Ottawa·Analysis

Mayor's meeting with LRT executives largely political posturing

The high-powered group gathered in Mayor Jim Watson' boardroom Tuesday appeared not to even try to dress the latest LRT completion date up as good news.

Few people could muster the chutzpah to pretend they believe latest deadline

Rideau Transit Group's Peter Lauch, left, and Alstom's Henri Poupart-Lafarge take part in a meeting called by Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, right, to discuss the delays to the city's light rail system. (Kate Porter/CBC)

When journalists show up to cover a news conference about the results of a behind-closed-doors meeting — especially ones that involve government officials — they are usually allowed into the room for a photo op.

No actual information is shared, but there's usually some small talk, the contrivance of a can-do, upbeat tableau.

But there was no forced levity when reporters were led into Mayor Jim Watson's boardroom around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to take in a gathering of the city's senior managers, a few councillors and the executives of the corporations building the much-delayed light rail line.

Indeed, outside of an emergency, rarely has a grimmer-looking group been assembled around that long, glossy table.

On the one hand, maybe the sombre mood was to be expected.

Watson called the meeting with Rideau Transit Group (RTG) and France-based train builder Alstom to haul them over the coals for being well over a year late, missing four completion targets.

Still, Watson said Alstom would finish fixing the 34 trains by July 7, clearing the way for RTG to hand over the $2.1-billion Confederation Line to the city by mid-August. 

The people of Ottawa, said the mayor, should be riding trains sometime in September. 

From their collective look, though, it was clear this group wouldn't even try to muster up the chutzpah to dress this up as good news.

After being burned four times before, no one seemed fool enough — not even politicians pre-programmed for public optimism — to have much faith in these deadlines.

From left:Mayor Jim Watson, Alstom CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge and RTG CEO Peter Lauch sat down for a nearly hour-long meeting about the LRT handover June 18, 2019. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Lots of political posturing, little leverage

In recent weeks, Watson went from expressing confidence that we would be riding the rails after Canada Day, to saying missing the fourth deadline of June 30 was "unacceptable."

Tuesday, he said if RTG and Alstom missed this new deadline, that would be unacceptable.

So it's all very unacceptable, as the mayor has now told them privately and in this week's very public news conference.

But the fact is, the city has little leverage to get the LRT done any faster. 

RTG wants to finish this light rail project because it is still owed more than $250 million, which it will only receive once it delivers this system to the city.

It's so desperate to finish, it tried to tell the city in May that the LRT was substantially complete even though the trains didn't reliably work.

It's true that Alstom's CEO Henri Poupart-Lafarge did haul himself to Ottawa from France for a meeting that was a scant hour long, so there must be some truth to his claim that Ottawa is an important client for the company.

Watson says LRT expected to be ready in September

2 years ago
1:01
After meeting with Alstom and Rideau Transit Group (RTG) officials, Mayor Jim Watson says residents can now expect to be riding the LRT in September. RTG CEO Peter Lauch says the group is being cautious about giving a specific date because of previous delays. 1:01

And RTG said the train maker has committed more resources to fixing the trains since the mayor has been putting the screws to Alstom.

But Alstom is not part of RTG — it's a sub-contractor.

So it's not clear how much Alstom has already been paid. Likely it is still owed some money, but Alstom won't be as financially eager to finish as RTG.

Few details on plan

CBC reported earlier this month on the most recent issues plaguing the east-west Confederation Line, from brakes and doors to the electrical power.

Tuesday's news conference has left us none the wiser about how these problems are progressing.

Poupart-Lafarge said that trains "have to be perfect at the end of the day" and it's taking a while to retrofit all 34 of them, all of which we've heard before.

(City of Ottawa)

And even when the trains are all in perfect working order, other issues have to be addressed in this complex mass transit system, admitted RTG CEO Peter Lauch.

"Once the vehicles are complete then we have to marry the vehicles with all the systems," said Lauch.

For example, the on-board technology that allows the train to operate automatically has been reinstalled again in the past week and must be tested.

Timelines remain unrealistic

If it was confident that it could finish in the second or third week of August, you'd think RTG would have given a date late in that month.

But Lauch is right to be cautious.

Assuming Alstom can get all 34 trains working perfectly by July 7, two and a half weeks from now, RTG has to make sure the rest of the system is working.

Then RTG must apply for substantial completion when it believes the Confederation Line is done. The city and, an independent certifier then have another five days each to review that. 

Only then can the 12 days of consecutive testing start, where the system is supposed to run full-time for a week and a half. If there's a major problem, the testing has to begin all over again.

The retrofits, the communications upgrade, the systems integration and the 12-day testing all have to roll out virtually flawlessly for the Confederation Line to be finished by August.

The likelihood of that? After four major letdowns, no one is holding their breath.

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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