City's hands tied by LRT maintenance contract

Four months into a 30-year contract with Rideau Transit Maintenance to keep the Confederation Line running smoothly, some city officials say the relationship is already faltering.

$20M withheld from Rideau Transit Maintenance, but city can't keep trains running itself

Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) is an arm of the consortium that built the $2.1-billion Confederation Line. RTM is out up to $20 million so far, as the city hasn't paid it a cent since the LRT was launched. (CBC News)

Four months into a 30-year contract with Rideau Transit Maintenance to keep the Confederation Line running smoothly, some city officials say the relationship is already faltering.

One outspoken transit commissioner is even calling for the city to break the $1 billion long-term deal, and bring the maintenance of the trains in-house.

"Because clearly, holding back the money is not enough incentive for them to do their job," said Sarah Wright-Gilbert, one of the commission's four appointed citizen members.

Since the Confederation Line launched in mid-September, the city hasn't paid Rideau Transit a cent. Its monthly payments are supposed to be $4.5 to $5 million, so the group is currently out up to $20 million.

Rideau Transit Maintenance (RTM) is an arm of Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the partnership between ACS Infrastructure, SNC-Lavalin and Ellis Don that built Ottawa's $2.1-billion Confederation Line.

RTM is in charge of maintaining the entire LRT system, including the Alstom Citadis Spirit light rail vehicles. RTM actually subcontracts the maintenance of the trains themselves to France-based Alstom, which did not respond to questions Tuesday. 

LRT trains have been having technical issues in recent days, some related to snow and cold temperatures. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Not yet the 'last straw'

In the last week alone, one train somehow pulled down 80 metres of overhead electrical cable, and other trains had issues with their wheels, causing them to skid and smoke. Switch issues over the weekend caused hours of delay.

When RTG handed over control of the LRT to the city last August, the system was supposed to come with 17 double-car, fully tested and commissioned trains. It's now unclear whether all 17 ever worked.

These last few days, so many trains have had issues that, at times, only eight or nine have been available to carry passengers.

Transit chair Coun. Allan Hubley pinned the recent problems on RTM not meeting the city's expectations for maintaining trains and dealing with winter-related issues.

Hubley and his colleagues will be looking for answers from Rideau Transit CEO Peter Lauch, who is set to appear at an emergency transit commission called for Thursday afternoon.

But unlike Wright-Gilbert, Hubley doesn't believe the LRT's issues have become so dire that the city should go through the complicated legal process of breaking from RTM.

"That's bad news if we have to go that route. To me, that's the last straw [when] we're absolutely convinced they don't have the expertise to do what they're supposed to do."

Mayor Jim Watson agreed that it is too early to be talking about the possibility of pulling out of the maintenance contract. 

"I think most members of the public want us to deal with getting the damn trains fixed, first and foremost, and then deal with repercussions with the consortium," said Watson, adding he has had no discussions about possible litigation.

City blaming Rideau Transit

In recent days, the city has made a point of emphasizing how it's RTG that is failing commuters, and not the city.

It appears OC Transpo boss John Manconi is less willing to speak for RTG — at the news conference last Thursday to address the collapsed 80 metres of electrical cable, Manconi stood at the back, behind reporters. At the next day's news conference, Manconi sat at the table with other officials, but said little.

Instead, it appears that the city is insisting that Rideau Transit's Lauch, who has rarely spoken to the media over the years of this project, be on hand to answer questions.

The city appears to be insisting that Rideau Transit CEO Peter Lauch attend news conferences to personally answer questions from reporters about the problems with the LRT. (CBC)

While city officials are at pains to focus the blame for the problems on RTM, it is difficult to see what the city can do at this point to improve the system other than holding back maintenance payments — a strategy that doesn't seem to be fixing the trains any faster.

As Hubley said: "It's big money. Wouldn't you love to be making $5 million to do a job? Get to work and do the job." 

Watson is still confident that withholding payments is effective leverage because it hits RTM "in the pocketbook and also hurts their credibility and reputation both nationally and worldwide.

"But my concern and my preoccupation and that of our staff has been to get these problems resolved find the root causes of some of the problems that continue to happen."