construction was going.

That's because it was a public-private partnership or P3, and the consortium in charge of building it, and now maintaining it for the next three decades, sometimes didn't feel like talking, even after a sinkhole swallowed part of a downtown street and people wanted to know whether the tunnel being dug underneath might have had something to do with it.

P3s are a handy way for cities to lower the cost and offload some of the risk associated with major infrastructure projects, but that can sometimes come at the expense of public accountability.

The Alstom Citadis Spirit is making its debut in Ottawa. The city bought 34 train vehicles from the French train maker, and considers the system to be operating at full service when 13 coupled trains are running. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The risk of P3 procurements include the lack of transparency, it includes a lower grade of construction, it includes maintenance deals for 30 years," Coun. Shawn Menard, a vocal opponent of such deals, complained back in November.

The contractor has now brought in a specialist from the U.K. to help get to the bottom of the problems plaguing the Confederation Line. Meanwhile, the contract to extend Ottawa's Trillium Line, and to maintain it for decades after, has been awarded to SNC-Lavalin in another P3. 

3. Parallel running

In the tech world, there's a name for the strategy used to transition smoothly from one system to another: parallel running. It relies on both old and new systems operating simultaneously, at least for a time, while users adjust.

OC Transpo tried a version of this, but it didn't last long, and it didn't go very well. From the Confederation Line's "soft-launch" in mid-September until Oct. 6, buses provided parallel service. Then, after just three weeks, commuters were expected to transfer onto LRT in what one official rightly called OC Transpo's "biggest service change ever."

OC Transpo frequently calls buses into service to supplement or replace the LRT. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The problems began immediately, but this time, there was no immediate backup plan. The city was so confident the transition would go smoothly, it had already retired a significant portion of its aging bus fleet, not to mention the people who drove them.

A standout image from that first week of "full service" was the column of humanity trudging from the westernmost LRT station to their offices downtown, three kilometres away.


Now, four months later, parallel replacement buses run on a seemingly daily basis, partially doing the job of an LRT system that was supposed to revolutionize the way this city gets around. 

4. Listen to your riders

Shortly after the Confederation Line's launch, "door jamming" became a thing. Riders running to catch a train would pry open the door, which would become stuck, which would halt the train, which would ruin everyone's commute. 

At one point, Mayor Jim Watson mused about publicly exposing one such door-jammer, whose misdemeanour was apparently caught on camera. The mayor didn't seem as frustrated with the fact that it was so easy to disable an entire transit system by holding open a door, something riders on transit systems around the world do every day with far less serious consequences.

A man watches Rideau station whisk by as he rides Ottawa's Confederation Line on Sept. 14, 2019, the first day it was in service. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The mayor also used to tweet photos of himself riding comfortably and efficiently aboard the LRT. He doesn't tweet those photos very often these days.

The city, by and large, has learned to treat commuters as victims of the system rather than accomplices in its decline. Our city officials have been saying "sorry" a lot lately. Hopefully, yours won't have to.


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