Questions and answers: Ottawa's LRT troubles explained

Six weeks of bottled-up questions about OC Transpo's struggles came pouring out at transit commission this week. Here's how top city staff answered.

Transit commission held marathon question-and-answer session this week

Transportation general manager John Manconi takes a question about Ottawa's transit network during a marathon meeting Wednesday. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

In the month since the big OC Transpo overhaul, when buses were re-routed to feed the light rail network, problems have piled up — and so have questions.

Councillors and transit commissioners peppered top city staff with concerns and queries at a much anticipated public update Wednesday that lasted for hours.

They learned the Confederation Line has been 97.6 per cent reliable, but the times it hasn't run on schedule at rush hour has affected thousands of people. And as transportation general manager John Manconi said more than once, the buses and trains are so interconnected that "bad rail service equals bad bus service."

Here are a few of the big questions — and how staff answered them.

What's causing the LRT problems?

There are four main culprits:

  • The computer "brain" on each train that monitors everything from sensors to doors to braking.
  • Two controllers per train that speak to that computer and tell it the train is safe to move.
  • The train doors, which have broken when riders try to hold them open. 
  • The switches on the track.

Manconi: "It's like your computer at home. It freezes, and you have to do a reset on it. The reboot is working [but] we don't want to have to reboot the computer. It happened this morning, it causes a delay. We had to tell the passengers to get off the train and go onto the train that was at the platform. That's an inconvenience. We want the computer to work all the time. And it has worked before — Alstom has this working around the world."

Fibreglass covers on the switches along the Confederation Line will be removed, the city says, after they were to blame for some of the recent delays. (City of Ottawa)

How will the train deal with winter?

Rideau Transit Group, the consortium that built the line, is responsible for clearing snow from the tracks and LRT stations.

Fibreglass covers that RTG installed on track switches to prevent snow buildup have actually caused some recent delays, city officials say, and those covers are now being removed along the line. The city has urged RTG to post extra staff on the ground this winter, especially at those switches. 

Manconi: "They have heaters there. And if they're concerned about the heaters... on heavy snow days you're there [manually] clearing ice and snow, which every other property in North America does in heavy snowstorms. You always have a backup to the technology."

Why won't Blair's bus stops be winterized?

OC Transpo, on the other hand, is responsible for snow removal at the busy bus loops and transfer points.

The new paved paths at Tunney's Pasture station will be sheltered for riders walking between the train and bus stops, but Coun. Laura Dudas pressed staff on whether Blair station would be winterized, too.

Manconi: "I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We do not have a solution for Blair. We're tight for space there. The scaffolding that we're putting out at Tunney's — and that's what it is, it's scaffolding with some some signage on it — we simply don't have the room to do that, because we'll further constrain your customers out there and cause all kinds of trip hazards."

Dozens of light rail riders wait for a bus to arrive at Blair station. Manconi said the city does not have 'a solution' for winterizing bus stops at the easternmost station on the Confederation Line. (Gilles Taillon/Radio-Canada)

What's causing that smell at Parliament station?

Parliament station has smelled a bit off lately, and rail construction director Michael Morgan said rods used during the tunnel's construction to keep things in place are likely to blame.

Morgan: "Those did puncture a sewer in a couple of locations. So there is a working theory that that's contributing to the smell at that location. That repair is scheduled to take place this week — the repair of the sewer line. We're hoping that helps resolve part of the smell. And just before we opened, we also did some last minute injection grouting, which has a bit of a smell that can last up to six months."

What about those slippery steps?

A number of LRT riders complained of slick conditions at some stations on the line after a recent rainstorm.

Mayor Jim Watson: "We're going to be putting a coat on those floors. We also remind people those floors are all heated, as well, so you're not going to see a buildup of snow. But it will be watery, and you need a rough abrasive adhesive to make sure that people are not going to fall."

This photo of wet stairs was taken at Parliament station, near the entrance at Queen and O'Connor. (Paul Jay/CBC)

Where will 40 additional buses go?

Riders may have noticed some of the old buses the mayor promised last week were back on the roads Monday, as OC Transpo tests out where they should go.

OC Transpo has been consulting councillors and will have the permanent plan for those 40 buses in the coming days.

Another 19 new buses could be added in January if the 2020 draft budget is approved.

Manconi: "Remember, this is all a moving puzzle and we got 40 buses mobilized on the weekend. We rolled them out. The last thing we wanted to do was advertise things that were not going to work. So we started to try these."

What has the city paid Rideau Transit Group?

The monthly maintenance payments would have been $2.8 million for half of September, and another $4 million for October, but the city held onto them.

Coun. Catherine McKenney wanted to know if the city would ultimately be able to keep that money, or if it would end up in a legal dispute.

Manconi: "We've kept that back and we have not paid them at all for their maintenance months since they've launched ... We have the money. They don't right now. So it's sitting in your bank account."

When will the transit network finally be reliable?

That is, after all, the big question.

Manconi: "We have met with RTG executives, and we told them not only did they need to commit additional resources, but we needed timelines. And to be totally candid, they have not given us the timelines for those issues that we've listed — those four major categories. I wish I had a timeline for you. RTG has not given us that."


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.


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