Mayor's fury over LRT comes months too late

Mayor Jim Watson tweeted that he was furious over the latest LRT delay. But his fury comes too late, given he agreed to take over a Confederation Line that just didn't appear ready.

City's top officials must answer for accepting LRT before it was ready

Mayor Jim Watson says he's 'furious' over the latest light rail delay, but where was that anger three months ago? (Yasmine Mehdi/Radio-Canada)

Mayor Jim Watson was listening to CBC Radio at home early Friday morning when he heard that our brand new LRT line was significantly delayed yet again.

That, he told reporters in his boardroom that afternoon, was the final straw.

"To say I am furious with the poor performance of our LRT system is an understatement," Watson also tweeted. He apologized to riders for the "awful experience" and promised to have a plan later in the day.

Watson's plan, technically speaking, is to spend $3.5 million to put 40 extra buses on the road starting next week, in order to alleviate delays and cancellations on some of the city's most popular bus routes.

However, many things aren't clear about that plan — including what physical shape these buses are in, what it would take to get them back on the road, and where the extra drivers will come from.

Mayor Jim Watson has announced several immediate fixes for Ottawa's transit system, including $3.5 million to get 40 more buses on the road. 1:25

Is Watson's fury political?

That said, Watson's plan seems more political than tactical.

Friday's snap announcement appeared to be more about showing the fed-up transit-riding public the mayor feels their pain and looking as if he's fixing things — even though the real problem is a technically deficient LRT system.

We've heard all week that OC Transpo boss John Manconi and his team were working on a plan, and that all would be revealed at this coming Wednesday's transit commission meeting. After living through at least 15 train delays of more than 30 minutes each — although the delays for passengers are far longer — we likely could have waited a few more days to hear the full plan.  

Instead, Watson wanted the public to know he's furious — but that fury comes too late.

A man rides Ottawa's LRT line on Friday. Many people have indicated they're frustrated with the line's reliability. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Where was that anger in August?

How late? Three months, to be specific.

Perhaps Watson should have been furious when the city agreed to accept the $2.1-billion Confederation Line back in August, despite clear evidence the system didn't run near-flawlessly for 12 consecutive days, as was called for in the contract.

Or he might have shown some fury when we discovered that 15 double-car trains weren't able to run on the system for any protracted length of time, despite hearing over and over that 15 "doubles" are what would be required during rush hour.

Instead, we have 13 doubles available for the peak hours — except they aren't always available.

If the threshold for accepting the Confederation Line was lowered, why is the mayor now furious that there are frequent technical problems?

We know the trial run had to be suspended for 48 hours in late July, because OC Transpo boss John Manconi wrote a memo about it to council that was never sent. Despite repeated queries, CBC has never been told why that memo didn't get sent out. Watson denies knowing anything about it.

CBC also reported issues with doors and switches and on-board communications systems months before the LRT line was handed over, and the city didn't dispute those were all issues of concern.

Thirteen double-car trains have been made available for rush hour travel on the LRT line — two less than promised. And also, they don't always work. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

LRT a short-term fail

So did city officials — both senior managers and political leaders — accept the system from RTG before it reached quasi-perfection, as we were promised? Did the fact the Confederation Line was more than a year late put political pressure on our leaders to take it over too soon?

When asked Friday, the mayor waffled.

"I think any time you take over any system whether it's a train system or a computer system or or a you buy a new house or a new car there are always some problems with it," said Watson.

Really? If the door on your new car didn't close properly every few days, few of us would consider that acceptable.

Most people were excited when the Confederation Line was first launched in September. And we expected some glitches with a new system.

But the fact that after a month of full service, the city has to put buses back on the road can only be seen as a failure — at least in the short term — for our Confederation Line.

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 or tweet her at @jchianello.


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