Ottawa·Analysis

LRT public inquiry provided accountability council did not

For months and months, our questions about the lead-up to the Confederation Line were dismissed. Then the Ottawa light rail transit inquiry came along, bringing with it unprecedented transparency, accountability — and answers.

A month of shocking revelations laid bare reasons plans went off the rails

Justice William Hourigan takes his seat before the start of the first day of proceedings at the inquiry into Ottawa's troubled LRT system June 13, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

On a Friday afternoon almost three years ago, local VIPs, councillors and the media gathered in council chambers for an announcement that was a long time coming — the completion of the Confederation Line.

After a 15-month delay, Mayor Jim Watson accepted a framed golden key from Rideau Transit Group — a key the consortium was told to present as a symbol of the LRT handover — and he told us we'd be riding the Confederation Line on Sept. 14, 2019.

Once the photos were snapped and backs were patted, the mayor departed with his key and left John Manconi holding the bag.

Manconi, then the GM of transportation, proceeded to describe how the Confederation Line would use 13 trains — the contract called for 15 — and how the system performed well over nine days when we'd constantly been told the LRT would have to run near-perfect for 12 consecutive days.

Are you ready for rail?

3 years ago
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The city has set Sept. 14 as the launch date for the Confederation Line?

Question after question about the trial running that had only finished the previous day were stonewalled. 

For months, reporters asked what happened during the trial running, and we got no answers. Here at CBC, we wrote how Ottawa would be the test market for a never-before-used Alstom train — the Citadis Spirit — only to hear Manconi and other city officials all-but-deny the story at a committee meeting.

Concerns the trains hadn't been fully tested during winter? "Fake news."

Even though in early July 2019, when the tracks had been affected by "sun kinks" and nowhere close to 15 trains had run on the tracks even once by then, the mayor had announced the previous month we'd be riding the LRT in September.

But any suggestion that the LRT was possibly being rushed into service was dismissed as naysaying.

And then came the Ottawa light rail transit public inquiry, bringing with it unprecedented transparency, accountability and finally some answers.

That trial running criteria? Made easier three different ways, when it was clear the Confederation Line wouldn't pass the more stringent scoring. It was a shock to hear that the city not only agreed to lower the bar for the LRT, but that it may have been Manconi's idea.

Mayor Jim Watson speaks to reporters on Sept. 14, 2019, the day Ottawa's $2.1-billion Confederation light rail line finally launched after six years of planning, construction and delays. (Kate Porter/CBC)

The 13 trains? The city and RTG agreed to change the contract.

The first time the Citadis Spirit was used? An Alstom executive testified that the France-based company created a vehicle for the Confederation Line that did not yet exist and that was "pushing the limits" of what a light-rail vehicle could do.

Another Alstom executive said under oath that the full-service testing was compressed. On the last day of the inquiry, the current head of Rideau Transit Maintenance said the LRT should have been "stress" tested using 15 trains, up and down the line, including in winter.

And, in one of the most unexpected pieces of testimony, a city engineer and rail manager conceded that we accepted the Confederation Line knowing there were defects, knowing there'd be reliability issues

For four weeks, witness after witness described how they had concerns about the reliability of the Confederation Line up to the moment it was handed over. 

For someone who's been reporting about LRT issues for years — and hearing about even more problems that weren't reported — the evidence given this month, confirming so much of what many had suspected about the project has been somewhat vindicating. 

But also having one's suspicions confirmed — suspicions that we haven't been told the whole truth — is also incredibly discouraging. We've already seen evidence of a broken culture at city hall, culminating in a vitriolic council meeting in the middle of last February's convoy protest. Here is more proof that our officials weren't being completely straight with us.

Unprecedented transparency

Council twice refused to ask for a judicial review of what went wrong with the Confederation Line, even after two derailments in 2019, opting instead to ask the city's auditor general to investigate. 

Some members of council, including the mayor, argued that an audit would be just as good as an inquiry. Thankfully, the provincial government didn't agree. 

Because if Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney hadn't called a public inquiry, we wouldn't have seen Manconi telling colleagues in a WhatsApp chat that the city couldn't "lose the day" in the trial running. Or OC Transpo director Troy Charter stating that he would recommend the trial running team use its "discretion" to pass the LRT on a day it probably should have failed.

We wouldn't have seen RTG board meeting minutes, maintenance contracts or the actual trial run scorecards. 

On the very last day of the inquiry, we saw internal "lessons learned" reports from the LRT constructors. Among their findings? That the "start of revenue service was not ready but [there was] pressure to start due to schedule delays," that the trial running should have been several months instead of two weeks, that the trian was a "prototype hybrid vehicle" that had "repeat offences, multiple failures on same issues."'

Two men in side-by-side screens on a video call.
Former OC Transpo head John Manconi, right, was grilled by lawyer John Adair with the Ottawa light rail public inquiry on June 28, 2022. (Ottawa Light Rail Transit Public Inquiry)

The commission running the inquiry, led by Justice William Hourigan, promised at the start of all this that the public would get answers.

We already have hundreds of pages of evidence, all of them online and the testimony of some 90 witnesses, both ahead of the hearing and during the past four weeks. All those transcripts are available to the public, as are the webcasts of the 18 hearing days, where you can watch commission lawyers ask engineers, consultants, city officials and politicians pointed questions about what they knew, what they did and why.

It's an unprecedented degree of transparency and transparency that would never have been achieved by an audit, which would have all been held behind closed doors.

The commission will hear from an expert panel on private-public partnerships later this month. Considering the amount of time the commission spent examining witnesses about whether the contract handcuffed the private companies involved — who we heard were under financial pressure to get that big $200 million final payout — expect the report to focus on how well this P3 worked, the first time this model was used for a light-rail project in Ontario.

Mayor Jim Watson testified at the Ottawa light rail inquiry from his office at City Hall for more than five hours on June 30, 2022. (Reno Patry/CBC)

The report is technically due at the end of August, but surely the commissioner will ask for, and receive, an extension to November. Expect recommendations to cover financial and technical issues, and whether the municipality provided proper oversight of the project.

All this, and more, is welcome. Taxpayers are spending many billions of dollars on massive transit plans. And because they're complex, things are bound to go wrong. So let's hope the commission comes up with ways to protect taxpayers, foster good relations with private contractors, and promote frank and clear communications with the public.

Although the city shouldn't have needed an inquiry for that last point. 

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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