'Things are not going well': City knew of reliability issues before accepting LRT system

A series of email exchanges between former OC Transpo boss John Manconi and the former CEO of the Ottawa LRT builder show many of the issues that plagued the Confederation Line after its launch were fully known to the city before it accepted the light rail system.

Emails show John Manconi was concerned about train and maintenance performance during testing

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, centre, rides the Confederation Line with a number of other city officials and politicians on Aug. 23, 2019 when the city symbolically accepted the LRT system from Rideau Transit Group. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

City of Ottawa officials knew the Confederation Line had reliability issues — and maintenance was problematic — in the weeks before the city accepted delivery of the $2.1-billion LRT system, emails show.

"We can all agree things are not going well," John Manconi, the city's former head of transportation, wrote to a number of leaders involved in the project on Aug. 8, 2019.

"The reliability of the fleet is not where it needs to be to provide dependable service .... that means the vehicles require attention (repair) more often than they should."

Manconi's email was addressed to then-CEO of Rideau Transit Group (RTG) Peter Lauch, officials from train-maker Alstom and other RTG representatives.

CBC obtained emails between Manconi and Lauch from June to August 2019, which lead up to the official handover of the LRT to the city, through an access to information request.

Many of the issues discussed are already known — that the 12 consecutive-day testing wasn't consecutive, that RTG struggled to launch and operate 15 double-car trains at once — but the exchanges do provide a window into how concerned and discouraged Manconi appeared about the readiness of the system. As well, the messages show the problems that appeared after the Confederation Line was publicly launched were fully known to the city before it accepted the system.

Neither the city nor RTG have responded to requests for comment for this story. 

Manconi frustrated with RTG progress 

Just two weeks after the aforementioned email from Manconi, Mayor Jim Watson hoisted a framed golden key above his head to symbolize the city was accepting the Confederation Line, and the mayor announced it would open to the public on Sept. 14. (In reality, the city didn't technically accept the system until Sept. 3 after its own officials and certifiers signed off on it.)

WATCH: Archival footage as city receives key to the LRT

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

In fact, as early as July 10 that year, the public was told the much-delayed LRT would be handed over in August and open In September.

But the email exchange between Manconi and Lauch show the former OC Transpo head was frustrated with the trains' lack of reliability, the fact they appeared to need frequent repairs, and how there weren't, in Manconi's view, enough Alstom technicians available to fix the problems.

Manconi often expressed his frustration with RTG, Alstom and the progress of the project as it approached the final handover date.

Former OC Transpo general manager John Manconi is seen during a news conference in February 2020. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Continued problems 'erodes confidence'

On July 5, Manconi exchanged messages with Matthew Slade, who worked on the LRT project for RTG partner Ellis Don. Manconi detailed how earlier that day Alstom could not launch 15 double-car trains and there were problems with the Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system.

"I cannot guarantee anything and yet again this erodes confidence. I can't see a scenario where we are good to go with this in place," Manconi wrote Slade.

The emails don't identify what "this" refers to, but Manconi was obviously displeased at the state of a light rail system that was slated to be handed over to the city the following month.

Just two days later, Manconi's emails revealed his fury. There were "major operating restrictions" on the line and "track issues in the tunnel" and RTG told Manconi there was no technician available, but he didn't believe them.

"My team constantly asks me why I am forever trusting that you folks will deliver and when you tell me something you mean it. I hear constantly from all of you 'don't worry JOHN we are ready,'" Manconi wrote in an email to Lauch, Slade and Claude Jacob, then-general manager of the LRT builder's maintenance arm.

"Readiness? I think not."

Issues during trial run 

On July 22, 15 coupled trains were successfully launched during the test run of the morning rush hour. It's unclear if that was the first time that occurred. Either way, RTG filed its substantial completion notice to the city that same afternoon, which was the consortium's formal proclamation that it believed the LRT was ready for prime-time.

The vaunted 12-day testing period began about a week later, and Manconi had assured members of council and the public the Confederation Line would need to work in near-perfect fashion to obtain the stamp of approval. If there were problems, the 12-day clock would have to be reset.

It didn't happen that way.

Former RTG CEO Peter Lauch, shown here during a February 2020 news conference, appeared to be ready to tell council about a 48-hour halt in testing in late July 2019. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

After just three days of testing, RTG and the city agreed to stop the trial run for 48 hours. Lauch provided some lines for Manconi to include in an update to the mayor. That same day — July 31 — Manconi drafted an email to council explaining the "performance over the first three days of trial running has resulted in the joint decision to pause the ongoing system assessment." One of the six "critical elements" being monitored was "vehicle performance."

The email was never sent, despite Manconi's and RTG's intention to inform council. At a transit commission meeting in Nov. 6, 2019, city manager Steve Kanellakos said he stopped the memo from going out because it was "inconsistent with the commitment we made to council to notify them once [RTG] met the testing requirement," and not to tell them about any delays during the testing. 

About a week later, Manconi told RTG officials "things aren't going well" and defects need to be investigated and fixed to increase system reliability.

He also argued Alstom needed to provide "more very savvy technicians working on the overnight shift" due to the "current reliability of the fleet and the expected 2.5 failures a day."

Manconi wanted Alstom to add two or three more technicians on the night shift and he raised alarm bells about Alstom's procedures documenting its work.

Employees from train manufacturer Alstom work among evidence markers laid on the tracks on Sept. 20, 2021 after an OC Transpo light rail vehicle derailed west of Tremblay station. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"Finally, Alstom must continue to improve its tracking of the closures of defects and faults," Manconi wrote. "While Alsom is improving in this area, the degree of accuracy of the documentation of open defects, closed defects and the defects which have not truly been 'fixed' remains unclear, making the actual status of the vehicles' condition uncertain."

The shoddy procedures and documentation Manconi mentioned in 2019 were cited by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada as a reason a train derailed more than two years later on Sept. 19, 2021.

Investigators found skipped steps, inadequate paperwork, and a lack of oversight led to the serious accident.

Four days after that last email from Manconi, things did not appear to improve.

"This morning is not going well," Manconi wrote in the morning of Aug. 14, 2019 to Lauch and several others. Presumably, the morning launch left something to be desired.

"I think we can all agree time is not on our side so your immediate attention to this is critical."

One month later, the Confederation Line was opened to the public.


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